Watch three Texas House Democrats discuss their year playing legislative defense against GOP priority legislation

From left to right, state Reps. Eddie Rodriguez, Donna Howard and Gina Hinojosa will participate in the live discussion "Batch O Politics: What The 2021 Legislative Sessions Meant For Austin" on Nov. 10. A recording of the event will be available to view on demand on Nov. 12. (Sophie Park/The Texas Tribune, Sophie Park/The Texas Tribune)

State Reps. Eddie Rodriguez, Donna Howard and Gina Hinojosa of Austin join Texas Tribune CEO Evan Smith to discuss the outcomes of the 2021 legislative sessions and what they mean for Austin.

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The Texas Legislature took a hard right turn during one regular and three special legislative sessions this year. That shift prompted Democrats to spend much of the year playing defense against legislation on abortion restrictions, new voting rules and the drawing of new political maps.

Democratic state Reps. Gina Hinojosa, Donna Howard and Eddie Rodriguez — a recently announced candidate for Congress — recently criticized many of those GOP priority bills, discussed the ongoing debate over so-called “critical race theory” and looked at what’s on the horizon heading into the 2022 election cycle. Comments from the three lawmakers representing the Austin area came during a conversation with Texas Tribune CEO Evan Smith on Wednesday.

Here are some of the highlights:

The GOP elections bill and Democrats’ quorum break

Republicans’ controversial bill — which further tightens the state’s election laws, such as banning drive-thru voting and ratcheting up voting-by-mail rules — spurred months of clashes among lawmakers. Those tensions peaked with a weekslong quorum break by Democrats who fled the state to try to prevent the legislation from passing. Their efforts ultimately failed, and Gov. Greg Abbott recently signed new election restrictions into law.

Republicans portrayed the legislation as an attempt to add much-needed safeguards to the state’s elections system. Democrats and voter advocacy groups argue it will harm voters of color by creating additional barriers to vote.

Hinojosa though said the version that ultimately passed once Democrats returned to the state is not as bad as prior drafts of the bill.

“We made the bill better, right? It’s still a bad bill,” she said. “Ultimately, look … people are scared [of the new law], and it’s going to keep people from participating in our democratic process. And that’s a problem.”


The Legislature also drew new political maps this year for the state’s congressional, legislative and State Board of Education districts. Those maps, which aim to keep Republicans in power for the next decade, already face legal challenges that center on the argument that the new boundaries unfairly discriminate against voters of color, whom the latest census data showed fueled 95% of the state’s population growth over the past decade.

“I think that the numbers are not in [Republicans’] favor in the near term,” Rodriguez said. “I think what they did is truly the last gasp.”

New House Speaker Dade Phelan 

At the beginning of the regular session in January, House members nearly unanimously elected one of their colleagues — Beaumont Republican Dade Phelan — to spearhead the chamber as speaker.

The three Democrats said Wednesday that Phelan oversaw one of the most conservative legislative sessions in recent memory, though they attributed that to a combination of factors, including 2018 and 2020 election results as well as the once-in-a-decade process of redrawing the state’s political maps.

Howard said she wasn’t sure whether Phelan — as opposed to the Republican majority of the 150-member chamber — was the driving force behind this year’s legislative move rightward. The regular session began soon after Democrats failed to pick up a single House seat in 2020, despite their confidence they would gain control of the chamber for the first time in years.

“They came back with a vengeance, and rather than letting us focus on the things that really matter, it was like a full-force solar winter kind of experience,” Howard said. “It was relentless.”

Reforming the state’s power grid 

After a massive February storm left millions without power for days — and caused roughly 700 deaths, according to a BuzzFeed News analysis — lawmakers passed legislation aimed at changing the state’s power grid and the people who oversee it.

The Legislature made changes such as requiring power plants to upgrade for more extreme weather. But Howard, a member of the House State Affairs Committee that debated a number of measures related to fallout over the storm, said that more work is needed.

“We’re pointing fingers at each other, but the bottom line is that we have to have a reliability of the capacity that is available to us — and we did not have that because they were not communicating, they had not weatherized and they had not determined what the critical infrastructure was,” said Howard. “And we were within four minutes of total collapse of this state.”

Debate over so-called critical race theory 

Political drama has played out over the past few weeks related to alleged inappropriate content in public schools, with Abbott and other Republicans launching inquiries into school districts over certain books and asking education officials to develop statewide standards to prevent “overtly sexual” content in schools.

That’s happened against the backdrop of lawmakers passing two laws this year restricting how teachers can talk about race-related subjects in schools — a push back against what Republicans characterize as critical race theory.

That academic discipline holds that racism is embedded in legal systems and not limited to individuals, and it’s typically only taught at the university level. But the term has become a common phrase used by some in the GOP to include anything taught or discussed about race in public schools.

Hinojosa, a former school board trustee, called it “a made-up issue that is brilliantly used to polarize people,” and said that she had never heard of it “until Republicans started talking about it.”

“It’s such a shame to see this kind of partisan division on our school boards,” she said.