Sign up for The Brief, The Texas Tribune’s daily newsletter that keeps readers up to speed on the most essential Texas news.
Two years ago, Democrats in the Texas House dramatically absconded to Washington, D.C., for 37 days in an effort to shut down the Legislature and block Republicans from passing new restrictions on voting.
They were unsuccessful, as Republicans who held the majority were ultimately able to pass their bill that year. But it was a defining chapter for the House Democrats, who gained national attention and showed a new zeal to fight that is rippling into the next regular legislative session.
This legislative session, which starts Jan. 10, the House Democratic Caucus has a new chair, state Rep. Trey Martinez Fischer, who was a key player in the quorum break and is well known as a savvy floor fighter who has used his encyclopedic knowledge of legislative processes to kill Republican bills. At the same time, Democrats are sizing up how contentious the session could be, given that it starts Tuesday with a focus driven by the massive budget surplus.
“Fundamentally we have 27 billion reasons to feel pragmatic and to feel bipartisan,” Martinez Fischer said in an interview, referring to the state’s surplus estimate of $27 billion. “This is a very rare session where we actually have resources that we can use to improve the lives of Texans.”
But, he added, the caucus will be prepared to go to battle against Republicans if necessary and “use every single” rule “if we feel we need to.” He did not rule out another quorum break as a means to fight legislation they want to kill.
After redistricting and the November election, the balance of power in both chambers of the Legislature has not changed much. There are 64 Democrats in the 150-member House, one fewer than before the election. There is also one fewer Democrat in the Senate.
The House speaker, Dade Phelan, is expected to win a second term behind the gavel as one of the first orders of business Tuesday. But Phelan, a Beaumont Republican, has been under pressure from some in his party to completely do away with Democratic committee chairs, and while he is unlikely to do so, Democrats are watching to see if he bends in other ways.
Democrats have their own divides dating back to the quorum break, which ended amid internal disputes about how long to hold out in Washington, D.C. Some members disagreed with restoring quorum and stayed off the floor longer than others. The disagreement led to some Democrats forming a separate Progressive Caucus. Martinez Fischer’s ascension to caucus chair has been viewed as a victory by some of those progressive members.
As the new leader of House Democrats, Martinez Fischer will have to hold together those Democrats as well as those who are more conservative or more willing to work with Republicans.
“When you know you’re outnumbered, you know you have to negotiate your wins,” said state Rep. Terry Canales, the South Texas Democrat who has chaired the House Transportation Committee under Phelan. “The goal for Democrats should be, in my humble opinion, we delineate what our priorities are and try to negotiate as many wins as possible and hope the score is not 100-0 — maybe 60-40 — and take actions that establish a record of our position without necessarily destroying the decorum in the House.”
House Democrats are welcoming a diverse class of freshmen, which includes the first two Muslims elected to the Legislature. One of them, state Rep.-elect Salman Bhojani, said in December that he heard from voters that they want lawmakers to get back to basics.
“[Voters] want us to focus on more kitchen-table issues than the issues we’ve been focusing on unfortunately quite a lot, like how to target transgender kids,” Bhojani said during a Texas Tribune event.
Democrats believe the budget surplus will command lawmakers’ attention and allow less opportunity for Republicans to focus on more polarizing social issues. There is bipartisan agreement that the surplus money should go toward causes like property tax relief, public education and infrastructure, though there is still room for disagreement on the details. For example, Democrats are sure to note that property tax relief leaves out Texans who do not own homes.
While Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick laid out his initial legislative priorities during a news conference last month, the rest of the “Big Three” — Gov. Greg Abbott and the speaker, Phelan — have been less talkative about their agendas. That has left Democrats speculating about what kind of session it could be. Could it be a bipartisan, nuts-and-bolts session like it was in 2019, when teacher raises were a top issue? Or will it be like 2021, what many referred to as the “most conservative session ever,” when Republicans railroaded through abortion restrictions, critical race theory bans and looser gun laws?
“I expect a fruitful session, one where we operate as a bipartisan body and work hard for the people of Texas,” said a statement from Rep. Victoria Neave Criado, D-Dallas, the new chair of the Mexican American Legislative Caucus. She added that she wanted to build on the kind of bipartisanship that led to the passage of her 2019 bill tackling Texas’ backlog of rape kits.
Democrats are nonetheless on high alert for a host of conservative proposals that could gain traction. State Rep. Ron Reynolds of Missouri City, chair of the Texas Legislative Black Caucus, said Democrats will be “doing everything we can to fight the Republican attempt to voucherize Texas,” referring to a renewed push to divert public school dollars to private schools. Democrats are also watching out for any legislation to further erode what little abortion access is left in Texas after the U.S. Supreme Court’s overturning of Roe v. Wade last year. And they remain vigilant about legislation targeting LGBTQ Texans, such as GOP bills that would ban gender-affirming treatment for transgender kids.
At the same time, Democrats can be expected to continue making the case for long-held priorities that face long odds in the GOP-dominated Legislature, like Medicaid expansion or gun control. Since the school shooting in Uvalde last year, Democrats have been especially focused on raising the age to buy an assault weapon from 18 to 21, an idea both Abbott and Phelan have resisted, claiming it’s unconstitutional.
In the Senate, the Democratic senator who represents Uvalde, Roland Gutierrez, is planning to focus almost singularly on the shooting this session. Gutierrez won reelection in November by a comfortable margin after Abbott spent his own campaign funds to try to defeat Gutierrez.
“[The shooting] has affected me in a very profound way from Day 1,” Gutierrez said, “and the things that we have uncovered from that tragedy — the failure that we’ve seen from government that happened before, during and after — that is where my focus is going to be.”
Gutierrez noted both Abbott and Phelan have thrown cold water on the raise-the-age proposal. However, Gutierrez said: “We haven’t had the lieutenant governor weigh in in a meaningful way here. It’s his chance to be a leader.”
Martinez Fischer is a veteran of the House. He first represented San Antonio’s West Side from 2001-2017, giving up the seat for an unsuccessful Senate campaign. He made a comeback bid in 2018 and unseated his successor, state Rep. Diana Arévalo, in the primary, with the support of a host of former colleagues.
Martinez Fischer unsuccessfully challenged state Rep. Chris Turner of Grand Prairie for the caucus chairmanship in 2020. But last spring, Turner announced he would not seek reelection as caucus chair after holding the post since 2017, clearing the way for Martinez Fischer to give it another shot.
Martinez Fischer faced two opponents in the open race: state Reps. John Bucy and Gina Hinojosa, both from the Austin area. Right before voting began, though, Bucy dropped out and threw his support to Hinojosa. It was not enough to stop Martinez Fischer, who emerged victorious, auguring a decidedly fresh chapter for the caucus.
Martinez Fischer said Turner did a “really good job” as caucus chair but acknowledged they have “a different style in terms of how we engage.” Turner is known as a more cautious operator. Martinez Fischer also noted they have different life experiences, with Martinez Fischer being a Latino from inner-city San Antonio and Turner a white man from suburban Dallas.
Reynolds was more direct, calling Martinez Fischer a “much different leader.”
“He is a real strong, aggressive, strategic leader that does not believe in giving in or succumbing,” Reynolds said. “I think he will fight to the end.”
Sizing up Phelan
When it comes to Republican leadership, House Democrats are watching to see how Phelan deals with the small but vocal GOP faction that opposes bipartisan committee chairs. Phelan has defended the practice as a worthwhile tradition and has said he plans to appoint roughly the same proportion of Democratic chairs, but he could shuffle who gets which posts.
Canales, who stayed behind during the quorum break, said he would disagree with Phelan punishing committee chairs who fled to the nation’s capital. But he said he would certainly understand retaliation, saying Democrats “may have pushed [Phelan] into a corner where he has to do something.”
“For now, the speaker seems to be taking a very calm and logical approach to it,” Canales said. “He does not seem to be out for blood.”
Phelan had tapped a Democrat, state Rep. Joe Moody of El Paso, to be his speaker pro tem but stripped him of the title amid the quorum break. It remains to be seen how — of even if — Phelan will fill the role, which is largely ceremonial, in the next session.
Reynolds predicted Phelan’s “speakership will be tested from the far right,” adding that Phelan’s intraparty critics could be taking encouragement from the far-right faction currently blocking Kevin McCarthy from becoming speaker in Congress. Reynolds expressed hope that Phelan will “stand up” to the lieutenant governor “and not allow him to bully us.”
While the opportunities for such showdowns may appear limited for now, members are well aware how sessions can take a turn for the dramatic.
“Absolutely” the surplus focuses members on less polarizing issues, Canales said, “but don’t be mistaken: What I’ve seen throughout my tenure, which would be six sessions, is that regardless of what or how ‘kumbaya’ things are going, there will ultimately be some unsavory red meat served up, whether you like it or not.”