By Ross Ramsey
The spotlight won’t shine for long on the story of Texas’ flyaway Democrats. The novelty will wear off. The cable TV networks will have other top stories before you know it, and this will become another of those insider fights of only passing interest to Texans who don’t have regular business in the state Capitol.
Voting rights are important to voters, but most people only pay attention to the particulars at election time. Where do I go? What do I have to do? Who and what is on the ballot? Who are all of these people, and which ones are in my way and which ones can I ignore?
But the next big elections in Texas aren’t until March at the earliest — and those, the party primaries, could easily be delayed until May or later because of delays in the 2020 U.S. census, and the resulting delays in drawing new political maps to fit new details of where Texans live and how many of them live there.
For now, it’s enough to know that the state government in Texas is dysfunctional, but not in a way that has any immediate effect on the lives of everyday Texans.
That’s a particular problem for the wandering Democrats whose political play depends, to some extent, on public attention. They decamped on Monday, faced with the prospect of showing up to watch Republicans approve a bill with new restrictions on voting that they cannot abide.
The Republicans call it an “election integrity” bill and say it’s needed to bar practices they fear leave elections open to fraud, though there is no evidence of the kind of widespread chicanery that would change election results. Democrats say the changes would amount to “voter suppression,” making it harder for people of color and Democrats to vote.
The political lines had hardened even before the special legislative session that has now been interrupted by the Democrats’ flight to Washington, D.C. The Texas House can’t conduct business unless at least 100 of its 150 members are present, and enough Democrats left the state to bust that quorum requirement.
Their aim is to change the voting bill, kill it or preempt it. Maybe the Republicans left behind will soften their stand, a prospect that seemed unlikely even before Gov. Greg Abbott told public radio’s “Texas Standard” that, because of the quorum bust, Republicans are “in no mood for additional compromise.”
The reason most of the decamped Democrats are in Washington is to try to get a voting bill they like — one that would preempt state law — from Congress. That requires some public attention, too, to get enough voters interested to draw members of Congress away from what they were doing to what the Texans hope they’ll do.
But the Texas Democrats aren’t the only politicians looking for public attention and support. Texas Republicans are promoting other legislation on the special session agenda that might get more public interest.
An example: Abbott put a “13th check” for retired teachers on the list — a move to give a bonus check to teachers who get monthly retirement payments, because their retirement fund is relatively flush right now. Those teachers are an important constituency for Democrats, and getting them a check, the Republicans hope, is a way to lure the Democrats back to Austin.
The governor, in that same radio interview, was pushing his overhaul of the bail bond system in a way that might appeal to voters, or at least spook them.
“There are dead people today because the Democrats have refused to step up and reform our broken bail system that lets very dangerous criminals back out on the streets,” Abbott said. “So the Democrats have blood on their hands for failing to step up and do their job. We don’t know how many Texans may lose their lives until the Democrats finally return to the Capitol and step up and pass bail reform policies in the state of Texas that do not let dangerous criminals back out onto the street.”
The first week of this legislative drama got a lot of attention from the news media and from voters. Everyone in the fight grabbed for it, because they’re playing for public favor and also working to prevent their foes from gaining public support.
Barring some new drama, the spotlight won’t last for long. Eighteen years ago this month, Texas Senate Democrats were bivouacked in Albuquerque, New Mexico, trying to use a quorum break to stop Republican redistricting plans. It lasted long enough to fall off the front pages of the papers, and they eventually decided to come home to Texas.
And the Republicans in the Legislature got the maps they wanted.