Secret meetings and phone trees: The story behind Texas Democrats' exodus from Austin

  • In Business
  • 2021-07-23 11:51:32Z
(Right) Texas state Rep.
(Right) Texas state Rep.  

WASHINGTON - State Rep. John Bucy III was running on no sleep.

The Austin Democrat had just spent 23 hours in the basement of the Texas Capitol, sitting shoulder-to-shoulder with his House colleagues as they listened to hours of emotional testimony from members of the public about the latest iteration of a divisive GOP-backed elections bill at the center of the special session agenda.

By the time he left the hearing and stepped into the early morning sun on July 11, members of his party were at their wits end with Republican lawmakers and their relentless pursuit of election law changes that Democrats say would create significant barriers to the ballot box and disenfranchise voters of color. Republicans say the effort is designed to crack down on fraud and restore election integrity.

Democrats had killed a similar measure once before, 42 days earlier when they walked off the floor of the Texas House chamber in the final hours of the regular legislative session. But even as they celebrated the bill's demise, conversations about how to fight the proposal during the inevitable special legislative session had already started behind closed doors.

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By the time the Select House Committee on Constitutional Rights and Remedies approved the revised version of the legislation on that first Sunday of the special session by a vote of 9-5, with Bucy joining all other Democrats on the committee voting no, talk of a second quorum break among Democrats had already reached a fever pitch.

Bucy closed his eyes for a few hours after the hearing before his phone started to ring, flashing Driftwood Rep. Erin Zwiener's name. She told him: Pack a 45-pound suitcase and one carry-bag. Be ready to leave to tomorrow.

Democrats leave state: Texas Democrats leave state to block GOP voting bill in special session

The call was the final step of a hastily hatched plan to convince at least 51 of the state's 67 Democratic lawmakers to not only break quorum for the second time in five weeks, but to board two planes headed to an unknown destination without a clear end date in mind.

Interviews with more than a dozen state lawmakers from their Washington hotel in the days following the quorum break reveal exactly how secret meetings, phone trees and a covert rendezvous at the local plumbers union catapulted Texas House Democrats into the spotlight and the center of a national fight over voting rights.

Empty seats are seen in the House chamber at the Texas Capitol on July 13.
Empty seats are seen in the House chamber at the Texas Capitol on July 13.  

'Extreme circumstances'

Breaking quorum in the Texas House involves extensive planning. The last-resort tactic requires vacating the state to deny the majority party enough members to conduct business while avoiding the reach of Texas law enforcement officers who lack jurisdiction outside the state to compel the lawmakers to return to work.

Conversations about leaving in July started in earnest once Democrats killed the elections bill during the regular session. It was immediately clear that Gov. Greg Abbott planned to create a new opportunity to move the bill forward by convening a special legislative session with the elections bill and other conservative priorities on the agenda, including further limiting teaching about racism in public schools, expanding abortion restrictions and banning transgender girls from competing in girls sports.

"I believe, as bad as some of these other bills are that are on the call, if it was an effort to try to get 51 or more members to walk on any of those other ones, I don't think we would have been able to break quorum," Austin Rep. Eddie Rodriguez said from Washington. "It's under extreme circumstances."

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In the weeks ahead of the special session, caucus members met in different sized groups to discuss their options and the prospect of crossing state lines. During at least one meeting, members conducted a secret straw poll and had to indicate whether they'd be willing to be gone for up to 30 days - the length of a special session - and, if yes, whether they thought it should happen before or after the start of the special session.

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Texas state Rep.
Texas state Rep.  

Questions of timing and destination would continue to hound Democrats as they planned for their departure. Timing, in particular, was an early challenge because the longer leaders took to make a decision, the greater the risk that news of their plans would leak to the media and Republican leaders at the Capitol.

"Vacating the floor for basically an hour and fifteen minutes before the midnight deadline was a big deal, don't get me wrong, but didn't require anywhere near the level of planning and logistical operation that moving over 50 members out of state for an extended period of time did," said Rep. Chris Turner, D-Grand Prairie and chairman of the House Democratic Caucus. "It took a lot of really meticulous planning and evaluating contingencies and really trying to ascertain what was possible, what was doable and identifying the right time to do it."

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'A cold anger'

By the first weekend of the special session, the plan started to crystalize. Members were closely watching committee hearings and whether Republicans would accept changes from Democrats to address what they saw as the most egregious provisions of the legislation. None of the seven committee amendments proposed in the House hearing were adopted, and the bill moved forward as written.

Democrats worried that history would repeat itself. In the regular legislative session, Republicans made last-minute changes to the bill behind closed doors, including adding additional provisions that hadn't been discussed publicly.

"There was a hurt that really became more of a cold anger," said Rep. Trey Martinez Fischer, D-San Antonio, a key figure in the quorum break who worked closely with Turner to determine where members stood on the issue and how Democrats should spend their time during their time outside Texas.

"When African American and Latino lawmakers came to me on a Saturday ... I knew right away that there was a motivated group of men and women who were ready to go," he said.

Turner tapped Martinez Fischer and eight other lawmakers to meet and outline a plan. This core group, which represented people from different backgrounds and districts, would eventually grow to 15 and sprout into a phone tree. Each member was assigned a handful of other lawmakers to contact to take temperatures and relay information about travel plans.

At that point, the destination was still undetermined. Some members saw New Mexico as a logical option, close to home with affordable accommodations and Democratic leadership. For Martinez Fischer and many of his allies in the House, Washington was the obvious destination because of the national fight happening over voting rights.

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Texas state Rep.
Texas state Rep.  

"I had some very built-in views already of what I think needed to happen," Martinez Fischer said of his early conversations with Turner and other organizers. "I would participate, but I wasn't going to be part of a conversation that was going to try to take my focus away from what I thought we needed to do."

Back in Austin: Hamstrung by Democratic departure, Texas Legislature focuses on narratives

With so many voices and perspectives, Turner's job orchestrating the quorum bust became that much harder. He described the process of listening to more than 60 voices explain drastically different personal, political and professional stakes, including familial responsibilities to elderly relatives or young children and day jobs outside of the Legislature that require attention. Members in competitive districts worried about how constituents back home could view the quorum bust.

"No two members are in the same circumstance," Turner said. "We've tried to stay on top of that as best you can and help support people as best you can and listen to their feedback and hear their concerns."

Packing their bags

As Democrats were alerted of the impending quorum break plan, Bucy persuaded leaders to let him in on the destination. He planned to spend the sojourn with his wife Molly, who was 27 weeks pregnant, as well as his 17-month-old daughter Bradley.

"I'm committed to doing this, but I need to figure out the logistics of the family," he recalled telling Zwiener and Turner. "Once it became clear that we might be coming all the way to DC, it just seemed really too far for my wife to be able to travel by herself with the baby."

Bucy spent the next 12 hours planning their departure. He and Molly made arrangements for Bentley, the family dog, and packed a week's worth of clothes, toys and diapers for Bradley.

The family climbed into their blue Jeep Cherokee at 1 a.m. on Monday, more than 10 hours before Bucy's Democratic colleagues would board a coach bus bound for Austin-Bergstrom International Airport, where two chartered planes awaited.

By 7 a.m., Bucy and his family made it to a Sonic "somewhere in Arkansas" for breakfast. They let Bradley run around on the playground attached to the restaurant for 30 minutes.

While the Bucys made their way across the country, Democrats in Austin geared up to meet at 11 a.m. at the Plumbers and Pipefitters Local Union 286 on Airport Boulevard, which was close to the airport with a parking lot large enough for the lawmakers to leave their cars.

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Round Rock Rep. James Talarico packed a large suitcase that his dad, Mark, a retired salesman, had rushed over Sunday night. He spent his waning hours in Austin scrambling to fill prescriptions for additional insulin to manage his Type 1 diabetes.

"I didn't know if we'd be near a pharmacy where I'd be able to get it," Talarico said. "I feel like people just think politicians are like robots. We have medication we have to get. We have family needs we have to take care of, and to do it on short notice is a big ask."

Talarico's father dropped him off at the rendezvous point that morning and told his son he was proud of him.

"That's really all you need," Talarico said.

By the time Talarico and the rest of the Democrats reached the union building Monday morning, members of the media had caught wind of their plans and lawmakers dodged calls from reporters while making final arrangements for travel.

They were greeted at the union building with turkey sandwiches and a stack of letters for each member to sign directing staff at the Texas House to lock the voting machine on each of their desks on the chamber floor to prevent any funny business. The move would ensure that when the body gaveled into session on Tuesday morning, there wouldn't be a quorum. After 57 members affixed their signatures to the letters, a Democratic staffer drove them the 3½ miles back to the Capitol building.

Lawmakers also dropped their car keys into waiting envelopes that were delivered to their office staff staying behind in Austin, so they could pick up their vehicles from the parking lot.

Texas House Rep.
Texas House Rep.  

Finally, moments before they boarded a coach bus bound for the airport, caucus leadership told the group that they were headed to Washington to lobby members of Congress to pass voting rights legislation that would override some of the restrictions contemplated in the Texas voting bills.

"Honestly, I didn't know how we were being transported, where we were being transported to until we were on the bus," Austin Rep. Vikki Goodwin said, adding that when she found out that they were headed to Washington she regretted not packing more suits. "Unfortunately, I didn't pack the best things."

Democrats were giddy with excitement, and a case of Miller Lite rested just two seats from Rep. Julie Johnson of Farmers Branch as she snapped a selfie from the bus and shared it to Twitter.

It's unclear whether the beer was brought on the bus by a union worker or a Capitol aide or a lawmaker. What's certain is that the image spread across the internet. Republicans and critics of the walkout used the beer as ammunition in social media posts, saying Democrats were on vacation and leaving their jobs behind. Some nicknamed the fugitive Democrats the "Miller D's," an allusion to Democratic quorum busts in 1979 and 2003 when members were dubbed the "Killer Bees" and then the "Killer D's."

The lawmakers boarded two private planes early Monday afternoon as dozens of reporters watched from the road. Even as the delta variant of the coronavirus was spreading in Texas, the vaccinated lawmakers were seen in photos from the plane not wearing masks. They were bound for Dulles International Airport.

During the flight, Goodwin, who was pictured in the bus selfie, sent the photo to her husband. He quipped that he had already seen the image all over the internet, and Democrats realized that they'd been photographed with a case of beer. Johnson scrambled to delete the photo with limited WiFi.

"A lot of members are just embarrassed that it wasn't Shiner that was on the plane," Turner said with a grin. "It's one of those things that is a minor blip. What's important for me, for our members and for our staff is to continually remind ourselves why we left, why we're here and what it's about. It's about protecting the freedom to vote."

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Washington arrival

From the Washington Plaza Hotel on Wednesday, chosen because of its proximity to Capitol Hill and the availability of rooms, Zwiener sat criss cross on one bed while her 3-year-old daughter Lark nestled under the covers of another. Lark shoved her tiny finger into a bag of Cheetos, occasionally wiping the orange dust from her fingers onto the white bedsheets while her mom glanced toward the ceaseless buzzing of her iPhone.

Lark and her mother were taking a moment to regroup after a long day on Capitol Hill, bouncing from congressional office to congressional office to push for federal legislation that they say is their last hope to stop the Republican voting measure in Texas and undo similar measures in other red states.

Over the next hour, Lark, wearing a red, white and blue dress, cycled through her puzzles, colorful blocks and dolls - all of which her mother managed to jam into their suitcases as she furiously packed over the weekend in preparation for their weeks-long trip to Washington.

Texas Democrats in Washington: Texas Democrats descend on US Capitol to lobby lawmakers on voting rights legislation

State Rep.
State Rep.  

The small room likely will be their home for the remainder of July. Zwiener said she couldn't imagine spending the month away from Lark, so she and her husband Quincy decided that it would be easiest for Zwiener to take their daughter to Washington, where he could fly to visit without the stress of taking Lark on frequent flights.

"Some of the logistical factors were that we were not very comfortable putting her on a commercial plane at this point," she said, citing the rising COVID-19 cases. "Putting her on a plane with my Democratic colleagues? We are all vaccinated. The only person who was not vaccinated on that flight was her, the 3 year old. There was a safety factor for me."


They filled each day in Washington that first week with interviews, press conferences and meetings on Capitol Hill to pressure Congress to pass the For the People Act and the John Lewis Voting Rights Act.

They also met with Vice President Kamala Harris, who expressed support for their cause.

Kamala Harris meets with Texas Democrats: Harris meets with Texas lawmakers who left state to block GOP voting bill

But all eyes were on their Thursday meeting with U.S. Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va.

Manchin and Arizona Sen. Kyrsten Sinema are pivotal to passing the voting rights legislation, but so far, they've opposed efforts to craft a way around the filibuster.

"Joe Manchin is the last hope we have," Talarico said as he waited to hear from his colleagues. "It's the Obi-Wan Kenobi, right? 'You're my only hope.' All Joe Manchin has to do is make one exception to one Senate rule to save democracy. It's so easy. It's such a light lift, and it should've happened yesterday."

In his meeting with the 13 Texas House and Senate Democrats, Manchin didn't indicate whether he was prepared to budge. Just one day later, he headed to Texas for a fundraiser that included several Republican donors.

"I didn't think that was a big deal at all," Turner said, reflecting on the week from a conference room in their hotel. "U.S. senators raise money throughout the country."

Manchin meets with Texas Democrats: Texas Democrats press Joe Manchin on voting rights. It's a tall order given his deep support of the filibuster

Looking ahead

Rep. Senfronia Thompson, D-Houston, made headlines Friday for her fiery press conference speech in which she taunted Abbott and Republican leadership for their arrest warrants: "Bring it on," she said.

"Haven't we done enough? Haven't we paid the price enough?" Thompson said through tears, harkening back to violence against Black Americans throughout history and Jim Crow laws that kept Black voters from the polls. "What is it going to take for us to be Americans in this country? I am an American and I want to vote without somebody infringing upon my rights and the rights of my constituents."

But, that same day, fatigue started to settle in.

The excitement of the secret departure from Texas was starting to wear off and questions about next steps percolated among members: How could they maintain momentum and keep Democrats in Washington and voters back home interested and engaged in their work? How much longer would they stay in Washington? Where was the closest laundromat to the hotel?

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"We're taking it a few days at a time," Turner said. "This is all a very fluid situation. I think back to a week ago right now, I couldn't have predicted how this intervening week would have unfolded, so you've got to stay pretty flexible. I think our members are comfortable being here as long as we're being productive and I feel like we've been productive. I feel like there's more work to do."

Protesters stand outside Texas Democrats
Protesters stand outside Texas Democrats' Washington hotel on July 14.  

Many members saw the coming weekend as an opportunity to hit the reset button and get their affairs in order. Some planned to attend a local "Good Trouble" candlelight vigil to mark the anniversary of the death of Civil Rights icon John Lewis. On Sunday, black lawmakers planned to attend a church service across the Potomac River in Virginia.

"I'm not going to pretend this is easy on members, it's not," Turner said. "There's no manual or playbook for how to do a quorum break for an extended length of time. We're building the plane as we fly it, but so far it's gone pretty well."

Kamala Harris: Texas Democrats displayed 'courage' by leaving state to block GOP voting bill

But even as the group raised the profile of the fight over voting rights in Texas, the Democrats were no closer to securing passage of the federal legislation they sought. And back in Austin, Abbott said he would seek the arrest of the Democrats upon their return to the state, and vowed to continue to call special sessions to take up the voting legislation until the Democrats returned.

And then, Friday evening, the bad news arrived: one of the Democrats had tested positive for the coronavirus. More would follow. The outbreak threatened to steal the spotlight from their work in D.C. and change the trajectory of the trip.

The American-Statesman sent a team of reporters to Washington to chronicle the quroum-breaking House Democrats. This is the first installment in the still-unfolding story.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Texas Democrats walkout: How the state lawmakers planned trip to DC


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