Democrats have been the minority party in the Texas Legislature for more than two decades. While they continue to introduce and pass bills and even chair the occasional committee, Texas Monthly senior editor Michael Hardy says the long-running minority status appears to be wearing on some members.
It’s even led some Democrats to side with Republicans when it comes to controversial legislation.
Hardy joined Texas Standard to discuss. Listen to the story above or read the transcript below.
This transcript has been edited lightly for clarity:
Texas Standard: Being in the minority is not exactly new for Texas Democrats, but you write that you’ve picked up on something different in this session. What do you mean?
Michael Hardy: Well, I spoke to a number of Democratic political consultants and they told me that this session is unusual in just how extreme the Republican majority has been in pushing legislation and just how many Democrats are defecting to sign on and vote for that legislation. You know, a significant number of Democrats supported the school book ban prohibiting what Republicans called “sexually-explicit materials” in schools. They supported a ban on gender-affirming care for people under 18 years of age. They’ve supported bills that would give corporate tax breaks to big corporations. And the list just goes on and on.
Well, now, as you talked with Democrats in the Legislature, what did they have to say as pushback or did they push back?
Well, I spoke to Democrats in the Legislature who both supported and opposed these bills. The ones who supported the bills said that they were simply voting their conscience. And so they didn’t have a problem with breaking from their party to support them. You know, I also spoke to Rep. Trey Martinez Fischer, who is the chair of the House Democratic Caucus – he’s the leader of the Democrats in the House. And he said there really wasn’t much he could do to compel his members to vote with the party. “All we can do is try to persuade them, and it doesn’t always work.”
Some of these bills, like one to allow the state to remove a local district attorney who deprioritizes prosecuting certain offenses, or that measure that neuters local initiatives passed by cities – you know, we’re talking about sort of preemption bills – have you heard from Lege members about why they’ve supported those sorts of bills? Do they consider, I mean, “voting your conscience?” This seems like more a matter of issues of broader state policy.
It does. Most of the Democratic legislators who supported those bills did not agree to speak with me. And it’s unclear why so many of them are supporting these Republican measures, especially the ones, as you mentioned, that would allow the state to remove local DAs. And House Bill 2127, which is some people call the “super preemption bill” that allows the state to just overturn a lot of local ordinances. So it’s not clear whether the Democrats have cut some sort of deal with Republicans to pass these bills or whether they genuinely believe these are good bills.
I guess that’s the question, right? I mean, in the old days, people often didn’t vote strictly along party lines, and that was the way politics was done. You would try to extract some concessions from your colleagues on the other side of the aisle. Is there any indication that these Democrats who are voting with Republicans are getting such concessions?
Well, in some cases, they’re only agreeing to vote for the Republican bill after certain amendments are added. So, in effect, they’re saying “we’ll vote for your bill if you allow my amendment in.” And Republicans have been open to that on occasion – on other occasions, have not allowed the amendments. You know, then there’s some cases where, you know, Trey Martinez Fischer, the Democratic House chair, said very forthrightly to me that he agreed to support a bill reauthorizing this massive corporate tax break in exchange for the Republican leadership agreeing to take up some alternative energy bills. So there’s definitely horse trading going on.
Are there any political consequences for this? Do you have a sense that rank and file voters know what’s happening at the Lege with their Democratic representatives? Or how do you see this all sort of shaking down?
The Democratic consultants that I spoke to said most voters are not aware of these kind of horse trading, bill-by-bill, issues. But they did tell me that when you have a divided caucus like this among Democrats, it makes it harder for the party to make an argument for why they’re better than the Republicans and for them to draw distinctions. You know, “we’re the good guys, you’re the bad guys.” Well, it doesn’t really work when, you know, a third of your caucus is voting for what you’re declaring to be these bad bills.