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Inside the secret plan for the Texas Democratic exodus: A phone tree, a scramble to pack and a politically perilous trip

The Washington Post logo The Washington Post 7/13/2021 Amy Gardner, Eva Ruth Moravec, Dan Rosenzweig-Ziff, Nicole Asbury
a group of people standing in front of a crowd posing for the camera: Texas House Democrats speak to reporters late Monday outside of Dulles International Airport after arriving from Texas in a second high-profile effort to block GOP legislation on state voting laws. © Craig Hudson for The Washington Post Texas House Democrats speak to reporters late Monday outside of Dulles International Airport after arriving from Texas in a second high-profile effort to block GOP legislation on state voting laws.

They activated the plan with a phone tree late Sunday: Pack your bags — and make sure they weigh no more than 45 pounds. Be ready to leave Austin at noon tomorrow. We’ll tell you then where we’re going.

The Democrats in the Texas House of Representatives had been preparing for this moment for days. Gov. Greg Abbott (R) had called a special session last week to complete the year’s unfinished business, including the passage of far-reaching legislation restricting voting access that had failed when House Democrats staged a walkout in May.

They were ready to do the same this time around — to block what they described as a full-on assault on democracy meant to make it harder for people who tend to vote Democratic to cast their ballots. It was just a question of when.

Then, over the weekend, Republicans — who control both chambers of the Texas legislature — held marathon hearings on the election proposals, ultimately passing them on party lines in the early hours of Sunday morning and queuing up full votes in the House and Senate as soon as Monday or Tuesday.

“We saw how the Republicans were clearly going to fast-track the legislation in both chambers with these weekend hearings,” said Rep. Chris Turner, chairman of the Texas House Democratic Caucus. “So as we were talking through the day Saturday, we all became increasingly convinced that it was going to be time to go sooner rather than later.”

What followed over a matter of hours was a riveting exodus from Texas as dozens of Democratic lawmakers said goodbye to young children and aging parents, made arrangements to leave their homes and their jobs, potentially for weeks — and drew sharp rebukes for walking away from their responsibilities in the Texas legislature.

They said they had no other recourse, and they admitted that they have no endgame, as Abbott promised to keep calling special sessions, over and over, until the election legislation has its day. But they chose Washington, a hideout in full view, for a reason: to garner national attention and escalate the stakes in a long-running effort to pressure Congress and President Biden to approve federal voting-rights protections that would outlaw the kinds of restrictions Texas Republicans — and dozens of other legislatures across the country — are trying to enact.

[Here’s where GOP lawmakers have passed new voting restrictions around the country]
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By Tuesday, more than 46 House Democrats had arrived in Washington, joined by nine Senate Democrats, including some who hopped on a Southwest Airlines flight Monday night to join them. For now, they are planning to bunk at a local hotel, which they asked not to be identified for security reasons.

“The endgame is, we need Congress to act,” said state Rep. John Bucy III, who with his wife, Molly, decided to drive to Washington rather than fly, because their 17-month-old daughter, Bradley, has not received a coronavirus vaccine and is too young to wear a mask on a plane.

What is not at all clear is whether any of it will make a difference.

The day after the high-stakes maneuver, Biden delivered a forceful condemnation of GOP-backed voting restrictions in a speech in Philadelphia, calling them “raw and sustained election subversion.” Vice President Harris later met with the absconded Texas Democrats, praising them as “fighters.”

But the president stopped short of calling for a change to the Senate filibuster rule, which voting-rights advocates say is warranted to push through federal legislation.

[Biden calls passing voting legislation ‘a national imperative’ and castigates voting restrictions based on ‘a big lie’]

Back in Austin, state Republicans forged ahead. GOP lawmakers in the House approved a measure asking state law enforcement officials to track down the fugitive Democrats and arrest them upon their return, a move backed by the governor. And the GOP-controlled state Senate, which still held a narrow quorum, passed its version of the voting bill — a measure that would eliminate 24-hour and drive-through voting, change the requirements for voting by mail and allow poll watchers to be close enough to “hear and see” voters.

a group of people standing in front of a crowd posing for the camera: Texas House Democratic lawmakers walk to a news conference outside the U.S. Capitol on Tuesday. © Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post Texas House Democratic lawmakers walk to a news conference outside the U.S. Capitol on Tuesday.

“We hope that all of those legislators who are not here will, by their own will, choose to come back and do the work,” Rep. Jim Murphy (R-Houston) told reporters. “That’s what they were elected to do. That was the oath that we swore to. Those are the rules that we agreed to.”

The planning for the Democratic getaway began in earnest on Friday, a day after the legislature had gaveled in, when 10 House Democrats began crafting their exit strategy. They established a phone tree, divvying up the names of fellow lawmakers they planned to call individually when they made the decision on go-time. Rep. Jessica González, a lawyer from Dallas, helped make the travel arrangements, researching charter flights, hotel rooms and coach buses for each end of the journey.

The House Democratic Caucus, funded with public donations as well as member dues, paid the way, lawmakers said.

Bucy got the call Sunday afternoon after grabbing four hours of sleep following the nearly 24-hour House committee hearing that had finally adjourned around 7:30 a.m. Scores of Texans had testified against the voting bill, but it passed along party lines. He and his wife loaded their Jeep Wrangler and were on the road within two hours — and spent another 23 hours driving straight through to Washington, alternating driving and baby duties.

“We thought it was best to stick together,” he said. “At 17 months, every month they’re a new person, and I really didn’t want to be away that long,” he added, noting that Molly is also 27 weeks pregnant. Both Bucy and his wife work in youth sports administration, and it was easier for them than for others to work remotely on their day jobs while away. “So she brought her laptop along with the diaper bag, and we’ll do the best we can.”

González said she got the call Sunday afternoon just as she was planning to head home to Dallas to pack for the still-hypothetical exodus. She decided to stay in Austin that night and pack the few items she had with her. The next morning, she got another call, telling her to meet at the Plumbers and Pipefitters Local Union headquarters, near the airport in Austin. When she arrived, a giant silver coach awaited to drive the group to the private air terminal, and House leaders finally revealed they would be traveling on two 30-seater Embraer regional jets to the nation’s capital, with a fuel stop in Memphis on the way. The previous evening, they had shared the destination only with those flying or driving separately.

a group of people standing in front of a crowd posing for the camera: Rep. Chris Turner, chairman of the Texas House Democratic Caucus, speaks alongside his Democratic colleagues during a news conference outside the U.S. Capitol on July 13, 2021. © Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post Rep. Chris Turner, chairman of the Texas House Democratic Caucus, speaks alongside his Democratic colleagues during a news conference outside the U.S. Capitol on July 13, 2021.

Secrecy was paramount, Turner and others said, because they did not want to alert House Republicans of their plans — nor risk some among them succumbing to political pressure and staying behind. They were fairly certain there was no legal means to stop them before the House gaveled into session Tuesday morning, but they did not want to take any chances, given the bellicose rhetoric coming from some Republicans, they said.

“It’s a big decision for a lot of the members,” said Rep. Joe Deshotel (Beaumont). “We didn’t want any outside pressure saying, ‘Oh you might not be getting reelected.’ We had a plan and we tried to keep to the script that we had.”

The leaders even considered confiscating the travelers’ phones until they arrived in Washington, according to an image of a schedule of Monday’s journey shared with The Washington Post, which read, “10:30 p.m.: Member Huddle — Return phones & provide hotel keys.” Turner said he nixed that plan when word started to trickle out by the time they congregated at the union hall.

Lobbyists and voting-rights activists noticed that the Capitol seemed quiet Monday morning. Reporters on the ground started tweeting that Democrats were leaving Austin to block progress on the voting bills. Most of the traveling Democrats ignored calls and texts until they were on the plane. The House Democratic Caucus finally issued a statement around 2 p.m. Monday confirming they had left the state.

“We’re all leaving a lot behind,” said Rep. Claudia Ordaz Perez (El Paso), who left her husband and three dogs at 4 a.m. Monday to catch a plane to Austin, her packed clothes still damp from the washer — and with the knowledge only that she was headed either to Washington, New Mexico or Louisiana. “We’re risking a whole lot to be here.”

In an interview after landing at Dulles International Airport, Rep. Erin Zwiener (Driftwood) described her challenge: what to do with Lark, her 3-year-old daughter.

“It was a tough choice for us,” Zwiener said outside the airport as Lark pushed her mom’s hair out of her face. “A lot of the factor was not knowing how long we’d be gone.”

Zwiener’s husband, who works as a field manager for a wildlife management organization, leaves for work at 7 a.m. and wouldn’t be able to watch Lark every day. Complicating her decision further was her growing concern about the coronavirus delta variant, which her unvaccinated daughter would have been more susceptible to coming later on a commercial flight. So, she decided to bring Lark on the chartered plane with the hope that her husband could fly to Washington soon to join them.

a group of people sitting around a table: Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.), center, meets with Texas lawmakers at the U.S. Capitol on Tuesday. © Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.), center, meets with Texas lawmakers at the U.S. Capitol on Tuesday.

Republicans accused Democrats of abrogating their legislative duties in the Texas Capitol for a junket to Washington on private jets. They pounced on Democrats’ social media posts showing smile-filled selfies on the coach and in the planes. They even homed in on what appeared to be a case of Miller Lite sitting on one of the seats in the coach they took to the Austin airport.

“Smiling House Dems fly off to DC on a private jet with a case of Miller Lite, breaking House quorum, abandoning their constituents, while the Senate still works,” Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick (R), who presides over the Texas Senate, tweeted Monday.

González said the Miller Lite was on the coach before they boarded — part of an array of snacks made available by the operator. Others agreed that the photos were not helpful — and that not everyone would see the trip as heroic.

Sen. Eddie Lucio Jr. (Brownsville) was among the Democrats who remained in Austin. “I’m personally a veteran; I’d rather speak my piece from the floor,” Lucio said. “Nobody wants election fraud, whether you’re Democrat or Republican, rich or poor, minority or nonminority.”

Bucy conceded that the trip was politically risky. Elections have consequences, and Republicans hold the majority and have the right to pursue their legislative priorities, he said.

But he said that the power to break quorum — the presence of two-thirds of legislators required to take action on a bill — is a legitimate tool for a party with the numbers to use it. Democrats broke the GOP’s supermajority in Austin by winning 12 Republican-held seats two cycles ago, and this week’s actions reflects a consequence of that election, too, he said.

Bucy and other Democrats also argued that the Republicans have shown no interest in working with them on election policy, noting that many have echoed former president Donald Trump’s baseless claims of widespread fraud in the 2020 election — and accusing them of doing so to curry favor with Trump and his supporters.

“Legislation is designed to solve problems,” he said. “The secretary of state said the 2020 elections ran smoothly, were secure and were a success. What problem are we trying to solve? What is the point of this legislation? I’ve never received a legitimate answer.”

Turner said the Democrats were still figuring out their plans for their stay in Washington beyond efforts to meet with members of Congress, particularly in the Senate, where Democrats hold exactly enough seats, including Harris’s tiebreaking vote, to pass voting legislation — if they blow up the filibuster, which requires 60 votes to begin debate on legislation.

For Zwiener, the planning was of a different type: “patching together” child care. On Tuesday, she brought Lark to the Capitol, with backup plans for Democratic campaign staffers and an old high school friend in the Virginia suburbs to babysit as necessary.

In the meantime, Zwiener’s husband is staying connected with his daughter via FaceTime.

“I’m figuring it out one day at a time,” Zwiener said. “I know that sounds a little chaotic, but it’s the best we can do.”

On their first day in town, the Texans did score a meeting with Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) — but the exchange left some of them pessimistic about whether their foray to Washington will make a difference. Asked if Schumer or other members of Congress had made new pledges to advance federal voting legislation, state Rep. Senfronia Thompson said: “Not a one.”

“I wish they had,” she added.

Moravec reported from Austin. Eugene Scott contributed to this report.

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