AUSTIN (Nexstar) — The special legislative session in Texas and the quorum break orchestrated by Democrats to block passage of proposed election law changes are taking a toll beyond the daily challenges of the Legislature’s activity — or lack thereof.
Democrats who fled the state this week, leaving the House chamber without enough members to conduct business, hastily made plans for their families and employees. Texas has a part-time legislature with $600 annual salaries for lawmakers, and the regular session is every other year for 140 days, so members have jobs outside their Capitol responsibilities.
“We are prepared to be gone for weeks, and we’ve prepared our families for that, and some of us have prepared our employers or employees, if we — there are members who own small businesses,” State Rep. Gina Hinojosa, D-Austin, said in a Zoom interview from her Washington, D.C. hotel room.
State Rep. Shawn Thierry, D-Houston, joined her colleagues on Capitol Hill a day later, with no timeline for when she’ll return to her daughter in the Lone Star State.
“I’m a single mom, parent; I have an 8-year-old daughter,” she said. “And so I had to make child care provisions with my family, and I’m very grateful to them that they said this is worth fighting for, ‘Shawn, you know, go.’”
Democrats have said they’re willing to stay away as long as it takes to derail the state’s election proposals, with a goal to encourage members of Congress to pass federal voting rights legislation that would usurp state regulations.
State Rep. Erin Zwiener, D-Driftwood, brought her 3-year-old daughter, Lark, with her to Capitol Hill, explaining her husband has to stay in Texas to pay the bills and noting the uncertainty of the length of the trip.
“It’s not easy to have her in a hotel room for 25 days, but this is what worked for us, and it also means that I don’t have to go 25 days without seeing my daughter, which is important to me personally,” Zwiener said Thursday. “Now that I’ve had her with me a few days, I’ve remembered the superpower of having your children around when you’re in politics, and that superpower is that they remind us every day why we are fighting and give us strength back.”
Lark has attended most of the meetings her mom has participated in during these first few days of the quorum break. She was spotted in many of the photos state and federal lawmakers have posted on social media this week.
“She is a precocious reader… and while here has learned how to spell the word ‘vote,’ which is appearing in many places, as we’re out and about,” Zwiener said.
State Rep. John Bucy III, D-Cedar Park, drove nearly 24 hours to the East Coast with his pregnant wife and 17-month-old baby.
State Rep. Celia Israel, D-Austin, was supposed to get married on Thursday, which is also her birthday.
“I never thought that I would tell my partner of 26 years that we’re not going to get married as planned,” Israel said Thursday. “She was literally walking out the door to go get measured for her wedding outfit by a seamstress, and I had to force the words out of my mouth, but I felt horrible and doing it.”
“I wanted a Texas wedding. We’ll still have it, we just have to rearrange stuff,” she said. “It’s difficult to do, but it’s not anything more difficult than other people who have had to make sacrifices.”
“People are calling me the runaway bride while I’m running away from a really bad governor who is doing damage to the state that I love,” Israel said.
“I am very proud of what I’m doing, and I’m doing my job the best that I can.”
Gov. Greg Abbott, R-Texas, said he plans to call 30-day special sessions over and over until Democrats return. House Speaker Dade Phelan, R-Beaumont, authorized authorities to compel lawmakers to come back to the House chamber by any means necessary, including arrest, but that jurisdiction ends at the state line.
House Speaker Phelan even announced the removal of Rep. Joe Moody, D-El Paso, as speaker pro tem of the Texas House in a memo Thursday morning, effectively immediately.
“The most important titles in my life will never change: Dad, Husband, El Pasoan,” Moody said in a tweet. “Nothing political has ever even cracked the top three, so nothing has changed about who I am or what my values are.”
Locked inside the chamber are 76 Republicans, who need hall passes to leave the chamber with a promise to return.
State Rep. Jared Patterson, R-Frisco, walked around the room with a sign tallying the daily cost to taxpayers for the special session, which includes legislative pay, a per diem for lawmakers and other budgeted costs. Special sessions cost the state approximately $1 million. Texas is slated to have at least two special sessions — the current one and a fall special session to redraw legislative districts once the U.S. Census Bureau releases its population figures.
“I try not to miss my kids’ sports and things or anything that’s important to our family, so my son had a basketball game at eight o’clock last night, he’s got one tonight at six,” Patterson said in a Tuesday interview. “Looks like I’m not going to be able to make that one.”
“Getting a FaceTime while he’s playing a basketball game is you know, the next best thing, it’s not as good as being there, but it’s the next best thing,” Patterson added.
State Rep. Tony Tinderholt, R-Arlington, said the quorum break adds additional strain onto what was already a difficult regular session.
“I have a wonderful wife who’s very understanding. I have a 3 and a 5 year old, who I miss immensely when I’m here,” Tinderholt said.
“This was the toughest session I’ve ever had, because my daughter started school,” he explained. “It’s difficult for every member in different ways.”
Texas House GOP Caucus chairman State Rep. Jim Murphy, R-Houston, shared the list of personal priorities he sat aside to show up to the House Chamber this week.
“I have a new grandson I’d like to spend some more time with,” Murphy said. “We want to see our families.”
“I’d like to be back, go back and take care of my clients and work in my company,” he added. “These are things we always are willing to put on hold to take care of the people’s business, but we don’t want to see it protracted by things like a walkout by the Democrats.”