While it appears unlikely that the Democrats in the Texas House of Representatives who left the state to prevent the Republican majority from passing its elections overhaul can win the fight, some are worried about the long-term damage.
To some El Paso observers, the biggest hit so far is the loss of El Paso state Rep. Joe Moody’s leadership position as speaker pro tem of the House.
“It’s a shame to lose the kind of partnership that we had representing us in Joe Moody as he served as speaker pro tem,” said Richard Dayoub, the former president of the El Paso Chamber who’s now working as a business consultant.
“He didn’t want to do this,” Dayoub said. “He’s worked too hard to serve our community and our state by working across party lines for so many years to have this all fall apart now.”
But Pat Haggerty, a veteran El Paso city representative who then served 20 years as a Republican in the Texas House, fears the latest fight could change the Texas Legislature forever.
“It’s going to hurt El Paso because Moody is no longer speaker pro tem,” said Haggerty, now a professional lobbyist in Austin. “But the Texas Legislature was always different from the federal legislature because we have chairmen of committees that are either Republican or Democrat.
“In order to get the 76 votes needed to be speaker, you’ve got to have some Republicans and some Democrats to make a coalition. I think this is probably going to lead to Austin becoming more like Washington – where the chairmen of all committees will be the majority party.
“That will be a very unkind situation.”
Unlike in Washington, Haggerty said, “everybody is just buddies in Austin. You might have a fight on the House floor, and then you go out and have a beer. In Washington, it’s become very partisan.”
El Paso state Rep. Lina Ortega said many of the Texas Democrats have spent time meeting with members of Congress in Washington, D.C., and working with their offices back home.
“The house majority whip talked to us for quite a while today,” Ortega said in an interview Tuesday. “We’ve been having round-table discussions dealing with different voting issues, and there’s been quite a bit of activity.”
While that’s encouraging, she said, it’s hard being away from family and friends in El Paso and not working in Austin.
“I think everybody is homesick,” she said, referring to the 55 or 56 Democrats in one hotel. “We suddenly dropped what we were doing and came to D.C. from one day to the next.
“It’s not easy being here, but we have a strong commitment to be here for as long as it takes.”
Messages from home, she said, “bring smiles to our faces.”
Beto O’Rourke, a former El Paso city representative who served two terms in the U.S. House, has been raising money through his Powered by People organization to help pay the Democrats’ hotel bills in Washington.
“We wired the Texas House Democratic Caucus $600,000 earlier this week, comprised of contributions with an average of $33,” O’Rourke told El Paso Inc. by text message Friday morning. “It’s to help cover the expenses for more than 50 members and 20 staff for more than three weeks.”
El Paso state Sen. César Blanco was among the senators who joined House members in Washington, but he’s back at work in Austin now.
“Earlier this month, there were hundreds of Texans who came to our capitol to testify against the Republican voting bill,” Blanco said. “But our counterparts still don’t take any of the concerns seriously that we and the civil rights groups had.
“We’re hoping to negotiate, but the only option was to have a debate on the Senate floor that was not going to get anywhere.”
One big sticking point is the new identification requirement in Gov. Greg Abbott’s voting bill.
“You can use a concealed handgun permit to vote, but if you’re a UTEP student with a student ID, you can’t vote,” Blanco said.
Asked if he’s concerned that El Pasoans and Texans alike may lose interest in the fight that has brought the Legislature to a standstill, Blanco said, “We continue to have press conferences and speak out.
“Republicans say we’re not working, but I’m working because I believe it’s un-American to make it harder to vote.”
Email El Paso Inc. reporter David Crowder at email@example.com or call (915) 630-6622.