Politics

Hasty Exits and Dashed Plans as State Democrats Leave Texas to Block Voting Bill

WASHINGTON — For many Democrats in the Texas House, the decision to leave the state on Monday to temporarily block the passage of a restrictive voting law upended a lot of plans, but few more so than Representative Celia Israel, who postponed her wedding.

After learning a day earlier that 50 of her colleagues were rushing ahead with an 11th-hour trip to Washington to deny Republicans a quorum, which is required to conduct state business, Ms. Israel called off the ceremony in a matter of hours.

“It wasn’t a fun day when I had to tell my partner, Sunday, as she’s getting measured by a seamstress for her wedding outfit, that we were about to break quorum,” she said.

The bid by Democratic lawmakers was the second time in six weeks they have staged a walkout to try to prevent passage of a sweeping election overhaul bill. In May, Democrats departed the Capitol chamber for a nearby church, prompting Gov. Greg Abbott to call a special session last week. Mr. Abbott and state Republicans aimed to pass the legislation in the current session along with other bills concerning transgender rights and the banning of “critical race theory” in public schools.

Ms. Israel said that she and her partner had delayed their wedding, which was to take place on the Texas House floor on Thursday, years after the Supreme Court upheld same-sex marriage in 2015 so that they could hold the ceremony in their home state. The pair had planned a quintessentially Texas wedding, with a bachelorette party in Austin on Wednesday and a celebration at a country music festival in Marathon this weekend.

“My partner and I have been together 26 years, and we’re Texas girls,” Ms. Israel said. “We could have flown to Hawaii and got married when it was legal, but we said, ‘No, we’re Texans.’”

Ms. Israel said that she intended to reschedule, but that the exact date was up in the air. Representative Donna Howard, her colleague in the House whom Ms. Israel had asked to officiate, is also among the delegation of Democrats who departed Austin on a pair of chartered flights on Monday.

In a statement posted on Twitter on Monday, Mr. Abbott accused Democrats of abdicating their duties as legislators and dismissed the effort to stall the voting bill as political theater.

“Texas Democrats’ decision to break a quorum of the Texas Legislature and abandon the Texas State Capitol inflicts harm on the very Texans who elected them to serve,” he said. “As they fly across the country on cushy private planes, they leave undone issues that can help their districts and our state.”

But many of those who made the trip insisted that the move was critical given that other states had passed similarly strict measures.

In particular, Democrats vowed to prevent the House from taking up the legislation by, if necessary, remaining outside Texas until the special session ends on Aug. 6, forcing some to make hasty departure plans and redraw their personal schedules for four weeks. Texas Republicans this week expressed defiance, saying that even if the legislation is held up this session, it will be taken up again in a future one.

State Representative Erin Zwiener, who helped plan Democrats’ exodus, said she and her husband decided that their 3-year-old daughter would accompany her on her chartered flight to Washington.

“I ended up bringing 200-piece puzzles and some Legos to try and make sure she’d have something to do in the hotel room,” she said.

Ms. Zwiener said that the decision would allow her husband to work without making last-minute child care arrangements, and that he would be able to visit without having to take their daughter, who is too young to be vaccinated against Covid-19, on a commercial airline.

“It was the option that guaranteed I’d see my kid in the next month,” she said.

As the delegation assembled to rally opposition against the voting bill in Washington on Tuesday, in Austin, remaining House members voted to send law enforcement to track down their colleagues and return them to Texas “under warrant of arrest, if necessary.”

Acknowledging that their efforts only briefly forestall the voting legislation in Texas, Democrats have increasingly turned to Washington for help. At the invitation of Democratic leaders, members traveled to the capital last month to make an appeal for the comprehensive voting rights measure called the For the People Act.

Absent major action from Congress, the departure of Texas Democrats has so far amounted to little more than the latest chapter in the struggle between Republicans and Democrats over the future of voting in Texas.

But many who made the trip described the bid as one of their responsibilities.

“It’s how strongly I feel about my job,” Ms. Israel said, “and how strongly I feel about this moment in time and history, to stand up strong, not just for Texas but for the whole country.”

Reid J. Epstein contributed reporting.


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