For beleaguered and long-suffering Democrats in conservative Texas, it has come to this — earworm activism.
The last time a Democrat won one of the nearly 30 statewide-elected offices in Texas was November 1994. The last time a Democrat occupied the governor’s mansion was January 1995, when Gov. Ann W. Richards was replaced by George W. Bush. Republicans control the state House 95 to 55 and the State Senate 20 to 11. Republicans in Texas are the dog. Democrats are the tail.
State Representative Senfronia Thompson, a Houston Democrat who was first elected in 1973 and who is the longest-serving woman in the history of the Texas Legislature, put it another way.
“It’s hell,” she said in her office. “Do I need to say anything else?”
On the first week of the special session, Democratic angst was on full display beneath the pink dome of the Capitol and the flapping U.S. and Texas flags that are sewn by prison inmates outside Waco.
Democrats made cleverly worded anti-bathroom-bill signs (“Let my people pee!” read one). There was a brief flash of tension as protesters marched to the office of Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, but a kind of southern civility set in, and everyone ended up waiting patiently in line to sign the guest book outside the glass doors. And there was an appearance by Wendy Davis, a Democrat who lost the 2014 race for governor and who helped lead protest chants in the Capitol rotunda on Tuesday.
“A Democrat is going to become governor of Texas when the people of Texas decide they’re going to show up and vote,” Ms. Davis said in an interview. “In 2014, in spite of the vast amounts of money and incredible attention in a gubernatorial race in this state, we saw only 31 percent of our eligible voters turn out to vote. As long as numbers are low, Republicans are going to keep winning.”
Seven weeks after a shoving match broke out on the House floor between Republican and Democratic lawmakers in May, some degree of bipartisanship was still evident. Ms. Thompson had a friendly chat outside the House chamber with State Representative Jonathan Stickland, a Republican from Bedford and a firebrand conservative who helped kill one of her bills.
Texas Democrats each have their own ways of resisting, and coping. State Representative Ramon Romero Jr., a Fort Worth Democrat, leaned on a table and put his signature to House Bill 53, a bill he wrote to repeal the ban on sanctuary cities, which many Hispanic Democrats say is anti-immigrant. The ink was not even dry when Mr. Romero acknowledged it was a long shot. This, as much as anything else, defines the Democratic way in Texas: persistently believing in, and acting on, long shots.
“This is a Hail Mary pass,” Mr. Romero said. “Person after person came to me and said, ‘Ramon, what are we going to do? You have to do something, Ramon. What can you do?’ And for a long time, I said there’s nothing I can do. Well, this is a start.”
As a sign of the Republican leadership’s eagerness to pass Gov. Greg Abbott’s ambitious agenda, Mr. Patrick made a stunning move on Wednesday. He ordered all senators back to the chamber at one minute past midnight, the first possible moment that senators could take up a key bill. It was a bit of political theater by Mr. Patrick to illustrate the Senate’s aggressive approach to the agenda. At a few minutes past midnight early Thursday morning, the Senate officially reconvened in an eerily quiet and spotlight-drenched Capitol.
No one personified the Democratic response to the overnight session like State Senator John Whitmire, a Houston Democrat first elected in 1982. He yawned. He chomped on a toothpick as the bill passed. He checked his watch. The projectile tossed into the air of the august Senate chamber was aimed at him (a baggie of Atomic FireBall candies thrown by an aide). He was mildly unruly and wry, and he offered his own blunt take on why they were there past midnight in the middle of July.
“This is Republican primary politics, pure and simple,” said Mr. Whitmire, who is not only the longest-serving senator but sort of the Kojak of the Texas Legislature, bearing both the demeanor and haircut of Telly Savalas. “You think we couldn’t have done this about 9 o’clock in the morning?”
It was about 1 a.m. when State Senator Borris L. Miles, another Houston Democrat, approached Mr. Whitmire’s desk. Now, as is often the case, there wasn’t much a Democrat could do, so he did what he could. He helped himself to an Atomic FireBall.
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