Day 5 in Exile: Phelan Hires a Jet to Haul AWOL Dems Back From D.C. But Has No Takers

The Texas House Democratic Caucus has been busy blasting Texas voter bills and pushing Congress to get its act together.
The Texas House Democratic Caucus has been busy blasting Texas voter bills and pushing Congress to get its act together. Screenshot
The saga of Texas House Democrats in exile got even more entertaining on Day 5 with Willie Nelson in fund-raising mode for the AWOL Dems and Republican Texas House Speaker Dade Phelan announcing Thursday afternoon he had a private plane standing by in Washington, D.C. ready to whisk the AWOL group back to Austin.

It was clear, however, that he wasn't getting any takers. The Texas lawmakers who'd fled the state Capitol scoffed at Phelan's offer, insisting they were the ones working hardest on behalf of the Texans they represent.

Despite claims from the Texas GOP faithful that the out-of-town House Dems are quitting on their constituents to go on “a taxpayer-funded junket” in the words of Gov. Greg Abbott, Democrats involved in the walkout effort continued to insist that the best way they can represent the folks who put them in office right now is by blocking Republican legislation they argue would needlessly make voting harder for all Texans and especially for minorities.

“There is no way anyone in good faith could say that any of us have abandoned our duties as state Reps,” said Rep. Shawn Thierry of Houston.

She told the Houston Press that she and her staff are still fielding calls for constituent services, like one they received recently from a 90-year-old woman in need of home repairs. Thierry and her fellow Democrats have also been meeting with D.C. lawmakers non-stop to push for federal voting legislation that would prevent the types of changes Texas Republicans are pushing. Those changes include banning drive-thru and 24-hour voting options heavily used by voters of color and giving partisan volunteer poll watchers the ability to more freely roam about polling places, which Democrats argue would likely lead to white conservative volunteers harassing minority voters.

The Democratic fly-out came after a busy first few days of the special session during which the Republican-led state House and Senate rapidly advanced new versions of controversial election reform legislation Democrats previously thwarted with a late-night walkout as the regular session ended in May.
click to enlarge State Rep. Shawn Thierry shared her story about how she got to D.C. with followers on Instagram. - SCREENSHOT
State Rep. Shawn Thierry shared her story about how she got to D.C. with followers on Instagram.
Thierry and her colleagues contend that skipping town en masse for D.C. was the best way they can hopefully spur the U.S. Senate’s Democratic majority into passing voting rights legislation that would help stem the growing tide of voting restrictions being passed in red state after red state following former President Donald Trump’s months of unfounded claims that voter fraud caused his ouster from the White House.

Fellow quorum-breaker and Houston state Rep. Garnet Coleman agreed.

“When somebody says ‘Well, y’all aren’t working.’ Well, shit, yes we are! And we’re working representing our constituents in the best way that we can: to keep access to the ballot box open and free,” Coleman said.

Coleman is in a unique position compared to his fellow Democrats in exile; back in May, Coleman had to have most of his right leg amputated below the knee due to complications from diabetes. Because of his precarious health condition, Coleman chose not to fly up to D.C. with his colleagues, and is instead breaking quorum while recovering from his surgery at an undisclosed location in Texas.

click to enlarge State Rep. Garnet Coleman, still recovering from a recent amputation, is with his fellow Texas House Dems in spirit. - SCREENSHOT
State Rep. Garnet Coleman, still recovering from a recent amputation, is with his fellow Texas House Dems in spirit.
Since Phelan put out the call Tuesday for state law enforcement officials to try and round-up absent Democrats so they could be detained in the House chamber and get back to work, Coleman knows there’s a chance he might be found by the Texas Rangers and asked to head back to Austin, or else. He said he’d like to see them try.

Phelan said he’s paying for the private jet to hang tight in D.C. on Saturday, just in case any of the fly-out Democrats are ready to head home less than a week into their protest.

"In an effort to further compel House Democrats to return to the State of Texas, I am chartering a plane that will be on standby in Washington, D.C. on Saturday,” Phelan wrote in a statement. “I am demanding all of our colleagues in D.C. to contact my staff immediately in order to secure their seat on the plane and return to Austin in order to do the state's business.

"The State of Texas is waiting," he concluded.

House Democrat walkout leaders Reps. Chris Turner, Rafael Anchía and Nicole Collier were quick to dismiss Phelan’s generous offer of a quick private flight back to Austin.

“The Speaker should save his money,” the Democrats said in a joint statement. “We won’t be needing a plane anytime soon, as our work to save democracy from the Trump Republicans is just getting started.”

“We’re not going anywhere and suggest instead the Speaker end this charade of a session, which is nothing more than a monthlong campaign commercial for Gov. Abbott’s re-election,” the Dems wrote, before suggesting that Phelan should go ahead and adjourn the House and end this special session immediately.

Meanwhile, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick asked Abbott via Twitter not only to follow through with his threat to call a second special session as soon as the current, all but assuredly thwarted session ends, but to also add to the next special agenda a change the Legislature’s rules to lower the number of members who need to be present for bills to be passed.

“I am asking him to add changing the quorum requirement to the call,” Patrick tweeted Thursday. “Should be simple majority plus one, like it is in most states to stop outrageous behavior by Dems. I’m confident voters will support.” It’s a confusing ask from Patrick, given that changing the quorum rules would require amending the constitution, and that potential amendments have to be approved by two-thirds of House and Senate members to even be considered by state voters.

Texas House Dems and a handful of their Texas Senate counterparts (though not enough defectors to halt Senate business) have met in D.C. with Vice President Kamala Harris and several U.S. Democratic Senators including Joe Manchin, Elizabeth Warren and Kirsten Gillibrand over the past several days to push them to act on Democrat-backed federal voting rights bills, the For the People Act and the John Lewis Voting Rights Act.

While the first bill has gotten most of the public’s attention, the latter piece of legislation would restore the Civil Rights Act of 1965 provision that required states such as Texas with histories of voter discrimination to pre-clear changes to voting laws with the feds, a key element of that landmark legislation gutted by the U.S. Supreme Court several years ago.

According to Coleman, the speed with which state Republicans went about ramming through their latest controversial election reform bills through their respective committees in marathon overnight hearings over the weekend was what led House Dems to move so quickly to get out of town.

“That’s what made Tuesday the departure date,” Coleman said. “Because of the layout rules, those two bills could have been on the floor Thursday or Friday, and so the window was a very narrow window to move.”

Coleman and Thierry, both Black Democrats, are especially aware of how the Texas GOP’s latest voting bills would likely make voting more difficult for minorities. Coleman recalls the partisan intimidation of Black voters by poll watchers he witnessed at a polling place in his district years ago, and warned that Texas’ latest election bills would allow those poll watchers even more autonomy to roam about voting locations and to make voters uncomfortable.

Knowing there’s less than a month left in the special session, Phelan has ratcheted-up his pressure campaign on the walkout Democrats in recent days as well. He’s made ample mention in public statements about how the Democrats’ absence means less-controversial measures like getting former Texas teachers extra retirement cash and getting more funding to the state’s Child Protective Services system won’t be able to get approved.

Phelan also on Thursday retaliated against El Paso state Rep. Joe Moody, an influential House Democrat who was one of Phelan’s early backers in his bid for Speaker, by officially stripping away Moody’s position as Speaker Pro Tempore, the chamber’s second-in-command.

The Speaker has also tut-tutted the Democrats who’ve so far refused his demand that they pay back the state-mandated $221 per diem lawmakers get daily during special sessions. Phelan’s office claims 49 Democrats have yet to start the process to return those payments.

Thierry told the Press she has no plans to return her per diem back to the state. First, she mentioned, “we get paid a month after we work, so we haven’t received a per diem for the special session [yet].”

“I know for me, I did not ask for a special session. I don’t own a bank like some of the members of the House of Representatives. I’m not an oil tycoon. I am an attorney, and I work hard, but I’m not in a position to return the per diem,” Thierry said.

As for Abbott’s claim that Democrats are skipping work on the  taxpayers’ dime, Coleman said that’s not correct. He explained that Democrats’ travel and lodging expenses have been paid so far from the coffers of the Texas House Democratic Caucus and from the campaign funds and personal bank accounts of individual lawmakers.

Former U.S. Senate Candidate and Texas’ most visible Democrat Beto O’Rourke has also enlisted his advocacy group Powered by People to help fund the walkout effort. O’Rourke’s group has so far raised over $500,000 to help cover costs for the out-of-state Democrats. Two of the most prominent Texans who’ve chipped in to O’Rourke’s fundraiser are outlaw country icon Willie Nelson and his wife Annie.

“Let’s jump in there and fight back now, c’mon!” Willie said in a video message to solicit more donations.

While Abbott and his allies Patrick and Phelan swear all they want to do is make Texas elections more secure, the fact is Texas elections already are pretty secure, so much so that true cases of voter fraud are virtually non-existent. Former Texas Secretary of State Ruth Hughes — a Republican — even told legislators months ago the 2020 election in Texas was safe and secure. Patrick’s Republican Senate rewarded Hughes’ honesty by refusing to approve her re-nomination to keep her job for another term.

“I do believe that you’re talking to two different audiences,” Coleman said. “We’re never going to get to the people who believe that this is what Abbott says it is. We’re not going to get to them.”

“But I think more people understand changing the rules of the law on casting ballots and how elections are carried out in 14 states is not an accident,” he continued, referring to the group of red states who are either following Texas’ lead, or have already implemented new voting restrictions like in Georgia and Florida.

Coleman was part of one of the only other Democratic quorum breaks in Texas history, when a group of House Democrats fled to Ardmore, Oklahoma in 2003 to delay a Republican redistricting effort that ultimately cost Texas Democrats seats in the Congress. Even though that last walkout didn’t stop the GOP’s redistricting effort, Coleman said the message he and his colleagues sent by breaking quorum was a victory in and of itself. He thinks back to those lessons when asked about what would constitute “success” for the current Democratic walkout effort.

“Since more people are more engaged than they used to be in my opinion, they know what’s going on,” Coleman said, “and they’re happy that somebody is actually trying to do something about it. So sometimes, success is not whether or not you accomplish the hopeful goal, but it’s whether or not you do all that you can do to represent the people. That’s what people want, and that’s what I learned from Ardmore.”

"So sometimes, success is not whether or not you accomplish the hopeful goal, but it’s whether or not you do all that you can do to represent the people." - Democratic State Rep. Garnet Coleman

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As for how long Texas House Democrats are willing to stay away from Austin this time, Thierry said the caucus has committed to staying away from the state Capitol at least through the current special session.

“We have to take it one step at a time and see if we’re able to be successful to get some federal legislation passed,” Thierry said. “We said from the beginning that we are prepared to stay out until the end of the legislative session, which would be August 7.”

“But beyond that,” Thierry continued, “I guess I can just say on a personal level, I’m here to do this as long as it takes.

“I’m a working single mom of an eight-year-old daughter. I miss my daughter. I also help take care of my eighty-year-old mom. My dad passed away in November,” she said. “I want people to know that this is a lot. This is a huge sacrifice.”
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Schaefer Edwards is a staff writer at the Houston Press who covers local and regional news. A lifelong Texan and adopted Houstonian, he loves NBA basketball and devouring Tex-Mex while his cat watches in envy.
Contact: Schaefer Edwards