The Observer recaps the efforts of those who challenged the Republican-controlled Legislature.
Photos and reporting by Sam DeGrave
As far as controversial sessions go, the 85th Texas Legislature probably won’t stand above all others, but it was certainly wild and — depending on your perspective — disturbing. During the past five months, the Republican-dominated House and Senate passed a litany of bills that, if signed in their current state, will make life harder for millions of people living in Texas.
Those standing in the crosshairs pleaded, often in tears, with right-wing lawmakers, but more frequently than not their appeals were drowned out by conservative war cries. And the powerless progressives of the Texas Legislature — vastly outnumbered in both chambers — could do little to help. These photos chronicle the efforts of those who resisted and those who largely ignored them.
Republican Representatives Jonathan Stickland and Tony Tinderholt watch from the back mic as Donna Howard, an Austin Democrat, speaks against a bill greatly restricting abortion. Several women lawmakers stood by Howard as she gave one of the most emotional speeches of the session. Stickland and Tinderholt are members of the Freedom Caucus, which staunchly opposes abortion.
Protesters inspired by "The Handmaid's Tale" sit silently in the House gallery shortly after Howard’s speech. Capitol rules prohibit people in the gallery from showing support or opposition for the proceedings on the House floor. These women, and others like them, worked around that provision with their red gowns and white bonnets.
Things went from bad to worse during the debate over Fort Worth Republican Charlie Geren’s so-called sanctuary cities ban. After hours of debate on the House floor, Matt Schaefer, R-Tyler turned the bill into “papers please” legislation with an amendment that allows law enforcement to ask people about their immigration status during traffic stops or any other “lawful detention.”
Hundreds of people descended on the Capitol to protest the legislation when it went to the House for debate. Among them were children who gathered at each entrance to the lower chamber. These kids waited by the rear entrance for more than an hour to catch any legislators sneaking in the back. They gave handmade cards to lawmakers urging them to vote against the bill.
During one of the more tense moments of the "sanctuary cities" debate, a massive huddle of lawmakers formed around Dennis Bonnen, R-Angleton. Republicans offered to pull Schaefer’s “papers please” amendment if Democrats shortened the debate by pulling several of their own amendments.
Representative Rafael Anchia, D-Dallas, edged his way into the center of the huddle to listen to Bonnen, who was visibly frustrated. After Democrats deliberated over the deal for two and a half hours in a closed-door caucus, Bonnen pulled the deal, telling them their time had expired. The Republicans hadn’t issued a deadline with their deal, but they killed it nonetheless.
During an emotional speech against SB 4, Representative Gene Wu, a Houston Democrat and Chinese immigrant, likened the bill to the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882. Wu, who began to cry during his speech, broke down when he got back to his desk, where Chris Turner, D-Grand Prairie, comforted him.
On the same day, 9-year-old Wendy handed cards to lawmakers entering the House chamber. She spent hours making the cards in protest of SB 4 because her mother is undocumented. "I just want to keep my family together," she said.
Before the House debate of SB 4, protesters and lawmakers hosted a morning news conference on the steps of the Capitol. Children were among those who held signs serving as a backdrop while lawmakers, law enforcement officers and community leaders spoke out against the anti-immigrant measure.
Representative Rafael Anchia, D-Dallas, waves a copy of SB 4 in the air as he challenged Governor Greg Abbott, who championed the legislation. “If his motive was to create fear, anxiety and terror in our communities, he’s achieved that, the same way the President has," Anchia said, speaking in Spanish.
The House and Senate have settled on a nearly $217 billion spending plan for the next two years. The chambers didn’t easily reach that austere number — which falls roughly $15 billion short of what state agencies say they need. Well the Senate did. Conference Committee work excluded, the upper chamber passed its budget unanimously after an afternoon spent complimenting each other. Shortly after the Senate passed its budget, San Antonio Democrat José Menendez wags a finger at Jane Nelson, the Flower Mound Republican who chairs the Finance Committee.
Budget debate in the House was far less cordial than it was in the Senate. The 15-hour debate dragged on into the early morning of the next day. Though the House’s budget — nearly as cruel as the Senate’s — didn’t change much during the debate, lawmakers didn’t go quietly into the night. Just before midnight, Democrats Joe Moody (left) and Chris Turner (right) were still developing a scheme to challenge a Republican amendment.
Jess Herbst, the state’s first openly transgender mayor, was one of more than 70 people who testified against the so-called bathroom bill at an incredibly late-night committee hearing. House Speaker Joe Straus, an ally of the business community, made it clear during the session that he was uninterested in legislating which bathrooms transgender Texans have to use. But under the pressure of Potty Czar (and Lieutenant Governor) Dan Patrick, the House version of the bill got a hearing in the State Affairs Committee.
Jonathan Saenz, president of the anti-LGBTQ group Texas Family Values, slept through hours of testimony in an overflow room. He woke up in time to catch the final minutes of the five-hour committee meeting that ended just after 4:30 a.m.
For 7-year-old Libby Gonzales, a transgender girl, the day that the House State Affairs Committee heard the “bathroom bill” felt longer than most. Libby, pictured here with her mother, Rachel, started the day at a 9 a.m. press conference in the Capitol.
Nearly 17 hours after she started her day of bathroom-bill resistance, Libby slept in the arms of her father, Frank, as he testified on her behalf at the House State Affairs Committee hearing. Libby had nodded off only moments before, outlasting several adult observers who had fallen asleep during the hearing.
The problem with holding a hearing beginning at 11:40 p.m. is that people aren’t likely to show up — not even committee members. Here, a transgender woman urges five of the 13-member House State Affairs Committee to kill the “bathroom bill.” More than 70 testified on the controversial bill. Most of them testified before a mostly empty committee.
The two overflow rooms prepared for the “bathroom bill” hearing were hardly needed. As it turns out, fewer people show up to a hearing when it starts shortly before midnight. Still, some people, such as this lone man, chose to watch the proceedings from the overflow rooms, where they were free to clap and cheer in support of the testimony — or show their approval with a simple thumbs up.
Of all the bills Representative Gene Wu, D-Houston, carried this session, his measure improving Child Protective Services seemed an unlikely candidate for divisive debate. For Bill Zedler, an Arlington Republican, it proved the perfect host for anti-vaccine grandstanding.
Zedler amended the bill so that it would prohibit kids in Child Protective Services from being vaccinated when they receive medical exams. Zedler’s amendment passed on a mostly party-line vote. But Wu, who said Zedler’s amendment set a “dangerous precedent”, found an ally across the aisle in Republican Sarah Davis, who is pictured here with him signaling a “nay” vote against Zedler’s motion.
Before winning his seat in the Texas House, Representative Joe Moody, an El Paso Democrat and chair of the House Criminal Jurisprudence Committee, served as a prosecutor in West Texas. In that role, he had to prosecute kids who got busted with a joint, which “wasn’t a smart use of resources,” he said. This session and last, Moody pushed bills that would’ve decriminalized low-level pot possession. Both sessions the bills cleared committee but died before making it to the House floor for debate.
A man smokes an imaginary joint outside of the Capitol during a marijuana policy reform “citizen lobby day” in February. Hundreds of people met with lawmakers that day to push for drug policy reform that would prevent low-level pot possession charges from derailing lives. During a short orientation before this picture was taken, participants in the “citizen lobby day” were told always to appear professional, but what’s the harm in one drag from an invisible doobie?
For observers of this session, the 85th Texas Legislature played out as a tale of two chambers. Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick’s Senate, a menagerie of far-right tea-partiers, versus House Speaker Joe Straus and his more moderate Republican lieutenants. (Democrats have no real power in either chamber.) Here, Straus holds a spur-of-the-moment press conference to respond to a late-session challenge Patrick made the day before.
In the waning weeks of the session, Patrick — who’d been driving the policy discussion from the get-go — seized control of the Legislature with the help of the House Freedom Caucus, which killed must-pass legislation in their chamber, giving Patrick the upper hand over Straus. Tightening the screws in Straus’ thumbs, Patrick forced the House to pass transgender bathroom restrictions, which the speaker had tried to avoid all session. The House and Senate have yet to come to an agreement on the matter.
One of the more heated, and lengthy, debates in the House hinged on a bill that would allow faith-based child welfare providers to refuse to do anything they feel violates their religious beliefs. Critics argue that the bill, authored by Wichita Falls Republican James Frank, could make adoption more difficult for same-sex couples, and it could restrict the rights of foster kids. Frank, an adoptive parent, argued that the bill would widen the pool of potential adoptive parents. He is pictured here signaling a “nay” vote against a Democratic amendment to the bill.
After nearly 11 hours of debate, the House tentatively passed Frank’s bill allowing faith-based child welfare providers to opt out of their jobs if it meant violating their religious beliefs. Almost everybody had cleared out of the chamber leaving only a couple stragglers, including Frank and Donna Howard, an Austin Democrat and one of Frank’s most vocal opponents during the debate. Having spent hours butting heads, the two were both visibly exhausted when they embraced before calling it a night. They had work to do early the next day.
Sam DeGrave is a legislative fellow based out of Austin. Before moving to Texas, he worked as a reporter in Juneau, Alaska.