Celia Israel was putting finishing touches on her wedding last week when she learned that, instead, she had to drop everything and leave.
The Democratic state representative from Texas had driven with her partner of 26 years, Celinda, to see a family friend who was making her outfit. They were set to get married on the floor of the Texas state House early in the morning on Thursday. But before Israel’s partner got fitted last Sunday, her phone buzzed with a text from fellow state legislator Gina Hinojosa.
“She said, ‘I need to talk to you.’ And I could just sense, like, ‘Oh no,’” Israel said. “So I called her and I said, ‘Are you in jail?’ She said, ‘No, I’m going to have some news. I hate to tell you this, but your wedding isn’t going happen on Thursday.’”
Israel is one of the over 50 state House Democrats who fled Texas on Monday to deny Republicans a quorum for a major new elections bill that has stirred backlash: axing pandemic-era practices to expand voting access adopted in a large Democratic-leaning county, further restricting mail voting in the state and making election workers liable for new potential civil or criminal penalties. Democrats are in the minority in Texas, but Republicans can’t pass the legislation without them there — so they left for Washington, D.C.
In interviews with a dozen Texas lawmakers during their first week in Washington, they described a hectic, last-minute scramble to pack and get out of the state.
Many found out on Sunday that the quorum break was a go, but they didn’t know how long they would be gone — or, until hours before they departed on Monday, where they were actually heading.
“One thing I had to do early Monday morning was stock up on insulin,” said state Rep. James Talarico, who has Type 1 diabetes, “because I didn’t know where we were going to be and if I was going to have access to a pharmacy. It’s those little things you don’t think about.”
State Rep. John Bucy piled into a car with his 27-weeks-pregnant wife and their 17-month-old daughter and drove 22 hours to join the rest of the caucus, after deciding not to fly. State Rep. Erin Zwiener brought her young daughter with her to D.C., keeping her entertained during meetings with members of Congress. Tearing up, state Rep. Ina Minjarez described leaving her husband at home as he grieves the recent death of a parent.
“I don’t think the public understands what we leave behind is important to us. It’s important,” Minjarez said. “And for me, it was just trying to get my house in order.”
And the trip is still happening amid a pandemic. On Saturday, three of the Texas Democrats tested positive for coronavirus, the caucus announced in a statement. One of them was Israel. Caucus leadership, which did not specify the members who tested positive, said all three of them were fully vaccinated.
All of this effort and expense — and personal health — is pouring into a quixotic-at-best quest to kill the GOP bill. It’s the second time Democrats have walked out to deny a quorum in the state legislature, but Republicans can just keep calling special legislative sessions and keep trying to pass the legislation, presuming the Democrats will return to the state eventually.
“We have a short window here,” state House Democratic caucus chair Chris Turner told reporters on Tuesday, when the members arrived at U.S. Capitol. “We can’t hold this tide back forever. We’re buying some time. We need Congress and all our federal leaders to use that time wisely.”
Indeed, furious Republicans have promised not to negotiate over the bill despite the Democratic block, instead promising arrests for the fleeing lawmakers once they return, decrying them for abdicating their responsibilities and hammering them over the case of Miller Lite pictured on one of their getaway buses to the airport. The Republican State Leadership Committee and the Associated Republicans of Texas launched a joint six-figure ad campaign targeting Texas House Democrats in swing districts, calling their move a “publicity stunt.” And Republican Gov. Greg Abbott has already promised to call a second special session on Aug. 8, immediately after the current one expires.
The Texas Democrats’ hope their second walkout helps galvanize the Democratic Party in Washington and nationally around the cause of voting rights — and gets Democrats unstuck on their own federal elections legislation that has stalled in the Senate. The Senate filibuster and intra-party concerns that Democrats’ main election legislation goes too far halted its progress. In meetings with members of Congress, they are pleading for federal action that would override or preempt the Republican bill they are fighting back home.
The effort has turned the Texans, briefly, into Washington mini-celebrities: They’ve become regulars on cable news, while young Hill staffers shuffled over to them while eating in a Capitol office cafeteria on Tuesday to ask for pictures and cheer them on.
But their endgame is unclear. Every House Democrat who spoke to POLITICO indicated they intend to stay out of Texas until the current special legislative session is over, but they demur about what comes after that. It isn’t even clear how long they’ll stay in D.C. — or even their current hotel, the Washington Plaza. Lawmakers say the party caucus is footing the bill so far, but that’s an expensive long-term proposition. Posts asking about potentially housing the lawmakers have sprouted on D.C. neighborhood listservs.
And among the lawmakers, rumors swirl about whether they’ll stay in D.C. or take their show on the road to a different state.
“If you find out, let us know,” one Texas legislator joked, when asked where they’re going next.
By noon on Thursday, Israel’s wedding ceremony would have wrapped up, and she and a group of friends and family would have been celebrating at brunch. Instead, she was on a bus leaving a small rally in front of the AFL-CIO building, off of Black Lives Matter Plaza, heading back to the group’s hotel for a Zoom interview with a local TV station and a call with her staff still working back in Austin.
The lawmakers were relatively quiet, still figuring out what the rest of their day would look like. A constant theme of their first week in Washington was uncertainty, as they tried to squeeze into the offices of as many members of Congress and interest groups as possible, sometimes with little notice, to argue their case for new federal voting-rights legislation. As they drove, a shout from the back of the bus went out: “The black pastors are overwhelming the capitol!”
The lawmakers who weren’t already scrolling through Twitter picked up their phones, trying to find video of a group of faith leaders and activists protesting back in Austin. “Gromer’s got it,” Israel said, referencing a video from a Dallas Morning News reporter. “Let’s all retweet it.”
The trip is about meeting members of Congress, but the Texans also want to make sure the public knows that they’ve left Austin — and why. Media appearances are a regular part of members’ schedules, part of an effort to make sure they stay plugged in with constituents back home, through the local press, social media and virtual town halls.
Media contact has increased “about ten-fold,” Israel said once she arrived back at the hotel, where she tucked away in a conference room converted into a makeshift Zoom studio, propping her iPad up on a box of manila folders behind a ring light for a hit with her local NBC affiliate.
“Thank God someone thought to buy a Texas flag,” she joked right before the TV interview, where she talked about her postponed wedding and Republicans’ pressure campaign.
Almost immediately after the interview, she was on the phone with her chief of staff, Taryn Feigen, who is still working back in Texas. Israel wanted details on how the trip is being received back home. “How are things going? And we should probably talk about — I’m not sure where to go on social media,” Israel said.
“And how are the constituents’ calls?” she continued. “Are they real constituents, or are they just make-believe angry people?”
“It’s both,” said Feigen. “If they’re displeased, I would say 95 percent are just anywhere from Texas” and not necessarily constituents, she continued, noting that angry callers often decline to give their information. “We’re getting a lot of attention … We’ve gotten a lot of thank yous, constituents and not.”
The two discussed pulling together a newsletter to let constituents know what Israel and the rest of the Texas Democrats have been up to. Israel said she was frustrated about how Republicans have portrayed the trip.
“I am angry that we’re being portrayed as not working,” she tells Feigen. “The speaker put out a list of people that are still taking their per diem, and I’m like, ‘Well, no shit, because we’re doing more work than you are.’ They’re just going in at 10 o’clock, saying a prayer and yucking it up. And then what are they doing?”
Amid planning a town hall with other Austin-area members to talk about their trip and handling more routine office duties like a delegation letter about a highway, they agreed to pull together a newsletter, emphasizing “we’re doing things that are designed to just help shed light on the horrible Texas [elections] bill,” Israel told Feigen.
“Let’s get a newsletter out,” Israel says. “Like, ‘a week in D.C.?’ It feels like two months.”
At 2:30 p.m., the newly wed Israel and her wife would have been driving to West Texas, to stay in a historic hotel with their sisters in a town called Marathon. “That’s our special place,” she said earlier in the day, holding back tears. “It would have been iconic sunsets that just go on forever. The stars at night really are big and bright. We would have been deep in the heart of Texas and just thinking about our 26 years together.”
Instead, she was wrapping up about an hour of downtime at the D.C. hotel. She spent the time reading messages wishing her a happy birthday, looking at a map of the Metro — “I want to ride the train on my birthday … I’m a train chick” — and quizzing lawmakers and reporters cycling through the lobby about birthday dinner options. Some options were quickly ruled out: “I don’t trust barbecue in D.C.,” she told a fellow lawmaker who asked if she was going to a delegation lunch.
Israel and state Rep. Jarvis Johnson were due for a meeting with Rep. Adriano Espaillat (D-N.Y.) on Capitol Hill. After a short Uber ride, Espaillat staffers greeted them outside the Longworth House office building to sign them in and escort them around the Capitol complex, which is still not open to the general public.
Espaillat ushered them into a private room just off a House committee chamber — where many members of Congress hid during the Jan. 6 insurrection at the Capitol — and they began the pitch they have given to members throughout the week. They started by describing what was in Texas Republicans’ proposal for new state election rules, focusing in particular on the provisions that grant new powers to poll watchers, and urged Congress to act.
The conversation quickly turned to one of the Washington Democrats who, perhaps more than anyone else, holds the fate of the Texans in his hands: Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.), who has called Democrats’ “For the People” election bill over-broad but signaled openness to other legislative approaches on voting rights. Members of the delegation met with Manchin earlier on Thursday, and Israel had been briefed by her colleagues before meeting with Espaillat.
“My goal is for us to not let the perfect be the enemy of the good,” Israel said. “Let’s find the three or four good things that we can get through the senator, and let’s move forward. That would be a big help to us. My big message is, to whatever extent, you can be reassured we don’t need the perfect thing.” Israel has been a big advocate for opening up online voter registration in the state, and she raised throughout the day the potential penalties election workers would face under the GOP bill.
Throughout the day, Israel has repeated this message, stressing that Texas Democrats don’t need the “combo plate” of federal help, as she put it — just “rice and beans” will do.
Many of them publicly call for the passage of the For the People Act — Democrats’ sweeping elections legislation that would set a slew of new federal standards for state election administration — as well as the restoration of a key provision of the 1965 Voting Rights Act. But they know why Congress has not acted yet, and they’re prepared to accept smaller-scale, compromise legislation that would protect voting rights.
“We run out of clock on Aug. 7. The governor just announced he’s going to call another special session,” Israel told Espaillat. “It just so happens that Aug. 6 is the anniversary of when LBJ signed the Voting Rights Act. So, we’re working around an event on Aug. 6, to try to put some pressure on the Senate to act.” (She declined to share details with POLITICO.)
As the 20-minute meeting wrapped up, the conversation returned to Manchin. “So Manchin was receptive?” Espaillat asked.
“Yes,” Israel, she repeated. “That’s good to hear,” the New York Democrat responded.
Israel’s postponed wedding has also been on the minds of her colleagues. “[I realized it] pretty immediately,” said state Rep. Donna Howard, who is Israel’s deskmate at the state Capitol and was supposed to officiate the wedding. “Ever since the law was changed to recognize same-sex marriage, I’ve been hounding her to get married and let me be a part of it.”
Once she knew about the quorum break, Israel dreaded having to tell her partner Celinda, who had been headed out the door to meet her seamstress. “It was like forcing these words out of my mouth,” Israel said, adding: “And she could tell what’s up.”
“And she said, ‘Well, you’re not going,’” Israel continued. “And I didn’t say anything, because I knew better. … She was pissed. She’s a South Texas Latina, they’re fierce.”
Once her partner returned, “I didn’t say anything, because I needed her to tell me,” Israel said. “So she said, ‘Let’s just postpone it.’ And I was crushed.”
The pair began their drive back to Austin, to make preparations for Israel to leave. “All I could do was say, ‘I’m sorry.’ I said, ‘Politics is dumb.’ And she said, ‘Yeah, politics is dumb. Let’s go home.’” They arrived back in Austin on Sunday night, and Israel started to pack.
Before they broke the news to Israel, Howard and Hinojosa began plotting ways to make it up to her, including getting Celinda to Washington so they could get married there instead. They mulled trying to set something up at an iconic D.C. landmark, and even getting a special guest to officiate.
“First I called Donna and I was like, ‘Donna, you know what? I know you’re marrying Celia, but what if we could get Nancy Pelosi?’” Hinojosa said, laughing. “We had no reason to believe that she could, but I thought that would be a great story for Nancy Pelosi and maybe she’ll do it.”
Before they tried to rope the speaker of the House into their plans, Hinojosa first floated the idea by Israel.
“I said, ‘No fucking way,’” Israel recalled. “We’re Texans.”
She wants to get married on the floor of the Texas state House — whenever she can get back there.