The regular session of the 85th Legislature had much in common with a white hot ball of rage. It started early in the session when a state senator destroyed a tabletop by forcefully gaveling down testimony from a witness against an abortion bill and continued through today’s closing minutes when a House member called Immigration and Customs Enforcement on sanctuary cities protestors in the gallery. Democrats alleged that Republican Representative Matt Rinaldi of Irving threatened to shoot a Mexican-American legislator in the head. Rinaldi responded by saying a Democrat threatened him and that he only said he would shoot in self-defense.
The floor scuffle broke out as red-shirted members of United We Dream filled the gallery to protest passage of Senate Bill 4, an immigration crackdown bill recently signed into law by Governor Greg Abbott. The House had added controversial language to allow police to ask residency status questions of people they detain. Rinaldi said the protestors displayed a banner over the brass rail that said, “I am illegal and here to stay.” What happened next is in dispute.
Members of the Mexican-American Legislative Caucus said they were angered by Rinaldi repeatedly saying he had called ICE on the protestors. Representative Ramon Romero Jr. of Fort Worth said Rinaldi only saw undocumented immigrants in the gallery, although not all were. “He saw the crowd, and he saw illegals,” Romero said at a news conference. “In his heart, he has hate for those people and wants to see them gone.” Representative Justin Rodriguez of San Antonio said there was an exchange between Rinaldi and Representative Poncho Nevarez of Eagle Pass that led to some words about taking it outside. “There was a threat from Representative Rinaldi to put a bullet in one of my colleague’s head. That kind of threatening language, he needs to be called out.”
Video from KVUE-TV in Austin (see above) showed Nevarez repeatedly shoving Rinaldi backward and approaching him aggressively, but their words could not be heard. Other legislators were stopping other members from joining the fray.
Rinaldi’s version of events in a Twitter statement is that Romero “physically assaulted me, and other Democrats were held back by my colleagues. During that time, Poncho told me that he would ‘get me on the way to my car.’ He later approached me and reiterated that ‘I had to leave at some point, and he would get me.’ I made it clear that if he attempted to, in his words, ‘get me,’ I would shoot him in self defense.” Rinaldi said he was in the protective custody of the Department of Public Safety.
Anger has been growing between the Mexican-American caucus and members of the Freedom Caucus, which includes Rinaldi, ever since the April 27 debate on the sanctuary cities bill. Freedom Caucus Chair Matt Schaefer, a Tyler Republican, got the House to attach an amendment preventing police departments from restricting officers from asking about citizenship or residency status while detaining an individual. The legislation was opposed by every major police chief in the state, but Abbott signed it into law on May 7.
The confrontation and threats were almost a fitting end to a legislative session that seemed designed to create hard feelings among lawmakers, especially in the House. The chamber had emotionally raw debates over strict abortion and immigration bills, and efforts to regulate which restrooms transgender people use. These were human rights issues that affect state lawmakers in a very personal way. In the House, at least six legislators—two men and four women —broke into tears during floor debates. Democrats snapped at Republicans, stopping just short of calling them racists. A member of the Freedom Caucus stomped around the House floor, essentially decrying the death of democracy on the speaker’s dais.
Two decades from now, it is unlikely anyone will look back and proclaim that the 85th Legislature worked to build a Texas for the rest of the 21st Century.
State lawmakers probably will be back before the summer is out for a special legislative session called by Governor Greg Abbott. Tempers may have cooled by then but the emotional wounds that lawmakers inflicted on each other these past 140 days will likely last for a long time.