You used to be able to make friends in low places who were actually in high places. A lobbyist was explaining as much to me shortly after the Texas Legislature convened in mid-January. We were outside The Cloak Room, a basement bar adjacent to the capitol complex where folks can speak freely in near darkness, without meddlesome journalists watching. The lobbyist, who had worked for lawmakers in prior sessions before seeking a bigger paycheck and greater legislative influence, regaled me with tales of the good old days. Just a decade ago, he said, the largest bills many lawmakers would carry were bar tabs. After the spectacle of antagonistic legislating under the pink dome, politicians would flock to dives for a pageant of bipartisan congeniality, and then awake to the reality of a hangover. Sometimes, they’d even dance in conga lines. But then “social media made the Lege prude,” the lobbyist told me. No more debauchery: a photo of you soused—or worse, drunk beside a member of the other party—could spell trouble.
Of course, lawmakers still want to kick back with a beer from time to time and potentially achieve some consensus. So in mid-February, a freshman Democrat representative from Dallas named Venton Jones decided to invite a group of peers to Ego’s—a sunless, dimly lit Austin dive with plastic seats that sweat by the end of the night—for karaoke. Jones, one of the first openly gay Black men to serve in the Legislature and the CEO of the nonprofit Southern Black Policy and Advocacy Network, told me the event was perfect for civility: to sing in front of crowds, you have to let down your guard, he said, and what better way to encourage free communication across party lines? “I created this to try and find opportunities for us to get to know each other as humans,” Jones told me later. “COVID prevented that last session, and I think that led to more extreme behaviors.”
A week after the Austin ice storms and power outages passed, a dozen or so lawmakers and dozens more staffers packed into Ego’s to sing and drink, or at least to watch singing and drinking. (One staffer told me he was worried that, if he performed, video taken on someone’s phone might get back to his office.) The scene was vaguely somber: there was a sea of suits, and enough pins with Texas seals to stock the Capitol Gift Shop for months. On a small stage in front of a bucolic backdrop featuring livestock and a caricature of the Texas Capitol building, a few brave staffers took the stage. Some were there to perform classics—“Baby Got Back,” “I Will Always Love You,” “Friends in Low Places”—while some younger staffers experimented with the eclectic and noncanonical, such as A$AP Ferg’s “Plain Jane” (which samples Juicy J’s classic “Slob on My Knob”).
Around 9:30 p.m., Jessica González, a Dallas representative who skyrocketed to national fame as one of the faces of last session’s Democratic walkout intended to block the Republican package of voter restrictions, became the first representative to grab the mic. She had a surprising audience. Briscoe Cain, a far-right Republican representative from Deer Park who went to Pennsylvania to assist the Trump campaign’s efforts to overturn the 2020 presidential election results there, and got rewarded back home with the chairmanship of the House Elections Committee, watched from near the bar. Last session, Cain had refused to bring up González’s amendments to the voting bill for consideration. Now, he was all ears.
Directly in front of the stage, a group of legislators congregated to dance, or, rather, to approximate dancing, gyrating like car-wash balloons. Ellen Troxclair, formerly the lone Republican on the Austin City Council and now a freshman representative from a district stretching from the ’burbs to Fredericksburg, staked out a spot right in front of the stage. During her run for office, Troxclair had decried a Gay War on Christmas, disapprovingly tweeting out a children’s book about two gay Santas, and joked on the campaign trail about not approving surgery for her daughter, who wanted “to identify as a unicorn.” Now she enthusiastically cheered as González began to belt “What’s Up” by 4 Non Blondes, a “queer anthem” by an all-lesbian band.
A Democratic staffer told me interactions like these showed how valuable such a gathering could be. He conceded that Democrats would likely not be able to pass any of their priorities this session—and that, to pass their own, Republicans, with their solid majorities in both chambers, had no need to moderate their own views and court Democratic votes. But perhaps, he said, Democrats could tamp down, say, some of the most aggressive anti-LGBTQ measures by showing Republicans that gay-friendly spaces could be kind of fun and welcoming for all.
Another Democratic staffer remarked that Ego’s had become the only place for legislative bipartisanship. There was no room here for the narcissism of large differences: Democrats could never get a friendly audience from some of the same right-wingers who would gladly come to sing or listen to colleagues sing.
The following week, at a second karaoke night brought back by popular demand, Cain was a return guest—he even lent Jones his black cowboy hat for much of the night—and Cain’s wife, Bergundi, sang her own version of “What’s Up.” Republican Representative Steve Toth, an ordained evangelical minister from the Woodlands who carried a holy trinity of far-right bills last session—opposing so-called Critical Race Theory, restricting abortion, and defining gender-affirming care as “child abuse”—entered Ego’s fashionably late, around 9:30, and fist-bumped Jones on his way in. Frisco’s own Jared Patterson, a House Republican who has made a sport this session of filing extreme legislation, including a bill to classify businesses that host drag shows as “sexually oriented” and subject to the same regulations as strip clubs, held court at the pool table. He seemed to be enjoying himself—no matter that he had recently launched a crusade against the city of Austin to trigger the libs, authoring a proposal with no chance of passage to seize legislative control of the city.
In this happy scene, only one person wasn’t warmly welcomed by all — this reporter. A Democratic staffer asked me not to name the representatives who were there, should I write a story about the karaoke nights. He didn’t want to jeopardize the gathering, the lone “safe space” in Austin for cross-party cavorting. Bipartisanship in the Lege, it seems, is only a secret indulgence; to name it, to paraphrase Oscar Wilde, is to limit it.
Once a critical mass of legislators, staffers, and even a few lobbyists filled the room, Jones was called to the mic to perform “Zombie” by the Cranberries. Staffers gathered nearby to film him. Two Republican lawmakers even rushed the stage: Drew Springer, a longtime representative and now senator from Denton, and Carrie Isaac, a representative from Dripping Springs who recently filed a bill to ban polling places on college campuses (and who would later in the night sing Prince’s “Kiss”). As Jones hit the chorus, with its entreaty to end mindless feuds, Isaac danced circles around him, and Springer headbanged effusively.
Jones told me he wasn’t shooting for perfection in his performance—“If you were perfect at karaoke, you’d be a professional singer”—but his rendition of a notoriously difficult song was strong. There had only been one problem, Jones told Isaac as he left the stage. “You kept making me laugh.”