In 1973, a 32-year-old Swede named Jans-Erik Olsson strolled into a Stockholm bank holding a submachine gun. After taking four bank employees hostage, Olsson announced his demands: three million kronor (around $700,000), a getaway car, and the release of an imprisoned friend. Over the ensuing six-day police standoff, Olsson grew increasingly friendly with his hostages. They played poker, drank beer, and talked about their lives. One of them told a reporter that she was “having a rather good time here.” Even after their rescue, the hostages continued to defend Olsson. The psychological identification of hostage and kidnapper became known as Stockholm syndrome.
It’s a familiar condition for Democrats in the Texas Legislature. For two decades, the Republican Party has held commanding majorities in both legislative chambers. Frozen out of power, locked into permanent minority status, many Democratic lawmakers appear to have decided that their best option is to make nice with their political captors. “You really can’t underestimate the psychological damage it does to just constantly be getting beaten down in the Legislature,” Democratic strategist Ed Espinoza told me. “It really grinds on the members. And after a while, the members kind of have to think, ‘Okay, what can I make of this?’ ”
Compromise and bipartisanship are typical elements of any minority party’s strategy. That’s particularly true in Texas, where Democrats control no levers of power and must cut deals to pass their own bills—and where their voters are sometimes more conservative than Democratic voters nationally. “When members take these votes, they’re voting their districts,” Trey Martinez Fischer, the leader of the House Democratic Caucus, told me. “Ultimately, they have to go home and get reelected by their constituents.”
What’s different this session, according to four Democratic political operatives I spoke to, is how bad the bipartisan bills are—and how little Democratic legislators seem to be getting in exchange for their votes. Take, for example, House Bill 900, a Republican-sponsored measure that would ban “sexually explicit material”—which, according to one of the bill’s authors, might include Lonesome Dove—from public school libraries. Opponents of the bill argue that the books targeted by such bans tend to focus on LGBTQ issues. A 2022 report from PEN America, a nonprofit that promotes free speech, found that Texas already has more local book bans than any other state. These bans cast “a chill over the spirit of open inquiry and intellectual freedom that underpin a flourishing democracy,” PEN America CEO Suzanne Nossel wrote in a statement accompanying the report.
Despite intense progressive opposition to HB 900, twelve House Democrats crossed the aisle to support the measure, which passed by a vote of 95 to 52. One of the Democratic defectors, Houston representative Shawn Thierry, even praised the bill on the House floor, saying it would ban sexually explicit books that have “infiltrated” schools. Thierry, who represents a deep blue district whose voters cast ballots for Joe Biden over Donald Trump by an 80–20 margin, told me that she learned about these books from Christin Bentley, a member of the State Republican Executive Committee. In February, Bentley launched the “Filthy Books” campaign. Each weekday, she emails Texas legislators a library book she considers inappropriate for schoolchildren. “There are books that literally tell children that the internet is a great place to explore your kinky sexual fantasies and meet other people,” Thierry said. When I asked if teenagers really needed a book to tell them how to find online pornography, Thierry replied that “not all children are on the internet.” (None of the other eleven Democrats who supported HB 900 responded to interview requests.)
Other controversial bills have also received significant Democratic support. Fifteen Democrats voted for House Bill 17, which allows the state to remove local district attorneys from office for “categorically refusing to prosecute specific criminal offenses.” The measure appears aimed at a handful of Democratic DAs who have deprioritized enforcing the state’s abortion ban. Eight Democrats in the House voted for House Bill 2127, which prevents cities from regulating predatory payday lending, uncontrolled burns, door-to-door sales, and countless other activities.
By all reports, Senate Democrats are even chummier with their Republican colleagues. “The Senate Democrats are nonexistent,” said a Democratic political consultant who asked to remain anonymous to speak freely. “They are furniture.”
Since Republicans hold comfortable majorities in both chambers, these bills would likely have passed with or without Democratic support. In other cases, though, Democrats have helped pass Republican bills that they could have killed. Take House Bill 5, which resurrects the corporate welfare program known as Chapter 313. On paper, the program provides tax incentives to attract companies to relocate to or expand in Texas; in practice, much of the money goes to businesses that would have moved to Texas anyway. The Dallas Morning News editorial board recently slammed Chapter 313, saying, “We need to let 313 fade away, so cities stop taking money from homeowners’ pockets to lure companies that are coming here anyway.” A bipartisan group of legislators killed Chapter 313 during the 2021 legislative session.
Like a zombie shape-shifter, the program is back in the form of HB 5—except now it would exclude renewable-energy companies, which accounted for two-thirds of all projects receiving incentives under Chapter 313. The bill is opposed by libertarian-minded Republicans, including many members of the Texas Freedom Caucus. When it came to the House floor earlier this month, ten Republicans voted against it, one voted present, and three were absent. Had every Democrat joined them, the bill would have died. Instead, just 14 of the 64 House Democrats opposed the legislation, which passed by a vote of 120 to 24. Among the Democrats supporting the bill was Martinez Fischer, who helped secure amendments requiring companies receiving the tax break to pay prevailing wages and provide health insurance. A source close to Martinez Fischer told Texas Monthly that the caucus chair whipped votes for the deal in exchange for a Republican promise to allow debate on a number of renewable-energy bills.
For another example of Democrats helping out Republicans, take House Joint Resolution 132, a constitutional amendment that would prohibit Texas from implementing an individual wealth tax, as progressive lawmakers in California, Illinois, New York, and Washington state have proposed. As with all constitutional amendments, the resolution needed two-thirds of the vote in both legislative chambers to be put on the ballot for citizen approval. Had just 50 of the 64 House Democrats voted against it, the resolution would have failed. Instead 45 opposed it, with 16 Democrats joining their Republican colleagues to help the bill reach the two-thirds threshold. (Three Democrats and one Republican were absent.) The tally was so close that even Speaker Dade Phelan, who doesn’t normally do so, cast a vote.
“When Democratic members break ranks like this, it’s hard to draw a distinction between the good guys and the bad guys,” Espinoza said. “Democrats are fighting to draw a contrast, to say that we believe in these issues and we’re fighting for you. And then a significant portion of the caucus goes off and does its own thing.” A fractured caucus also makes it harder to pick off Republican votes on contentious bills, said Democratic political consultant Glenn Smith. “You have to be tough,” Smith told me. “If you just lay down for some of this stuff, then you’ll never make an important deal ever. That’s just politics.”
Several Democratic operatives expressed frustration with the lack of meaningful opposition to what they consider the Republicans’ increasingly radical agenda. “The Democrats are just laying down and playing dead,” fumed Lon Burnham, a former Democratic state representative turned policy analyst. “There’s not a lot of fighting spirit. It’s just kind of, you know, every man and every woman for themselves. And that’s probably one reason you see all these defections and things.” The past twenty years of Republican domination have driven out many of the most effective Democratic legislators and staffers, Burnham said. “The good people have just given up—retired, left, gone into other lines of work.”
In the House, the job of keeping Democrats united belongs to Martinez Fischer, a veteran San Antonio legislator who was elected caucus chair in December. As leader of the minority party, he has limited leverage. Unlike his Republican counterpart, Speaker Phelan, Martinez Fischer can’t appoint committee chairs or assign leadership positions. When asked about his reaction to the Democratic defections, Martinez Fischer said he tries “not to be judgmental about it. It’s okay for me to be disappointed. It’s okay for me to want to understand why. But I know that there will come another day and another vote, and I may just have that person.”
Martinez Fischer was once known as a political street fighter. In 2021 he helped organize the Democratic walkout over Senate Bill 1, a package of voter restrictions the party argued would disenfranchise Texans of color. House Democrats fled to Washington, D.C., in hopes of killing the bill, but after 38 days, three members of the caucus abruptly returned to Texas. With enough members to establish a quorum, Republicans passed SB 1, although not before dropping the bill’s most controversial provisions, such as banning voting on Sunday.
The walkout’s acrimonious collapse has cast a shadow over this session. University of Houston political scientist Renée Cross told me Democrats have been less confrontational than in the past. “[The walkout] ended up dividing Democrats,” Cross said. “I think there may be an attempt to avoid that same situation from happening [this session].”
Have the Democrats changed tactics, or simply given up? “A lot of these politicians are freelancing, because they’re tired of getting the s— kicked out of them all the time,” Espinoza said. “They’re just thinking to themselves, ‘Well, this is going to pass anyway. What can I get out of it?’ ”
It makes you wonder how much Democrats really want to take back power. Perhaps, like Olsson’s bank hostages, they’re having a rather good time.
Forrest Wilder contributed additional reporting for this story.