State representative Carl Sherman sat in the last row of the private charter jet, brooding about having to miss celebrating his wedding anniversary for the first time in 34 years. He was bound for Washington, D.C., with 50 other Democratic legislators, making a risky, high-profile attempt to derail a voter-restriction bill they regarded as voter suppression. Without a quorum in the Texas House—which requires 100 of its 150 members to be present to conduct business—the Republican-led chamber would stand idle. Stay gone for 26 days, and the special legislative session, which Greg Abbott had convened in early July, would draw to a close.
The flight to D.C. gave Sherman, a 55-year-old Church of Christ pastor from the Dallas County city of DeSoto, plenty of time to think about what he was leaving behind—and to ponder the purpose of their journey. In realpolitik terms, he understood the stakes: he and his colleagues probably couldn’t maintain a quorum break indefinitely. Abbott had pledged to call as many special sessions as necessary to pass his “election integrity” bill. New federal voting-rights legislation was vital. Democrats on Capitol Hill and in the White House needed to understand the urgency, and who better to deliver that message than Democrats from Texas, with its low voter turnout, strict voter ID laws, and perpetually defeated minority party? It was a tall order.
Sherman took inspiration from earlier civil rights activists whose missions had also seemed doomed at the time, and he steeled himself by recalling others who’d undertaken journeys with similar motivations. “You know, this is just like Frederick Douglass having to go to Abraham Lincoln to implore him to have some sensitivity,” he told me, referencing the abolitionist who in August 1863 visited the sixteenth president at the White House to beseech him to provide equal pay for Black soldiers fighting in the Union Army.
Others on the plane were making similar family sacrifices. One row in front of Sherman sat Erin Zwiener, a 35-year-old Democratic state representative from Driftwood, in the Hill Country, who brought her luminous 3-year-old daughter, Lark, with her. Across the aisle was Diego Bernal, a 45-year-old attorney from the West Side of San Antonio, who had left his nearly 4-year-old daughter back home with his ex-wife. He, like Sherman, was turning to history for inspiration. During the flight, he read The Sword and the Shield, a dual biography of Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr. Representative Trey Martinez Fischer, who was also on the flight, had given the book to every member of the House during his short-lived campaign for Speaker last fall.
By the time they arrived at Dulles International Airport, outside D.C., the Democrats were bubbling with excitement, if a bit dazed about their sudden change of circumstance. They were now at the top of the news. Abbott had just gone on an Austin television station to say that upon their eventual return, the Democrats would be arrested and “cabined inside the Texas Capitol until they get their job done.” Chris Turner, who chairs the House Democratic Caucus, framed their decision to leave Texas as an attempt “to save democracy.”
As Turner finished speaking, Richard Peña Raymond, of Laredo, the longest-serving Latino in the House, pointed his right index finger skyward. “We shall overcome,” he said, and a few members of the caucus, Sherman among them, broke into a chorus of the civil rights anthem. It was a bracing start for an audacious and historic undertaking. When they fled Texas for D.C., House Democrats took on an unfamiliar role. The caucus was used to begging Republicans in Austin for scraps. Now they’d be in the nation’s capital, begging national Democrats to help their cause—all the while fending off personal and political pressures to return home. Whether they could do more than stall the passage of the Texas voter bill was uncertain, but lacking power at home, they felt they had to try something. As Sherman told me, “In mid-air we were transformed from being citizen legislators to citizen activists.”
The first morning in Washington, after a press conference in the sweltering heat, the Democrats began their lobbying. Twenty or so members of the delegation met with Senate majority leader Charles Schumer, who promised another vote on federal voting rights legislation before the upper chamber recessed in August—even though he and everyone present knew that Senate Republicans planned to block the bill through a filibuster. In the afternoon, the Democratic delegation had an unscheduled hour-long meeting with Vice President Kamala Harris, whom Joe Biden has assigned to lead voting rights efforts. She praised the legislators as walking in the footsteps of Frederick Douglass and the suffragettes. The president had just delivered an address on voting rights in Philadelphia. He described the effort to enact state-level voter restriction legislation as the “most significant test of our democracy since the Civil War.”
Many Texas Democrats felt emboldened. They were getting lots of attention. But nobody knew how to convert that publicity into tangible progress. Federal legislation could easily pass the Democratic-controlled U.S. House. But in the Senate, it would face a Republican-led filibuster. The only way to overcome that obstacle would be to change the rules regarding filibusters—a move opposed by two Senate Democrats, Joe Manchin, of West Virginia, and Kyrsten Sinema, of Arizona, as well as Biden.
But Texas Democrats weren’t certain how long they could hold out in D.C. waiting for Biden and Congress to act. Bernal, who had stood shoulder to shoulder with his colleagues during the morning press conference, sat on a bench afterward looking somewhat forlorn. He told me he had no way of knowing how the quorum break would go. “I don’t know that I’ve got twenty days here,” he said. “My kid is pissed I’m gone.” He worried that she might get used to Daddy not being around.
On top of the personal cost, some were considering the political risk of being out of state indefinitely. Zwiener told me, the night after the meetings with Schumer and Harris, that for most Democrats who’d traveled to D.C., including Bernal and Sherman, reelection was a virtual certainty. One consequence of GOP efforts to gerrymander the state has been the packing of Democratic voters into certain districts—predominantly Latino and Black ones. But a dozen or so in the caucus hold seats that Republicans had crafted to favor their candidates and that Democrats such as Zwiener had surprisingly flipped in 2018. Those representatives knew they had to closely consider the optics of “not doing their jobs,” as GOP critics put it. “We’re willing to take a pretty big risk,” said Zwiener, who won her last race by a single percentage point. “But it doesn’t mean we’re not thinking about home and how to handle this.” The first few days after Zwiener left for Washington, a coordinated group of critics began barraging her office with phone calls.
Quorum-break decorum became especially important for those vulnerable Democrats. Their critics were hungry for any morsel of gossip that could undermine the caucus’s cause. The first viral image of the Democrats’ D.C. expedition was that of a pack of Miller Lite that they’d taken with them on the bus to the airport, and which GOP representatives in Texas presented as evidence that their counterparts were unserious. #MillerDs became the meme—a reference to the Killer Ds of 2003, who decamped to Ardmore, Oklahoma, in a failed attempt to defeat a Republican redistricting plan. Once in D.C., members had learned their lesson, and they carefully avoided even dipping a toe in the hotel pool for fear of a leaked snapshot that might suggest that maybe this was a vacation after all. That is, until the end of the session, when two members of the caucus—Julie Johnson, of Farmers Branch, and Jessica González, of Dallas—took a long-planned trip to Portugal, two other Democrats in D.C. told Texas Monthly. (“No one has shown proof. These are rumors, period. End of story,” González texted the San Antonio Express-News.)
While Johnson and González joined meetings via Zoom, Republicans in Texas delighted in the news.
By the end of the first week in D.C., the goodwill the Democratic delegation had enjoyed began to sour. On Friday evening, members of the group boarded a charter bus that was to take them from their hotel to an Ethiopian restaurant, as conservative protesters chanted for them to go home and do their jobs. The Democrats’ departure was delayed for about twenty minutes, after which their leaders asked them to head back to the hotel. It turned out that one caucus member, Bobby Guerra, who had returned to Texas for surgery, had tested positive for COVID. All of the Democrats were fully vaccinated—a precondition for participating in the Washington expedition. Ultimately, five other members also tested positive, and while none got very ill, the delta variant had infected their narrative. “Who says God doesn’t have a sense of humor,” Donald Trump Jr. tweeted over an image of the smiling, maskless Texans on their flight to D.C. He added, “#getwellsoon.”
The outbreak also spoiled other plans. On the day the COVID story broke, Sherman was set to speak at the “Good Trouble Candlelight Vigil for Democracy” at Black Lives Matter Plaza, a block from the White House. It was the one-year anniversary of the death of Georgia congressman and civil rights icon John Lewis, and the organizers of the vigil were using the occasion to demand the passage of two pieces of federal voting legislation. “If fighting for the sanctity of democracy is a crime,” Sherman said, joined by a handful of other House Democrats who had also tested negative, “then lock us up.” It was a moving speech. But the plaza was only half full.
The Texas Democrats’ pleas also weren’t reaching Biden, apparently. “We’re almost two weeks here,” Raymond complained during a July 22 caucus meeting over Zoom, “and I don’t know how else to say it, but I’m at the point where I’m pissed off that Joe Biden, our president, is going to use COVID as an excuse not to meet with us, even though all of us in here have tested negative for three days in a row.”
The previous night, Biden had appeared in Ohio for a CNN town hall. He had deemed Republican voting bills across the country “Jim Crow on steroids,” and he agreed with host Don Lemon’s characterization of the filibuster as a “relic of Jim Crow.” But he offered no battle plan. Biden said that he opposed doing away with the filibuster and that doing so would “throw the entire Congress into chaos.” Raymond couldn’t understand Biden’s inaction. The president would be in deep trouble if he didn’t prevent assaults on voting rights. Raymond outlined a disaster scenario: Republicans would win the U.S. House in 2022 and deliver the presidency to their candidate in 2024 by overruling the Electoral College results.
As Biden seemed hesitant to act, the delegation began to fray. “There’s definitely people that have questions as to whether [heading to D.C.] was the right call,” Zwiener told me while walking Lark home from day care. While still down with the mission, she was ready for the quorum break to be over. “We left to kill the bill. We left to give Congress thirty days to take action. We’ve done our part,” she said. “We hope we’ve told our story. We hope we’ve given [Congress] a shot in the arm of courage.” And then, a moment later: “Munchkin, don’t hit the car with a stick,” she told Lark. “You can hit the tree with a stick; that’s fine.”
Some members of the caucus wondered if it was time to negotiate with Texas Republicans. Philip Cortez, a representative from San Antonio whom House Speaker Dade Phelan had made chairman of the Urban Affairs Committee, returned to Austin on July 21 to start the dealmaking. The caucus couldn’t afford too many more defections—if eight members returned to the House, the Republicans would have a quorum. But the Cortez drama was short-lived. He was back in D.C. four days later, saying the talks had proved fruitless. Phelan issued a civil warrant for Cortez’s arrest. The warrant was meaningless outside Texas, but it sent a clear message to members of the caucus: Don’t try to negotiate again.
Their third week in Washington, Democrats’ hopes were invigorated when a House subcommittee devoted to civil rights issues scheduled a hearing for July 29 about “the assault on voting rights in Texas.” Three members of the caucus were invited to testify. Senfronia Thompson, of Houston, the dean of House Democrats, came of age during the Jim Crow era, in which laws discriminated against Black Americans, including at the polls. She was an obvious choice to represent the caucus. So too was Nicole Collier, a Fort Worth lawmaker who chairs the Texas Legislative Black Caucus. To strike racial, gender, and geographic balance, Bernal, a Latino from San Antonio, was chosen as the third representative. A former attorney for the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund who has also produced four albums of instrumental hip-hop, Bernal had impressed his colleagues with his ability to explain complex policy in accessible terms. As he self-deprecatingly put it, if you thought of the House Democratic Caucus as a Swiss Army knife, he was neither the blade nor the scissors but instead “the weird little bottle opener that once in a while is super handy.”
At the outset, Bernal had been skeptical about what the caucus could accomplish in D.C. But the hearing changed his mind. Now, for the first time since leaving Texas, the House Democrats were part of the official business of Congress. Just before eight the next night, Bernal tweeted a readout of a meeting Biden had held that day with Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Schumer, in which the three agreed on the “moral imperative” of passing voting rights legislation.
“Movement,” Bernal wrote in his single-word tweet.
Of course, there was also movement back home, where Abbott indicated he was ready to call a second special legislative session. The day after Bernal testified before Congress, the Democratic caucus met for five hours behind closed doors to discuss what to do next. The consensus, according to one member, was to try to break quorum again at the next special session. But the caucus was split down the middle on exactly how. In a test vote, 26 members wanted to stay in Washington, where they could continue to lobby the Senate until it recesses, while 25 wanted to go back to Texas and try to foil the session from there, a far trickier proposition, the particulars of which the caucus had yet to devise.
Last Thursday, Abbott called for a second special session, to start two days later. On Friday morning, the last day of the first special session in Austin and the anniversary of President Lyndon B. Johnson’s signing of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, thirty members of the delegation gathered at what is known as the Senate swamp, a staging area for press conferences outside the U.S. Capitol. The 26 days had rushed by. With the second special session imminent, the Democrats had to figure out what to do next—should they stay or should they go?—and also make sense of their almost-month in D.C. “We stuck together,” Thompson said. “We didn’t think we could do it. But we did.” They claimed that the chances of passing federal voting rights legislation had improved since their arrival.
Oregon senator Jeff Merkley joined the press conference, credited the Texas delegation with keeping voting rights in the national conversation, and said that before the Senate recesses it would vote on a new voting rights bill. Though it would have the support of all fifty Democratic senators, its progress would then be scuttled by a Republican filibuster. Merkley pledged that when the Senate reconvenes in September, the Democrats will find a way to overcome the filibuster and pass the bill.
For the Texas Democrats, that likely won’t be soon enough. Even if U.S. Senate Democrats make good on Merkley’s promise, the Texas House caucus will have to break quorum again if it wants to deny the passage of the elections bill before Congress acts. Sherman, who battled the impulse to return to assist his mother, who had a bad fall a few weeks ago, is among the 26 who stayed in Washington. Zwiener left D.C. but won’t say where she is now. Bernal also hasn’t revealed his location, but he texted a cryptic message to Texas Monthly: “No such thing as short history. Just short moments. We made both and we aren’t done. Let’s see what happens.”
The House did not have enough members in Austin over the weekend to conduct business when the special session convened. But on Monday, four Democrats who had been in D.C. showed on the floor, leaving the body just five members short of a quorum. Most prominent among the returnees was Joe Moody, a well-liked El Pasoan and a powerful symbol of the bipartisan traditions in the Texas House that are now at risk. He had served as Speaker pro tem for years, but on the fourth day of the quorum bust, Phelan stripped him of the office. Two other members of the El Paso delegation also returned, as did James Talarico, who won his purple district outside Austin by 3 percentage points in 2018 and 2020.
When I talked to Sherman two weeks into the Washington stay, he said the caucus had grown into something more akin to a congregation. Late the day he testified before Congress, Bernal similarly spoke about the unity of the Democrats. “This is one of those things where, no matter what happens to us later in life, we’re gonna see each other and remember this time and be bonded by it.”
But those bonds have already become strained. Members who remained in D.C. felt betrayed by those who’d returned to the floor. Gina Hinojosa, a representative from Austin, tagged those returning four in a tweet, saying that they’d be complicit should Republicans pass a bill. Ana-Maria Ramos, a representative from Dallas County, was more blunt in a tweet of her own: “you all threw us under the bus today! Why?”
Reached by phone Monday evening, Sherman, ever the pastor, offered a biblical metaphor to describe his four colleagues: With the Red Sea in front of them and Pharaoh’s army in pursuit, some of the children of Israel had become delusional with fear, believing they should not have left Egypt. But most members, he said, aren’t ready to cast aside their new roles as emboldened activists. He remains confident their quorum break will be successful, resting his faith on something many activists but few legislators would credit: “the evidence of things not seen.”