A Bexar County representative who joined a Democratic exodus to Washington, D.C., to block Republican election law changes has returned to Austin to negotiate with GOP leaders.

State Rep. Philip Cortez (D-San Antonio) told the San Antonio Report he met twice with State Rep. Andrew Murr, a Republican from the Hill Country town of Junction and the lead sponsor of the House version of the GOP election bill. Cortez said he was the only Democrat returning from Washington to take part in the bipartisan talks.

“A small group of Democrats in D.C. asked me to return to the [state] Capitol to begin formal discussions and negotiations to improve the bill and make it less harmful,” Cortez said Wednesday. “I returned to the Capitol yesterday, and I began those meetings yesterday. They’re going to continue all week to see if we can work on this and get this get this improved.”

Cortez was originally one of the 56 House members and nine senators who left to break quorum and stop Texas Republicans from passing voting changes that would empower partisan poll watchers at election sites and tighten restrictions on 24-hour voting, drive-thru voting, and mail ballot ID rules, among other changes. Republicans have said the changes are needed to prevent fraud; Democrats say they suppress the Black and Latino vote in Texas.

In a prepared statement, Murr said that he and Cortez had spoken while Cortez was in Washington and had “very frank, candid discussions about the concerns he and his Democrat colleagues have with House Bill 3.” HB3 is currently stuck in the House; the Senate version of the bill passed on July 13.

“Rep. Cortez is now back in Austin and we will continue to have serious, thoughtful conversations about House Bill 3,” Murr continued. “Phil Cortez and I will likely never see eye-to-eye on this election legislation, but he will have a seat at the table to fight for his district because he is willing to defend their beliefs in the chamber of the Texas House.”

Cortez, who was first elected in 2012 to represent his western Bexar County district and serves chair of the House Urban Affairs Committee, said described Murr as “a close friend of mine” and “someone I respect.”

“We’ve served together for many years now,” Cortez, adding that his fellow Democrats “felt that I was the best to come down and have positive realistic conversations about improving this bill.”

However, Cortez said his return to Texas doesn’t necessarily mean a compromise is possible.

“I actively participated in the quorum break,” Cortez said. “Now, there’s an opportunity for discussions and potential compromises. And I’m willing to take that risk, come back to the Capitol to lead those and hopefully have something that could be presented to the House that would not have some of the most potentially harmless harmful effects of the bill that were initially proposed.”

Brendan Gibbons

Brendan Gibbons is the San Antonio Report's environment and energy reporter.