State Rep. Leo Pacheco, a San Antonio Democrat, will not go to Austin to be part of Republican efforts to tighten voting restrictions in Texas. Nor will he join dozens of his colleagues in Washington, D.C., where many of them say they will stay through August in a last-ditch effort to block the bill.
Instead, Pacheco, who describes himself as “a short, little, red-headed son of a bitch” and “one of the most most moderate, conservative Democrats on the House floor,” will stay in San Antonio, where he works for an industrial construction firm.
If Republicans want him, they can come get him. Pacheco vowed to fire off calls to his lawyer and TV news crews if, as GOP lawmakers voted to do Tuesday, law enforcement forces him back to Austin.
“I will not go quietly,” Pacheco said. “If I’m under arrest, then fine, take me before a magistrate. You can’t kidnap me and take me to the Capitol without being charged with a crime.”
That’s exactly what Republicans authorized Tuesday morning in the latest fight over the future of democracy in Texas. Remaining House members voted 76-4 to invoke a “call of the House” to send officers after Democratic members. The law also allows the doors of the legislative chambers to be locked and no members to leave without written permission from Speaker Dade Phelan.
On Tuesday, the Texas Senate also passed its version of the voting system rules, Senate Bill 1, in an 18-4 vote along party lines.
The move came after more than 70 House Democrats abandoned the chambers for the second time this year to block the voting legislation, which includes banning drive-thru and temporary voting sites, giving poll watchers more access at election sites, and tightening identification requirements for mail-in ballots, among other measures.
While backers of the legislation say it’s necessary to preserve election security, opponents call the bills “Jim Crow 2.0,” arguing that the changes will throw up more barriers to low-income, Black, and Latino voters. More than 50 people gathered outside the Capitol on Tuesday for a rally expressing support for the Democrats, dozens of whom traveled to Washington, D.C., to urge legislators there to pass laws that would block the Texas GOP’s voting measures.
Texas already has the most stringent voter rules in the U.S., according to one 2020 study. State Rep. Philip Cortez (D-San Antonio) credited local authorities in places like Harris County and Bexar County for initiatives to increase turnout, such as Bexar County’s mass voting centers like the Alamodome and the Shrine Auditorium for early voting.
“It seems like we will take two steps forward in terms of, you know, increasing access to voters, and then all of a sudden, certain members of the opposing party’s leadership are not happy with maybe some of the turnout from some of the areas of Texas,” Cortez said.
Bexar County Elections Administrator Jacque Callanen did not respond to an email or cell phone message seeking an interview about the Legislature’s planned voting changes.
From Bexar County, the delegation that went to D.C. include state Reps. Trey Martinez Fischer, Diego Bernal, Ray Lopez, Barbara Gervin-Hawkins, Ina Minjarez, and Cortez.
In a Tuesday phone call, Cortez said Democrats decided to leave last weekend. Early Sunday, a key House committee voted to advance its version of the bill in a session that went nearly 24 hours, with most of the hundreds who signed up to speak testifying against the bill.
“Even after all that testimony, they struck down every single Democratic amendment that was offered, and they just passed it along party lines at the wee hours of the morning,” Cortez said of House Republicans.
Republicans leaders say Democrats are shirking their duty for an illegal “vacation,” as House GOP Chair Jim Murphy of Houston put it at a Tuesday press conference. On Monday, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick tweeted a photo of Democrats on a bus bound for the Austin airport, a case of beer in one seat.
“We’ve all had jobs that we didn’t like before,” Murphy said. “But the difference between these Democrats and the millions of hardworking Texans is that these people that contribute to our economy cannot grab a six-pack, jump on a private plane, leave work unannounced, and still expect to be paid.”
However, Republicans also acknowledged that they can’t force the return of legislators who left for Washington. Texas law enforcement officers don’t have jurisdiction outside state lines.
“We want them to come back — that’s our message,” Murphy said
Texas lawmakers make $7,200 per year, plus $221 for every day the legislature is in session. Many have full-time jobs, including Cortez, who’s an online instructor for the University of the Incarnate Word.
“It’s not impacting me as much. However, it’s going to impact a lot of my colleagues,” Cortez said. “This is not realistic for us to keep doing this every single time the government calls us back for a special session. That’s why we need the U.S. Congress and the U.S. Senate to act now, because we’re living on borrowed time in Texas.”