Once able to boast one of the most powerful lawmakers in the state — former Republican House Speaker Joe Straus — San Antonio’s 10-member House delegation held just a single committee chair in the 2021 legislative session.
When those lawmakers return to Austin in January they’ll still have few connections to leadership, which makes committee assignments and chooses which bills advance in a body controlled by Republicans. But one of their own will lead Democrats’ efforts to influence the process and stop legislation they don’t like: Trey Martinez Fischer.
The incoming chair of the Texas House Democratic Caucus is a practicing lawyer with decades of experience navigating the Texas House. He’s also a San Antonio native with close ties to city government, where his wife, Elizabeth Provencio, is an assistant city attorney.
The City of San Antonio is gearing up to fight a host of bills aimed at limiting local control, as well as take a more aggressive approach against the GOP’s social agenda.
“When you think about some of the issues San Antonio is prioritizing for this session, I think in my role as the Democratic caucus chair, I’ll have the ability to promote that agenda with like-minded mayors and other cities, and help leverage that support with other members of our Democratic delegation,” Martinez Fischer said in a December interview.
“Hopefully, San Antonio’s priorities will become our state’s priorities,” he said.
Martinez Fischer was first elected to represent Texas’ 116th District in 2000 when he was 29 years old. He left briefly to wage unsuccessful campaigns for the state Senate in 2015 and 2016 and easily reclaimed his House seat in 2018.
His new role includes recruiting and fundraising for the House Democratic caucus, which lost members in the November midterm election. Republicans control the Texas House with a 86-64 majority headed into the session, which begins Jan. 10.
“I’ve been through 10 sessions, so I sort of have a feel for the landscape,” Martinez Fischer said. “I served in the legislature in 2011 when there were 101 Republicans, so I know what hyperpartisanship is like.”
The job also includes setting strategy for the House Democrats, who fled the state to break quorum during the 2021 session in a failed attempt to stop a GOP-led voting law.
After that session Martinez Fischer was among a handful of Democrats eyeing other opportunities. He considered running in Texas’ 35th Congressional District after U.S. Rep. Lloyd Doggett decided to run in a newly created Austin district.
“I am not Pollyanna-ish,” Martinez Fischer said of the upcoming session. “If [Republicans] want to lock the door and go around the clock having a cultural war, or scoring cheap, partisan political points, I’ll show up. I’ll participate in that. But only after we get the people’s business done.”
The San Antonio Report spoke with Martinez Fischer as he prepared for the upcoming session.
San Antonio Report: Has San Antonio suffered from a lack of clout in Austin since former House Speaker Joe Straus retired?
Trey Martinez Fischer: I think there is something to be said for having the home court advantage. For 10 years we sort of had an inside perspective when it came to the Legislature, in having a speaker that we could find on Aisle 5 at H-E-B.
I don’t think we’ve lost clout. I think we’ve lost some experience not having Lyle Larson, who was a chairman and a thought leader on water and natural resources. … We’ve lost experience in [former] Rep. [Ina] Minjarez, who chose to run for county judge and was our appropriator and served a key role on finance. And then of course, her predecessor, [Bexar County Commissioner] Justin Rodriguez — not her predecessor in her district, but her predecessor in terms of appropriations — he delivered for San Antonio. So yeah, we have some gaps to fill to make sure that the needs of San Antonio are met.
SAR: What’s your pitch to keep other members from leaving, given how challenging the last session was for Democrats? How will this session be different?
TMF: What I think our job is, and what my No. 1 job is, is to keep the policy down the center lane. If we’re looking at policy that’s right down the middle, then we can be both bipartisan and pragmatic. We can find solutions to complex problems.
What I would tell somebody who’s a Democrat who doesn’t think that we have the political advantage, is: There’s only one way to get things to swing from the hard right to the center, and that’s by putting up a robust fight and finding members who are willing to fight and take principled positions to move the policy spectrum back to where it needs to be. It’s not just offensive. Some of the best sports programs in the country are successful because they have a good offense and a good defense.
SAR: After Texas Democrats performed well in the 2018 midterm election, the 2019 session was pretty collegial. After they got wiped out in the 2020 election, the 2021 session was rough for Democrats. What do you expect this session to be like based on the November midterm, where Democrats did well nationally but Gov. Greg Abbott was reelected by roughly 12 percentage points?
TMF: Based on my experience, I would say we have 27 billion reasons to have a good session. We [the state] have a lot of money in the bank. We can actually help people. What I have found over time is that there’s no shortage of good ideas. There’s always a shortage of resources to bring those ideas to life. We now have an opportunity to invest in our state, invest in its people and really help people that can use help.
SAR: Last session Democrats broke quorum to try to stop new voting rules that were ultimately signed into law anyway. What tools do you have left once you’ve exhausted the nuclear option?
TMF: I don’t think the rules are ever exhausted. The rules are there. They become exhausted when the rules are changed. And unfortunately, this particular rule (stopping legislative action by breaking the quorum) happens to be embedded in our Texas Constitution. Which means you’re more likely to get struck by lightning than you are to remove it.
That being said, it isn’t a nuclear option. And there are other options. I think it’s our job and it’s my job to continue is to remind people why we’re there. There’s a whole lot we agree on as Republicans and Democrats when it comes to moving this state forward. And I think that if we prioritize on working on those issues that bring us together, then we’re always going to think twice about working on issues that will divide us and separate us. And so we need to keep the focus where it needs to be.
We need to not fall for these dog-whistle politics, where we pull out the bright shiny object, people lose focus and we go to that place where there is no room and no appetite for pragmatism or bipartisanship.
SAR: What is your relationship like with House Speaker Dade Phelan?
TMF: We get along pretty good. I don’t have anything bad to say about him. I’ve had the opportunity to work with him. But I recognize that he’s under a tremendous amount of pressure from his caucus to be to be first a Republican, and secondly a speaker. I think the thing I can do the most to help him is to remind him that he is the speaker of the House and not the speaker of the Republican Party.
SAR: What’s the biggest difference between you and your predecessor, Rep. Chris Turner (D-Grand Prairie)?
TMF: I think Chris did a wonderful job as a Democratic leader. We have different styles. Specifically, I think we engage differently and we just have different life experiences. I’m a Latino from inner-city San Antonio, and I represent a very diverse minority community. … I have a little bit different perspective on things. And so I think I’ll bring that experience to the forefront. And I’ll use my strengths and my talents as a lawyer who advocates for a living to advocate for the needs of Texans who sometimes don’t have a seat at the table.
SAR: Do you think this session will continue Republicans’ war on cities?
TMF: Yes. I’m not sure that it’s a war against cities, it’s more a war against Democratic mayors and cities. There are a number of policy proposals that seem to apply only to big cities, and there are policies that don’t seem to apply to small cities, or small counties. [For example, he pointed to a 2019 tax law that capped the amount of revenue large cities can collect, but made an exception for taxing entities with a population of less than 30,000 people.]
I don’t think that people in San Antonio do things differently than people in Mineral Wells, Texas, but for some reason, we have a different set of rules for people who live in big cities.