Texas state Rep. Gene Wu, D-Houston, was among at least 50 House Democrats who fled the state on Monday to stop GOP-backed bills from passing during the special legislative session. Republican lawmakers, like state Rep. Mayes Middleton, R-Wallisville, have roundly criticized that decision.
Both representatives shared their opinion of the walkout with host Craig Cohen during Wednesday’s Houston Matters.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Joining us is state Rep. Gene Wu of Houston, one of the democrats who broke quorum. According to a statement from State House Democratic leaders, the Republican led election bills were dangerous to Texans’ right to vote. How so?
Gene Wu:This is one of the things that Republicans have been doing for years. They figured out that if you just outright ban black and brown people from voting, that gets you in trouble with the courts. But, what they’ve learned to do over the years is find little things here and there, and they poke at them, and they pull at them. And they make it seem like they’re not doing anything. But if you do enough of those things, you put enough small hurdles in front of people, it keeps people in minority communities, it keeps people in poor communities, it keeps people in immigrant communities, from being able to vote because there are too many barriers. And if you are unable to exercise your right, you might as well not have the right.
You’re among the state representatives in Washington right now. As you tweeted, for you, “it’s time to go annoy Congress.” What exactly do you want Congress to do about this?
Wu: One of the only things we can do here is bring attention to this issue, and I think we’ve done that. Look, we can’t take credit for President Biden’s speech yesterday, but I think we are the catalyst. What we did was a catalyst for changing the conversation in Washington, D.C. to bring light to this really important issue of our voting rights. And we had an hour-long meeting with Vice President Harris. I don’t think these things would have happened if we didn’t do what we did. And now this is not just a Texas issue. This is now a national and somewhat even an international issue.
Texas House Republicans Tuesday voted to find and, if necessary, arrest absent Democrats, like yourself, to get you back to the House floor. Of course, since you’ve fled the state, you are out of state jurisdiction. Any thoughts on that procedural vote and what it says?
Wu: You know what? I would be proud, I would be honored, I would be privileged to be arrested and go to jail to fight for Texans’ right to vote. That is not a joke. I’m not trying to bluster. I would be honored to be imprisoned in order to protect Texans’ right to vote. This is not a game. For a lot of us in the minority community, this is life and death. If we are silenced, if we can no longer express our opinion, have our right to vote, then we are invisible to the rest of society, we’re invisible to the government. They can firmly ignore us and to just treat us like dirt as they would want to do.
I should point out that you would not be imprisoned, but sent back to the House floor, unless you characterize that as imprisonment.
Wu: That’s not what the governor has stated. The governor says that once they catch us, they’re gonna corral us and keep us in cages. So I can only take that as meaning imprisonment. However they want to frame it, if they want to come get me, come get me. If they want to arrest me, come arrest me. It would be my honor.
With us now is Galveston-area Republican state representative Mayes Middleton, who represents the Texas 23rd district in the state House. What were you hoping to accomplish most this special session before Democrats walked out?
Mayes Middleton: We had a lot of critical items on the special session call. Fixing the teacher retirement system, providing a 13th check to our retired teachers, addressing out-of-control rising property taxes, you know, people are literally being taxed out of their home. Securing our border, protecting public safety by helping stop violent felons from being released from prison on no-cash bail. We have a lot of things on the agenda. And unfortunately, we can’t do any of them as long as the Democrats have fled the state and fled the duty they were elected to do.
Were you at all surprised that this proposed voting legislation resulted in those democrats leaving the state?
Middleton: Well, I have to say, I’m kind of confused because with SB 7, which was the bill on election integrity in the regular session, the two main items that Democrats disagreed with was the Sunday 1 p.m. voting, and also the ability to overturn elections. That’s not in House Bill 3 right now. At the end of the day, being elected to the Texas House is about making public policy, and part of that job is policy disagreement. So when we have these policy disagreements, we don’t just get to run away. That’s not what our constituents put us in office to do — to run away when we disagree. We need to show up for work and get the job done. And by the way, they’re still getting paid in Washington, D.C. right now, both their salary and their per diem, which is a daily stipend even though they’re not at work.
Although technically, none of you would get paid starting Sept. 1, or at least none of your staff would right? Because the governor vetoed the payment for the state legislative branch in the upcoming budget.
Middleton: Well, everybody is going to get paid as long as the state representatives in Washington, D.C. show up for work and come back to work. And, you know that they’re not going to be arrested. Rep. Wu has been in the chamber for a long time. He’s very familiar with the House rules. All a call of the House does is compel them to come back to the House chamber and get to work. And that’s it. And you know, tell me another job where someone gets to grab cases of beer, leave during the middle of the day, hop on a private plane to skip out on work, and then still expect to be paid.
What have you heard from your fellow Republican state lawmakers?
Middleton: Well, we’re essentially waiting. We’re here in Austin ready to go to work. And I know the governor said he’ll call as many special sessions as it takes, all the way up until January 2023, which is when the next regular legislative session is scheduled to begin, in order to get the job done. And it’s really that simple. This is just about showing up to work and getting the job done for the state of Texas. There are so many items on this special session call that we owe it not just to our constituents, but to all Texans to get done. And this is such a simple issue and I don’t understand why the Democrats have chosen to not show up for work, because they have fled the state before. But it’s been over redistricting. As far as I know, this is the very first time in history that they have refused to show up for work over policy disagreements, not redistricting.