Politics

Houston Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee Talks About Her D.C. Arrest, The Push For Federal Voting Laws

U.S. Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, D-Houston, was arrested for civil disobedience outside the Hart Senate Office Building in Washington, D.C., where she was raising awareness for legislation

House Judiciary Committee member Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, D-Texas, holds a pocket-size copy of The Constitution as she questions Acting Attorney General Matthew Whitaker on Capitol Hill, Friday, Feb. 8, 2019 in Washington. Democrats are eager to press him on his interactions with President Donald Trump and his oversight of the special counsel’s Russia investigation.

U.S. Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, D-Houston, has been released from jail after her arrest for civil disobedience on Thursday. The Houston lawmaker was arrested outside of the Hart Senate Office Building, where she was raising awareness for voting rights and pushing for the Senate to pass federal voting protections.

On Friday, Jackson Lee spoke to Houston Public Media about her arrest, the Texas GOP push to tighten voter restrictions, and federal legislation named after the late congressman and civil rights leader John Lewis.

“It was an emotional moment,” Jackson Lee said of the civil disobedience on Thursday. “Because I am certainly an admirer of the late John Lewis, but we were also friends for 27 years in the United States Congress. And I did protest with him. And I did march with him. And I just believe that he would be stunned as to where we are today.”

Read or listen to the entire interview below, edited for clarity.

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Can you just explain a little bit in your own words, what happened Thursday?

So what happened yesterday is that I had just voted on the legislation to provide compensation for the brave men and women in law enforcement who had defended us on Jan. 6. That was very important. But I felt compelled to go to join them right next to the United States Supreme Court, and to lift up the idea that voting is fundamental. It is a constitutional right under the 15th Amendment. And I think that there needs to be an urgency among our colleagues in the United States Senate, and civil disobedience certainly is a tradition of those who fought for civil rights. I’ve engaged in it. But this was so important, because it impacted Texans in the tradition of Lyndon Baines Johnson, who signed this original magnificent Voting Rights Act, and it came about through the bloodshed that occurred on the Edmund Pettus Bridge, and all those that marched. And then I’ve been meeting every week with the Democratic state representatives, they have been working very hard. I was willing to deny myself any conveniences by marching with them protesting, and then obviously, because we did not adhere to instructions were arrested.

There comes a time when the work of a legislator stalls, and a legislature stalls. And I think it is significant that one listens to the crescendo of voices throughout America really crying out for voting rights. And over the last three weeks groups have come to the United States Congress, in the instance of black women leaders and allies and have asked for the Voting Rights Act, and particularly the John Robert Lewis Bill and S1 (the For The People Act) that is now in the United States Senate, a very vital bill, to move. And it is crucial that, one, their voices are heard, and also that they are able to see that members of Congress believe that it is a significant issue as well.

And, of course, that building, the Hart Building, houses the offices of U.S. Senators. One of the reasons why federal voting legislation isn’t passing is because of the filibuster. U.S. Sens. Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema are two people who have been against abolishing the filibuster. What do you think are the chances of this actually happening? And have you had these conversations with anyone in the other chamber?

Absolutely. And I’m always willing to engage. As soon as I finished in civil disobedience, my commitment is to engage with these senators. This filibuster cannot, in essence, surpass in authority, the Constitution. It cannot surpass and be superior to the 15th Amendment. Where we are now is that we’re writing the John Robert Lewis Bill, we’re expecting that, because of our urgency, we’ve now moved that up, meaning the house to the extent that we’re going to be doing this work in August. But if it comes to the floor, along with S1, that has not yet been passed, any attempt to block it through a filibuster or the filibuster rule, and not allow a 51 vote vote is is going to be tantamount, in my view, of violating the Constitution. And I don’t think congressional bodies should violate our Constitution of the United States of America.

The other thing that is extremely important to this fact is that the Senate needs to do its work. It needs to pass the S1 that is the companion to H1. We may have to go to conference. But there’s no doubt that all the meetings I’ve had with the Texas Democratic delegation, one very well-documented meeting on Wednesday with the chairman of Judiciary Committee, where the representative presented really stark stories about voter suppression, including the suppression of young voters in the state of Texas. This is an urgent matter. This is an urgent matter. And so we need to ensure that we have tools to lay out how voting should be for the states that amount to voting integrity and voting for all Americans. Which is, again, another premise that is distorted, that this is just about people of color. It is voting rights for everyone. Once a federal law is in place, no one will be denied that right. And that may be a person that’s disabled, that may be a person that is of a different background from me. But every person that is a citizen has a right to vote. That’s the emphasis. That’s the argument. And that’s the spirit in which I civilly disobeyed peacefully Thursday. I’m fighting for the voting rights of all Americans, as should be the members of the House and Senate.

And let’s talk about the the Texas bill, the proposed Texas bill. You mentioned the state Democrats who have who have gone to Washington. If the filibuster rules are not changed, Greg Abbott has said he will call special session after special session, until these lawmakers return. What’s the end game there when you speak to the state lawmakers there? I mean, eventually the thought is they’re going to have to return.

Well, first of all, I think it should be very important to know that they are working. I can’t presuppose what their next steps will be. They have done a heroic and yeoman’s task of waking up America about the precious right to vote. It saddens me that our governor, who comes from a state of a President — Lyndon Baines Johnson — who in essence was the presidential father of the Voting Rights Act, who managed to bring Republicans and Democrats together. Isn’t it shameful that Gov. Abbott, whether or not he is a Republican or Democrat, does not go go in the tradition of that bipartisan, nonpartisan act and the reauthorization of the Voting Rights Act? For the successive times that it has been reauthorized, at least four times or more, it has been bipartisan. I recall being at the signing with George W. Bush. It was a most engaging and bipartisan commemoration, that signing ceremony, because the Senate had voted 98-0, and as I indicated, the House had voted over 400 votes, for voting rights. Where did it take a detour?

So I think it’s a question for the governor, as to what kind of leadership he wants to give, and it’s only political leadership. It’s only leadership that deals with, “who’s going to win? Who’s going to be in power? And how do I knock out a fair process for redistricting or voting?” So I think next steps are going to be the people of Texas, but next steps will also include an urgency in the United States Congress, and we’re on that pathway right now.

Do you feel confident that this is something that can or will pass in both Houses?

I do. We’re looking at different options with both bills. We are in conversation. And our committee is continuing hearings, were continuing to fact-find, and we believe that we’re reaching to the senators in the urgency. They’re seeing it. They’re not missing the constant engagement of the Texas representatives. They’re not missing the actions of members of Congress, who have subjected themselves to arrest, and they’re not ignoring the constant engagement that is going on as well.

We mentioned that bill in the Texas Legislature. I’m curious what you think of that bill, compared to other legislation that you’re seeing across the country, that people are calling voter suppression.

This bill did not have to be. The Texas democratic representatives wanting to engage in an amendment process to really talk about the values of voting, and the integrity and the importance of a voting system that respects all voters. And the thing, of course, is that the opposition or the creation of SB 7 was not in response to any actions of any of voters in Texas. That was documented by the Secretary of State. Unfortunately, this SB 7 is a product, a child, of the Big Lie, and of course a seemingly a complete ignoring of the tragedy and travesty of Jan. 6. That is not who we should be associated with, and clearly legislatures immediately ignoring the legitimate count of the votes on Jan. 6, but more importantly, responding to the false objections that were made that did not prevail — they’re writing legislation, and they have no basis for it. And there’s no basis to limit mail ballots. There is no basis in their original limit of dealing with the question of the polling places, and the hours. These these are issues that local governments can handle. But because they’re being attacked by states, then the federal government needs to step in, because again, we have a constitutional right to vote. And it does not, it should not in any way be diminished. Whether it’s a state election or a federal election, as an American citizen, you have a right to vote and you’re protected by the Constitution.

There’s a lot of complexities in the bill that clearly are meant to diminish voting, to intimidate voters, and to ensure that voters who were so happy to vote in 2020 don’t show up again. You know, I think you need to win elections fair and square. I think you need to draw districts fairly and squarely. One vote one person, and not try to make sure that they fall in one column or not. Republicans know that the columns that these districts will fall in going forward because of the growth will be districts that will be a people of color. And that causes them to write bills to skew the election process and the redistricting process in a way that is not good for Texas and not good for America.

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Paul DeBenedetto

Paul DeBenedetto

Senior Producer

Paul DeBenedetto is Houston Public Media's senior web producer, writing and editing stories for HoustonPublicMedia.org. Before joining the station, Paul worked as a web producer for the Houston Chronicle, and his work has appeared online and in print for the Chronicle, the New York Times, DNAinfo New York, and other...

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