Texas lawmaker Rafael Anchía was preparing to make a speech he thought would stop a draconian Republican voting bill from passing when he got a text message from Democratic leadership: Leave.
“Members, take your key and leave the chamber discreetly. Do not go to the gallery. Leave the building,” the chair of the Democratic caucus texted members of his party at 10:35 p.m. on May 30.
Anchía’s 14- and 17-year-old daughters had been watching from the gallery when the text arrived, along with his partner, Rebecca Acuna, who ran the Biden campaign in Texas. Anchía locked his desk and took the keys. “I got up from my chair, went over to a side rail, and there were a bunch of Republicans standing there,” Anchía recalled at a bustling breakfast stop in the Dallas district he represents. He took his plate and container of butter and jam, walking me through his path — around the butter, next to the plate, exiting closest to the men’s room for plausible deniability, straight to his car.
Democrats walked out as a last resort, ending the session before Republicans could force, and win, a vote that would have restricted voting in what’s already one of the hardest states to do it. What Anchía and others did was not without risk: Legislators can be arrested for breaking quorum like this. Such walkouts had only happened three other times in Texas history, most recently in 2003, when Democratic legislators fled the state to slow the passage of Republican-drawn redistricting maps that they said, and courts later agreed, were racist.
This time the issue is SB7, widely viewed as among the most restrictive voting laws considered by any legislature this year and the biggest lightning rod yet in a national crackdown on voting rights. It would outlaw creative steps large counties took to manage voting during the pandemic, such as drive-through and 24-hour voting, give much more authority to partisan poll watchers, limit voting hours, and tighten already strict standards for mailed ballots. Coming just as the GOP’s hammerlock on the state has begun to loosen, these changes would have a disparate impact on voters of color, who skew Democratic. During a speech on the 100th anniversary of the Tulsa race massacre, President Biden said, “This sacred right is under assault with an incredible intensity like I’ve never seen,” and went so far as to exhort Democrats to pass federal legislation to combat such measures, underlining how serious the battle has become.
Texas Republicans have continued to make the bill more extreme and are refusing to allow Democrats to inquire about its contents. There is little the Democrats can do to stop it from eventually passing: Republicans have the numbers to force it through. The state’s Republican governor, Greg Abbott, has said he’ll call the legislature back later in the year to deal with it.
Anchía and other Democratic lawmakers have said they are prepared to go further and leave the state altogether in order to stall the bill’s passage as much as they can. It’s a difficult thing to ask representatives to do — especially those who represent more conservative or rural parts of the state, where the 2003 walkout was met with extreme hostility. But this time, Democrats say democracy itself is on the line. “If Abbott wants to bring us back for a special session to attack trans kids and strip voting rights, then maybe that’s a fight we want to have with the eyes of the nation on us,” said Anchía. “I feel like we have to do what it takes to protect our delicate democracy.”
This fight, for Anchía, became more personal as the session progressed. While Texas has always been, well, Texas, he felt the anger of Republicans intensify after Trump lied about the election being stolen from him. “Donald Trump said, ‘I am running, and I am appealing to white Americans. White America, I know you don’t trust these mongrels. I’m your guy,’” said Anchía, whose father immigrated from Franco’s Spain and whose mother immigrated from Mexico. Now, Anchía said, Texas Republicans don’t even pretend to appeal to minorities, a particularly stinging development for the head of the Mexican American Legislative Caucus.
That Anchía wound up in Texas at all was an accident. His father had taken him to a college-recruitment event in his native Miami. But it was 1985, and no one had thought to send a Spanish-speaking recruiter except Dallas’s Southern Methodist University. Anchía’s father — based on this and his determined love for the Dallas Cowboys — decided this was the school for his son. Later, looking around the perfectly manicured campus, Anchía would see a school “straight out of central casting,” with beautiful women, tree-lined boulevards, and columned buildings. But Latinos weren’t part of it; they were working in the cafeterias and tulip beds. “I said to my mom, ‘Los latinos están pisados aquí.’”
The Latinos are underfoot here.
More than 35 years have passed, and Anchía is a successful attorney and rising star in the Texas legislature, but it still sometimes feels, he says, like Latinos in the state are being stepped on.
In 2010, two-thirds of new residents in Texas were Latino, but the maps drawn by the Republican-dominated House cracked and packed Latinos into districts and even eliminated seats long held by Latino representatives. “They all went to white Republicans,” he said. “How can you be in a place where the majority of the growth is driven by Latinos, and you eliminate four Hispanic seats in redistricting? And Republicans are good with that! They are like ‘proportionality’? ‘Fairness’? Whatever. Bye! Doesn’t matter.’”
In 2020, Democrats were confident of their chances to take the Texas House. They fell short, and Texas Republicans interpreted their slim victory as a mandate. “They were just so emboldened after the election,” he said. After House Republicans had appeased Democrats by amending the voting bill to make it less severe, the bill passed the House. But the more extreme Senate bill also passed, and the bill went to committee to resolve the differences between the versions, a process only Republicans were invited to. Behind closed doors, Republicans tossed out their sops to Democrats and added 20 pages of stringent voting requirements. This surprise was part of a pattern, claimed Anchía, who said Republicans had been making “crazy town” policies their main priorities.
“One of my favorite words is staccato,” he said, drawing out the word. “It was just — boom! Boom! Red-meat issues getting passed out of committee. And then more — bang! Bang!”
Sitting in the restaurant, Anchía looked tired, and the hope that things might change for the better for Democrats seemed distant. “Today’s an election day in Dallas. Have you heard about anybody voting or seen a little “I Voted Today” sticker?” He looked around at the full restaurant and found no stickers. “Nope.”
“We have to get people excited,” he said. While the voters in Georgia viscerally understood the state’s history of racist and exclusionary voting policies, allowing activists to effectively turn out voters and encourage registration by portraying the law as an attempt to rob them of their ballots. Anchía said Texas’s voters — many of them new citizens and young people — don’t have a personal appreciation for the decades-long struggle for the ballot. “In Georgia, it’s in their DNA. It’s baked in,” he said.
The special session to be convened by Abbott will be a test of the Democrats’ ability to get and keep attention on voting rights — to come up with a consistent, simple message that will “get people to drive across this massive state and advocate,” he said. He’s optimistic that the renewed interest in Texas in the national news and Beto O’Rourke’s recently launched series of rallies to combat the law will focus attention on the legislature in time for the special session.
That the alternative is leaving the state, potentially for months, is an unpleasant thought for Anchía, who knows how extreme such a move would be. But just in case, he’s making tentative arrangements. “It’s too early to tell if we’ll have to leave,” he said. “But I have friends in low places.”
Jessica Huseman is the editorial director of Votebeat, a non-profit newsroom covering elections and voting.