SAN ANTONIO — State Rep. Trey Martinez Fischer may not see himself as a political pugilist, but a 2009 San Antonio Current cover photo, in which the San Antonio Democrat dons boxing gloves, shows otherwise.
A framed copy of the photo and the accompanying story welcome visitors to his downtown San Antonio law office.
“I say what I mean, and I am very clear. I don’t try to nuance things or parse my sentiments,” said Martinez Fischer, a high school linebacker-turned-lawyer-and-lawmaker.
First elected in 2000, Martinez Fischer chairs the Mexican American Legislative Caucus. He is seen by many political observers as the Democrats’ heavy hitter, a spoiler focused on shooting down the majority Republicans’ agenda. But he insists that he just speaks out on issues he is passionate about, and that he is not trying to take over as the lead voice for House Democrats.
“I see how people can pay more attention to folks in the Legislature, but in terms of any one person, any one personality that is the mouthpiece or the microphone of the party, I don’t think that is the case with me,” he said recently at his law office.
He says the Texas Democratic Party is well stocked with leaders, naming colleagues he insists are well-versed in areas he is not. He said that as the leader of the Mexican American Legislative Caucus, he helps advance the group’s mission to advocate for Texas Latinos, but that the Democratic Party overall is more complex. He says his speeches and points of order are a result of his expertise on issues like voter ID and redistricting, while others take the lead on women’s health and the budget.
“What is often lost and overlooked is that there are so many issues, and not everyone gets the recognition they deserve,” he said. “And that doesn’t mean that they are any less of a leader.”
State Rep. Jessica Farrar, D-Houston, the elected chairwoman of the House Democratic Caucus, said Martinez Fischer is a vital part of the team and has served the caucus well on various issues.
When asked if she felt his style threatened her role as leader, she said she did not see it that way.
“As a leader in the House, I serve all members. I don’t see it all about me,” she said. She added that when members speak on the floor, it is known that they are speaking for themselves, and not the body.
“Every member is responsible for what they do and say on the House floor,” she said. “Ultimately, they have to get re-elected.”
Former state Rep. Jim Dunnam, D-Waco, who served as the House Democratic leader for eight years before being ousted from the Texas House in 2010, said that when he served, members were not forced to support objectives based on what the party or any caucus leader dictated.
“As long as I was in the House, the party caucus and MALC never had lock-step voting that was generated out of some requirement or obligation,” he said. “It was impossible to have it even if you wanted it. I felt like we ought to win because we had the votes that were right on the issue.”
Martinez Fischer insists that is still procedure. But it is through his actions that he has garnered the attention as the mouthpiece for the party.
In what some lawmakers considered a defining moment during the 2011 legislative session, and an act that embodied the desperation and frustration of the outnumbered, outspent and underfinanced Democrats, Martinez Fischer spoke out against legislation that would have broadened the immigration enforcement powers of local police officers in Texas. He turned his back on House Speaker Joe Straus,R-San Antonio, and said he could no longer face him when addressing the chamber.
Martinez Fischer said he did that because Straus broke an agreement that would have led to a limited but spirited debate over the merits of the bill. Debate was cut off, but Martinez Fischer said someone needed to stand up to Republicans.
“I understand losing, I understand what it’s like to be in the minority party, but you don’t have to get up there and spike the ball in my face every single day,” he said. “And so I started to say no, and I started to push back, and I think that’s the only way you can confront bullies. You have to bully back.”
Straus declined to be interviewed and said through his communications director that he “respects Representative Martinez Fischer and understands he has a role to play within the Democratic Party.”
Martinez Fischer has continued to confront the speaker, most recently through letters he sent to Straus’ office demanding an explanation of what role he played in redrawing Texas’ political map in a way that the U.S. Department of Justice said was discriminatory.
“It appears once again you are refusing the body of the common courtesy of a meaningful reply,” he wrote last month. “I understand from your surrogates that you are displeased with the points I have articulated in previous correspondence. To that my reply is and will remain unapologetic: I didn’t create this awful reality; you did.”
State Rep. Aaron Peña, R-Edinburg, who switched from the Democratic to the Republican Party in 2010, served five terms with Martinez Fischer. He said the chairman’s effectiveness could vary.
“Love him or hate him, the guy is bold and brash and sometimes can be a bull in a china shop,” he said. “But his success or failure is measured based on what the goals are. Do you want a bomb thrower, or do you want a pragmatist?”
State Rep. Garnet Coleman, D-Houston, said that Martinez Fisher is an effective advocate for the Democratic Party but that the spotlight on him could be more to do with his own efforts to have it there.
“There are many other people who are stepping up that are not known because that is not their objective,” he said. “But we need leaders and Trey is very capable. But in the House, we elect our leaders.”
The San Francisco Chronicle this year included Martinez Fischer on its list of the country’s 20 rising Latino political stars. But he is not regarded as an up-and-comer in Texas’ political circles as much as Mayor Julián Castro of San Antonio, or Castro’s twin brother, state Rep. Joaquin Castro.
Martinez Fischer says it does not bother him.
“We don’t welcome or invite those labels or premature predictions," he said. "I think voters decide that and not pundits or prognosticators."
He said he would consider running for higher office if the timing were right, but his loyalty to San Antonio remains steadfast. The town is what made him who he is, he said, and it's what drives him to draw the praise — and the ire — of his colleagues.
He said he fears the day when he agrees to lay down and has to explain why he stayed quiet to his wife or daughters. But, he added, if others want to assume a more powerful role in the House, he is all for it.
“If they want the ball, they can have it,” he said. “They can have the entire playbook.”