By the end of the Texas Legislature's 2017 regular session, Democrats in the House were beleaguered.
Democrats had held few positions of power. They had watched GOP members pass conservative legislation they could do little about. And, in the waning days of the session, they had mustered what little political sway they had to fend off a controversial bill that would ban “sanctuary cities” — to no avail.
This session, things seem different. Democrats gained a dozen seats in the House, narrowing Republicans’ majority in the lower chamber. They were tapped to chair more committees that handle high-profile legislation. And, perhaps most notably, the newly elected Republican House speaker tapped a Democrat to serve as second-in-command — a gesture of bipartisanship.
That progress, the most Texas Democrats have made in years, has left some members grappling with a question: How can they capitalize on it?
“I think for Democrats to be successful in bringing some real wins this session, we need to stand firm together,” said freshman state Rep. Erin Zwiener, a Driftwood Democrat who flipped her House seat in November. “We need to make the case to some of our Republican colleagues that what we stand for is what their voters want as well.”
Zwiener and other Democratic freshmen who flipped longtime GOP-held seats are still excited about their long-shot victories on the campaign trail and want to translate that momentum into ambitious legislative wins at the Capitol. But more seasoned Democrats, familiar with how things work at the Capitol and emphasizing that their party is still in the minority, suggest that a more measured approach could land them the support needed to pass policy they’ve championed over the years.
“I think the early indications are encouraging,” said state Rep. Chris Turner, D-Grand Prairie, in a recent interview with The Texas Tribune. “But we have a long way to go.”
Turner was unanimously re-elected to chair the House Democratic Caucus last month. Despite his party’s gains and Democrats’ heightened optimism, members are aware of a few sobering realities: Republicans can still pass legislation without a single Democratic vote; Republicans chair the five most powerful committees in the lower chamber; and Republican House Speaker Dennis Bonnen, though he’s moved to cast himself as a leader who will give every member a fair shake, ranks more ideologically conservative than his predecessor.
“We can’t let our guard down,” Turner said. “We know there could be proposals that are offensive or detrimental to our constituents. And we’ll be prepared to fight those if and when they arise.”
House Republicans, to be clear, also recognize they still have the upper hand in the chamber — although GOP leaders so far have focused the 86th legislative session on reforming nuts-and-bolts policy issues that both parties agree need legislative fixes: school finance and property tax reform.
"The State of Texas remains a deeply red state; the House’s Republican majority and slate of Republican statewide leaders are a reflection of our state’s desire for a conservative approach to governance," said state Rep. Dustin Burrows, a Lubbock Republican who chairs the House GOP Caucus, in a statement to the Tribune. "What makes this session unique is not the number of Democrats or Republicans, but the fact we’re all united behind the same priorities to reform Texas’ school finance system and provide meaningful property tax reform for Texans."
The Democrats' agenda
Last week, Gov. Greg Abbott officially declared school finance and property tax reform “emergency items,” along with school safety, disaster response, increasing teacher pay and mental health programs. And the week before that, Abbott, Bonnen, Burrows and Senate leaders unveiled a unified vision for slowing property tax bill increases. Democrats generally agree that those issues should take center stage this year, but they’re quick to emphasize that their No. 1 priority — addressing public education — has been at the top of their list for years.
In both the school finance reform and property tax debates, Democrats have already laid down a few markers. With the former, party leaders want reforms to include addressing rising health care costs for teachers and expanding pre-K for Texas children. With the latter, they’ve already written off the GOP’s proposal to require voter approval for local property tax increases over 2.5 percent as “a nonstarter.” House Democrats have yet to put forward their own proposals, but they’re expected to do so in the coming weeks.
“I can’t speak for every Democrat, but 2.5 percent just seems too low,” said state Rep. Eddie Rodriguez, an Austin Democrat who serves on the committee that will handle property tax legislation this year. “If nothing passes — for many Democrats, that wouldn’t be a bad thing.”
Beyond that, Democrats are pushing for a slate of more partisan measures that aren’t expected to get much air time at the still GOP-dominated Legislature. Democrats want to curb “voter disenfranchisement,” an issue that’s surfaced in recent weeks after the Texas secretary of state’s office spearheaded a flawed voter citizenship check. They also want to expand Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act.
“I think we need to be talking about Medicaid expansion every single day we are here,” said Zwiener, the freshman from Driftwood. Zwiener, a new mom, also mentioned Democrats are aiming to extend Medicaid’s postpartum coverage from two to 12 months.
“I had a baby seven months ago,” she said, “and I can tell you there are lingering health concerns that come up past that 60-day window.”
"We're not going to agree on everything"
The confidence embodied by Democrats comes partially from the fact that Bonnen, the House speaker, appointed party members in January to chair several high-profile committees previously headed by Republicans. For example, Turner was tapped to chair the Higher Education Committee. Similar appointments happened on committees that oversee homeland security, public health and transportation, among others.
But the gains made by Democrats have also prompted some growing pains. A number of those dozen Democratic freshmen have privately raised questions over everything from caucus leadership to whether their 67-member voting bloc will hold when the lower chamber is faced with a key vote. As one freshman member put it, the caucus “has no plan,” suggesting it was perhaps “just a function of being out of power for so long.”
The “freshmen excitement” — or angst, as others may call it — is commonplace at the Capitol every two years as the biennial legislative session gets underway. For state Rep. Victoria Neave, a Democrat who flipped her Dallas-area seat in 2016, the feeling is all too familiar.
“We’re not going to agree on everything — I think folks will learn that,” she said. “I learned that as a freshman coming from a former swing district. I think we need to work together, but there are some things for which we’re going to take our earrings off.”
Some of the more senior Democrats have suggested that the freshmen class is still transitioning from campaign mode and will settle in around March or April when things heat up at the Legislature. They’re also quick to note that Turner, who just began his second term in that caucus role, deserves credit for taking on the arduous task of rebuilding his party’s ranks in the House.
Since Turner took the reins, he’s brought on full-time leadership staff, who spearhead a lot of the policy and communications between caucus members, among other things. Turner also doled out roughly $240,000 of his own campaign cash during the 2018 cycle for get-out-the-vote efforts and to help House incumbents and candidates locked in tight races, according to his office.
“I think there’s an intentional strategy by Turner to bring more people into the decision-making process,” said state Rep. Mary González, a Democrat from Clint who holds leadership positions in the Mexican American Legislative Caucus and the new LGBTQ Caucus. “I’m looking forward to seeing how we navigate as a caucus this session because he has already set us up for success.”
For now, most everyone is publicly optimistic about what lies ahead over the next roughly 100 days at the Capitol. And for Democrats, they’re acknowledging the more palatable tone that’s been set by state leaders.
“It certainly was a different speech than we heard two years ago,” Turner said last week in response to Abbott’s State of the State address. He added with a chuckle, “It seems as though election results have consequences.”