'A Now-or-Never Moment': Texas Pols Who Beat Back Voting Attack Take the Fight to Congress

WASHINGTON — “What’s Manchin’s Twitter handle again?”

It was just past 2 o’clock on Tuesday, June 15, and Trey Martinez Fischer stood outside of Sen. Joe Manchin’s office in Washington, D.C. Martinez Fischer had been there for an hour, and was prepared to wait longer. He had no plans to leave until he got what he came for: a meeting. 

Dressed in a blue-gray suit with a flimsy Senate guest badge clipped to the jacket pocket, Martinez Fischer looked like one of the dime-a-dozen interest-group lobbyists who stalk the corridors of Capitol Hill to promote their little slice of the great American experiment, whether it’s ethanol subsidies or Tibetan freedom. Martinez Fischer, however, is a 10-term member of the Texas House of Representatives from San Antonio. His issue was the great American experiment itself.

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Martinez Fischer joined the group of Texas Democrats who staged a dramatic last-minute walkout in Austin last month to block one of the most restrictive voting bills introduced this year. The move killed the bill for the moment, but Texas Gov. Greg Abbott (R) says he wants a special session to pass the voter-suppression bill. 

After the walkout, Texas Democrats turned their gaze to Washington. They pleaded with Congress to pass the For the People Act, a sweeping set of democracy reforms to counteract the GOP’s ongoing assault on access to the ballot box. “Down here in Texas, when times get tough, we say it’s time to cowboy up,” Martinez Fischer said in a TV interview. “And so with all due respect, I’d ask Senator Manchin to please cowboy up.” He added, “You may not want to destroy the country, but [Republicans] are going to destroy the country state by state.”

Now, with a vote on the For the People Act scheduled for late June, Martinez Fischer had flown to Washington on his own dime to make his case in person. As he waited outside Manchin’s office, he huddled over his phone and workshopped a tweet about his trip. An aide searched until she found Manchin’s official Twitter account, @Sen_JoeManchin. 

“An underscore? Really?” Martinez Fischer asked. His aide gave a solemn nod. Martinez Fischer plugged in the correct Twitter handle and resumed waiting, hoping someone would emerge from the double glass doors to summon him and Jasmine Crockett, a Texas state representative from Dallas who was waiting alongside him, into the office.

Right now, the fight to protect and expand voting rights — and to repair the damage done to democracy after four years of the Trump administration — is playing out on two fronts. At the state level, state legislators have introduced close to 400 bills that would restrict access to the ballot box from January to May 2021, according to the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU. Fourteen states have approved 22 new laws that add voter ID requirements, curb the ability to help someone submit their mail-in ballot, outlaw giving out snacks and water to voters waiting in line, eliminate voter registration on Election Day, and limit local election clerks’ ability to use dropboxes to gather mail-in ballots, among other changes. While other states have enacted at least 28 laws to make voting easier during roughly the same amount of time, the Brennan Center says the number of voter-restriction bills so far this year is the highest in a decade.

Texas already has the most restrictive voting laws in America. Yet like so many other Republican-controlled states, Texas has pushed ahead with a new voting-rights clampdown under the bogus guise of “election integrity.” The Texas Tribune described the bill in question, titled SB 7, as “an expansive bill that would touch nearly the entire voting process, including provisions to limit early voting hours, curtail local voting options and further tighten voting by mail, among several other provisions.” Perhaps the bill’s most contentious provision would loosen the requirements for challenging and overturning the outcome of an election. Democrats from President Joe Biden to state-level officials, as well as major corporations such as Hewlett-Packard, Microsoft, and Unilever, have opposed the bill and urged the Texas legislature to not pass it.

Given little time to review the final bill, Democrats in the Texas House of Representatives instead walked off the job and denied their Republicans the quorum needed to hold a vote. “This was our moonshot,” says state Rep. Gina Hinojosa who represents Austin. Later that night, Hinojosa told me, she called a contact in the Biden White House: “I said, ‘We need to come D.C.’ “

Texas Democrats say their battle over voting rights is just a symptom of the national struggle between one party that wants to expand the electorate and the other party that wants to make it harder to vote for anyone not in its coalition. “What’s happening in Texas is absolutely connected to what’s taking place across the country,” Beto O’Rourke, the former congressman and presidential candidate who is considering a bid for Texas governor, told me by phone on Tuesday. “We in Texas are doing everything we can, going beyond what anybody thought was possible. We need everybody else to do their part.”

It was in that spirit that Trey Martinez Fischer and his Texas Democratic colleagues traveled to Washington this week. Once they arrived on Capitol Hill, the members of the Texas delegation split into groups and scattered across Capitol Hill. State Reps. Martinez Fischer, Crockett, Hinojosa, and Armando Martinez first met with Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.), chair of the Rules Committee and a key player in the campaign to pass the pro-democracy For the People Act and a companion bill, the John Lewis Voting Rights Act. The meeting lasted 15 or 20 minutes. “I walked away feeling hopeful,” Hinojosa said afterward. “They’re working through the provisions. There is a game plan.”

As she left her office, Klobuchar wouldn’t comment on the state of the negotiations over the For the People Act — after all, the bill needs 60 votes to beat a filibuster or agreement among all 50 Senate Democrats to change the filibuster and then 50 votes to pass the bill. “What happened in Texas is just the ultimate example of attempts to limit people’s freedom to vote,” she said. “Last I checked Texas is all about freedom.” As for the status of the For the People Act, she said: “We’re continuing to work. As we’ve always said, failure is not an option.”

Soon afterward, the group arrived at Manchin’s office. They posed for a group photo next to Manchin’s name plate, and waited, and waited, and waited. Reps. Hinojosa and Martinez decided to split off for a different meeting elsewhere on Capitol Hill. Scrolling through Twitter, Martinez Fischer noticed a tweet that said another Texas delegation had gotten a rousing ovation at a luncheon attended by Senate Democrats. But two key votes on democracy reform, Manchin and another moderate Democrat, Sen. Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona, reportedly did not attend.

Martinez Fischer read the tweet. “I’m not going anywhere, bro,” he told me.

Finally, Lance West, Manchin’s chief of staff, emerged and welcomed Martinez Fischer and Crockett inside. An hour later, the two Texans looked encouraged if a bit overloaded. Martinez Fischer said it was a “very productive meeting” and hinted that there would be future meetings. He wouldn’t talk specifics, but that in and of itself was a good sign that the bill wasn’t dead, and their visit to Washington all for naught. The most Martinez Fischer would tell me, as we rode the underground train to another part of the Capitol complex, was that he was prepared to push back his return flight to Texas if necessary. “There’s a decent chance I might need to,” he said.

The day ended with a photo op and brief meeting with Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer followed by a press conference outside on the East Plaza of the Capitol with Speaker Nancy Pelosi and a group of congressional Democrats. “The whole country was inspired by their story,” Pelosi said of the Texas Democrats. She referenced the “all-out assault” on voting rights at the state level. “In Congress,” she went on, “we have the antidote to all of this.”

“We need to help them here on Capitol Hill,” Rep. Marc Vesey (D-Texas) said.

“This is a now-or-never moment for American democracy,” Rep. Joaquin Castro (D-Texas) said.

“We were a small spark that ignited a national debate,” Martinez Fischer said. “We brought that spark to the nation’s capital hoping to light a fire.”

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