In the noisy chaos of Austin politics, it can be difficult to hear clear voices, but Texas state Rep. Senfronia Thompson came through loud and clear this week in a press conference with Democratic colleagues from Washington, D.C.: “When I looked at the African American Museum, I thought about the struggle of my people, fought in this country to get the right to vote. That right is sacred to my constituents that I represent back in Houston.”
On July 8, Texas legislators gaveled in a special session that saw promise and peril for educators: a possible 13th check for TRS retirees on the one hand, but on the other, anti-democratic attacks through so-called “critical race theory” legislation and new limits on voting rights. Texas House Democrats broke quorum in May to kill onerous voter suppression laws, and they did so again in this July special session when state Republican leaders proved unwilling to listen or negotiate over curtailing voting rights. In response, over fifty House Democrats boarded planes to the nation’s capital to lobby federal lawmakers to pass national voting rights legislation.
Voting rights are the lynchpin of our democracy, and they take precedence — though we share in the disappointment of retirees who potentially lose this chance at a 13th check. Thompson’s comments and career offer us an instructive example of what’s at stake in Texas. Look no further than the Fort Worth Star-Telegram’s initial coverage of her 1972 election: “In a Houston runoff, a Negro, Senfronia Thompson, defeated a white man, Carl Taylor. Two Dallas runoffs were between Negroes.”
Texas has come a long way since that moment, but even after 25 terms in the Legislature, Thompson still has to fight off attempts to limit her and her constituents’ right to vote, “I’m not going to be a hostage that my constituents’ rights might be stripped from them. We have fought too long and too hard in this country.”
Texas House Democrats have stated publicly they would stay in Washington D.C., through August 6 to lobby Congress for passage of federal voting rights legislation.
On July 13, House Speaker Dade Phelan presided over a House motion to bring recalcitrant Democrats back to the Texas Capitol, through arrest if necessary. Gov. Greg Abbott and Lt. Governor Dan Patrick criticized Democrats for “fleeing” the state and promised political and legislative retribution. Today, the Senate passed SB 1, a voter suppression bill, on a party-line vote of 18-4. (Most Senate Democrats also left the Capitol for Washington D.C., but enough senators are present for a quorum.)
In short, the Texas political landscape is in chaos, with educators and their students caught in the middle of these political debates and partisan fights. Texas AFT will continue to advocate strongly for public education and for the freedoms inherent to our democracy, and we will keep you updated.