Is the Future for Texas Blue?

Read all of RH Reality Check‘s coverage of the recent fight for reproductive rights in Texas here.

What happens next in Texas?

I’ve asked and tried to answer this question countless times over the past month, but never more than in the last week, after the Texas legislature gave its final approval to HB 2, the omnibus anti-abortion bill that will drastically reduce access to abortion in the state. Folks pose the question in the hallways of the capitol, in elevators to the top of the rotunda, over coffee at any number of Austin’s local cafes. And, of course, at the bar. Specifically, a 40-year-old dive called Posse East, just north of the University of Texas campus.

“If we’re going to talk about this,” my friend Carrie said, “I’m getting another pitcher.”

Because what happens next in Texas is a multi-pitcher question.

How can anyone capture the excitement of the 10,000 or more Texans who realized the power of their presence at the capitol these last few weeks? These Texans didn’t skip their summer vacations, lie to their bosses to get out of hourly wage shifts, and tote around laptop-driven mobile offices because they were casually interested in seeing a little special legislative session wonkery in action. They came because they were ready to make a stand—even if that meant sitting for 12 or more hours in gallery seats as conservative legislators quoted Bible verses and dismissed the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists as a body of abortion conspiracist quacks.

But those 10,000 are just the people who were able to physically show up. What about the 180,000 who watched Wendy Davis filibuster live online? What about the thousands and thousands of Twitterers, checking in surreptitiously from cubicles and break rooms?

How can anyone not only capture but maintain that enthusiasm?

If it’s a question of holding attention, we sadly have very little to worry about, because the real impact of HB 2, if it is not immediately tied up in litigation, will be felt as soon as portions of the bill go into effect this September. We can expect reports of increased births among Texans who cannot access contraception and safe, legal abortion care. A system that already struggles to provide a safety net for the poorest Texans will become further overburdened, especially as lawmakers have refused to take the federal Medicaid expansion. And, terrifyingly, we can also expect reports of dead and gravely injured Texans forced to resort to flea market abortions and back-alley providers in rural areas along the border, in West Texas, and in deep East Texas.

While organizers and party leaders with Battleground Texas work to mobilize get-out-the-vote actions and strategize a potential Wendy Davis gubernatorial run over coffee and breakfast tacos, I believe there will be much happening on the ground among ordinary Texans who are now as familiar with the phrase “parliamentary inquiry” as they are “Shiner and a shot, please.”

Case in point: Last Friday, when state troopers were busily confiscating tampons from Texans waiting in line to enter the senate gallery, my friend Jenny got a Twitter message from state Democratic state Sen. Kirk Watson’s people about the feminine hygiene product panic: “We’re working on it.” Watson was ultimately able to stop the ridiculousness, but only thanks to constituents like Jenny, who have gone from occasional letter-writers and voters to people who know legislative staffers by first name.

Jenny is a PhD candidate at the University of Texas; she lives in a world of intellectual theories and dissertation chapters. She is not a radical political activist—at least, not yet. Republican missteps and blatant disregard for the democratic process have mobilized people like her, people who have been otherwise resigned to quiet rage in the privacy of their own homes for years.

From Republican state Rep. Byron Cook’s atrocious mishandling of the original “people’s filibuster” on June 20, when he silenced 700 people ready to testify against new abortion legislation to Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst’s shameless time stamp antics on the night of Wendy Davis’ epic stand in the senate, the first special session this summer was an exercise in public embarrassment for conservative lawmakers accustomed to practicing shady politics without scrutiny. When the second special session began, the Republican Party had given Democrats and progressives a remarkable gift: thousands upon thousands of freshly enraged Texans, who’d watched these reprehensible tactics in action. While every HB 2 protestor knew that the bill’s ultimate passage was a done deal, they had already realized the sheer power of public witness.

It’s one thing for Republican lawmakers to crow about personal responsibility, but when legislators decimate family planning funding, shut down good, quality health centers, and refuse to toss even the smallest scraps to children’s Medicaid or food stamps, they deny Texans the opportunity to demonstrate how resourceful and responsible they can be in the first place. And this year, Republican legislators have done all of this in full view of hundreds of thousands of Texans paying very close attention.

“Pull yourselves up by your bootstraps!” says Texas to its poorest citizens, even as it snatches those boots away, outlaws escalators, jams elevator doors shut, over-regulates ladders and pulleys, and restricts the sale of bootstraps to the state’s largest cities.

Despite all of this, in the face of certain defeat, thousands of Texans were not cowed into silence. That, I think, is the most important place to begin when we talk about what’s next for the state, not only in terms of undoing the damage done by HB 2 and its ilk but in terms of moving the state from red to blue. Can it be done in four years? In eight years? There is much hand-wringing over the worry that if Texas doesn’t see a sweeping Democratic victory in the next couple of elections, progressive Texans will quietly retreat in resignation, fed up and out of energy. Because Tea Partying conservatives haven’t just pissed off liberals; they’ve alienated their own more reasonable constituents.

The alternative, and one that many Texans would very likely be agreeable to, is turning not blue but purple, and ousting some of the hyper-right-wing conservative legislators who either took office during the Tea Party frenzy, or sitting legislators who took that opportunity to jump on the bandwagon. There are moderate Republicans here who trust their doctors and medical associations, who believe that the practice of religion belongs in the church and in the home, but their voices have been drowned out by the likes of Dan Patrick, Glenn Hegar, Donna Campbell, and Jodie “Rape Kits Clean a Woman Out” Laubenberg.

I don’t believe the kind of political enfranchisement we saw in Texas this summer is a one-time deal. I think it’s a starter package. Reasonable Texans know we have a long way to go. We’ve known that for a long, long time. What we have now is a road map and a rucksack of supplies. We have grassroots movements like the Feminist Justice League, organizing in both English and Spanish with actions for Texans to take from their own homes, and calls to public meetings across the state. We have seen a surge in donations to the Lilith Fund, which helps low-income Texans pay for abortion, and to Jane’s Due Process, which helps minors seeking abortions navigate the legal system.

We have Twitter, Facebook, Ustream, open records, independent media outlets, and an ability to see a larger landscape beyond our own gerrymandered home districts—although certainly we see those home districts more clearly than ever, now, and have a better understanding of just how dirty Republicans will play to keep them intact.

Reasonable Texans have not been handed a fry-up of big-mouth bass and hushpuppies. We’ve been taught how to fish. So grab a pitcher to go with that catch. We’ve got a lot to talk about.

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  • Cade DeBois

    Here’s the blunt truth about Texas, from a leftie who’s lived here far longer than I ever wished:

    Texas voter turn-out is ABYSSMAL and party Dems simply have not committed to doing the footwork needed to change that. They make half-hearted attemptes at TV, but so far it’s been far underwhelming. Maybe this time it’ll be different. But dn’t cunt me optimistic. We’re talking about the Dems here.

    By far, across the state, the highest, most consistent voter turn-out is male, white and conservative. In some counties, esp. rural ones, women barely show up. In many more counties, minorities barely show up. Black Texans show up for big national elections, sometimes, but too rarely for local or state elections. Latinos are depressingly underreppresented for the population. Asian-Americans in Texas show up in so few numbers they are virtually non-existent in the stats even though we have considerable Asian communities in Houston and other larger metro areas.

    What is the problem? Simple: these vting groups have long been told that those governing Texas don’t represent them. And can you blame them? 80% of Texans did not want abortion to be part of the special sessions, but we got it rammed down our throats anyways. That’s just one sliver of how our state goverment treats us with contempt. And the sense that Texas is governed by a class of mainly white, mainly male politicans who give no thought or concern to Texan residents, especially minorities, runs deep in many communities. You think the people who live in refinery towns don’t feel like this? Or who are seeing their land fracked to hell? Or whose towns are dead-end pits of inescapable poverty that Halliburton trucks cruise through on their way to New Mexico? Or watch industries and jobs vacate their communities despite all the pandering and money Rick Perry and co. give the corps and no one in government appears to be even feigning concern while more and more Texans fall into poverty?

    I loved what happened in Austin with Wendy Davis, but Austin is kind of in its own political bubble and does not represent the apathy, alienation, powerlessness and disfranchisement many Texans feel towards their government. That is the problem. And If party Dems want to turn Texas blue again, they need get real about GOTV and understand there is a TON of work to do in that regard.

    • Judy Jackson

      I totally agree with this. The Democratic party has to get up off their collective asses & GET TO WORK. There are everyday Texans out there who want change, but UNTIL party leaders TRULY get to work, it isn’t going to happen.

  • fiona64

    Republican missteps and blatant disregard for the democratic process
    have mobilized people like her, people who have been otherwise resigned
    to quiet rage in the privacy of their own homes for years.

    I’m a little bit embarrassed to admit it, but that describes me — right up until the beginning of the Bush II administration. Everyone has a different trigger; mine was GOP stupidity, compounded by the Teabirchers at the beginning of the Obama administration and ever since.

  • mwruger

    Our best hope, really just about our only hope is the overthrow of Citizen’s United and TRUE campaign finance reform. The problem with the democratic party is that it is just as in bed with the corporations as the republicans. The difference is they pay lip service to progressive causes and support them in spite of corporate bribes.

    I know that there are honest political leaders, from both parties, but until the river of money is dammed, they are far too few to really change things.

    I actually think that the Voter ID Law is going to infuriate a lot of voters. It’s one thing to be apathetic and not vote, but if someone tries to stop you from voting? Them’s fighting words!

  • Karen Fortier

    Dems cannot sit back and think their votes won’t count! That’s what they want us to think! Get your act together right now, do whatever it takes to get registered to vote! We have time to get prepared, please don’t waste that time. I am damned tired of being told what to do just because I’m a woman!! I know we can get Texas back to blue, but it will take every single vote we can muster. If we want Wendy Davis to run for governor, and win, we have to show her we will make sure it will be worth her time and effort.