Texas House Democrats’ new leader Trey Martinez Fischer prepared to fight
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Two years ago, Democrats in the Texas House dramatically fled to Washington, DC, for 37 days in an attempt to shut down the legislature and block Republicans from passing new voting restrictions.
They were unsuccessful, as Republicans who held the majority were eventually able to pass their own bill that year. But it was a defining chapter for House Democrats, who gained national attention and showed a new zeal to fight that is rippling into the next regular legislative session.
In this legislative session, which begins Jan. 10, the House Democratic Committee has a new chairman, state Rep. Trey Martinez Fischer, who was a key player in the quorum break and is well known as a savvy fighter who has used his encyclopedic knowledge of legislative processes to kill Republican bills. At the same time, Democrats are assessing how contentious the session could be, given that it begins Tuesday with a focus fueled by the massive budget surplus.
“Basically we have 27 billion reasons to feel pragmatic and bipartisan,” Martinez Fischer said in an interview, referring to the state’s estimated $27 billion surplus. “This is a very rare session where we actually have resources that we can use to improve the lives of Texans.”
But, he added, the caucus will be prepared to go to battle against Republicans if necessary and “use any rules” “if we think we have to.” He did not rule out another quorum breach as a means of fighting the legislation they want to kill.
After the redistricting and the November elections, the balance of power in both houses of the Legislature has not changed much. There are 64 Democrats in the 150-member House, one fewer than before the election. There is one less Democrat in the Senate.
House Speaker Dade Phelan is expected to win a second term after the glove as one of the first orders of business on Tuesday. But Phelan, a Beaumont Republican, has been under pressure from some in his own party to remove Democratic committee chairs entirely, and while he is unlikely to do so, Democrats are watching to see if he bends in other ways.
Democrats have their divisions dating back to the quorum recess, which ended amid internal disputes over how long it would last in Washington, D.C. Some members disagreed with the quorum restoration and stayed off the floor longer than others. The dispute led some Democrats to form a separate Progressive group. Martinez Fischer’s elevation to caucus leadership has been seen as a victory by some of those progressive members.
As the new leader of the House Democrats, Martinez Fischer will have to hold together those Democrats, as well as those who are more conservative or willing to work with Republicans.
“When you know you’re outnumbered, you know you have to negotiate your wins,” said Rep. Terry Canales, the South Texas Democrat who chaired the House Transportation Committee under Phelan. “The goal for Democrats should be, in my humble opinion, we determine what our priorities are and try to negotiate as many victories as possible and hope the outcome is not 100-0 — maybe 60-40 — and we take actions that create a record. of our position without necessarily spoiling the decorum in the House.”
House Democrats are welcoming a diverse freshman class that includes the first two Muslims elected to the legislature. One of them, newly elected state lawmaker Salman Bhojani, said in December that he had heard from voters that they want lawmakers to go back to basics.
“[Voters] they want us to focus on more kitchen table issues than the issues that we’ve focused on, unfortunately, a lot, like how to target transgender kids,” Bhojani said during an event at the Texas Tribune.
Democrats believe the budget surplus will take lawmakers’ attention and allow fewer opportunities for Republicans to focus on more polarizing social issues. There is bipartisan agreement that the excess money should go to causes such as property tax relief, public education and infrastructure, though there is still room for disagreement over the details. For example, Democrats are sure to point out that the property tax break leaves out Texans who don’t own a home.
While Gov. Dan Patrick outlined his initial legislative priorities during a news conference last month, the rest of the “Big Three” — Gov. Greg Abbott and Speaker Phelan — have been less vocal about their agendas. That has left Democrats speculating about what kind of session it might be. Could it be a bipartisan session, like in 2019, when teacher raises were a major issue? Or will it be like 2021, what many called the “most conservative session ever,” when Republicans were railroaded through abortion restrictions, bans on critical race theory, and looser gun laws?
“I look forward to a productive session, one where we act as a bipartisan body and work hard for the people of Texas,” said a statement from Rep. Victoria Neave Criado, D-Dallas, the new chairwoman of the Mexican-American Legislative Caucus. She added that she wanted to build on the kind of bipartisanship that led to the passage of her 2019 bill addressing Texas’ backlog of rape cases.
Democrats, however, are on high alert for a slew of conservative proposals that could gain traction. State Rep. Ron Reynolds of Missouri City, chairman of the Texas Legislative Black Caucus, said Democrats will “do everything we can to fight the Republican effort to secure Texas,” referring to a renewed push to divert public school dollars to private schools. Democrats are also wary of any legislation further eroding what little abortion access remains in Texas after the U.S. Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade last year. And they remain vigilant about legislation targeting LGBTQ Texans, such as GOP bills that would ban gender-based treatment for transgender children.
At the same time, Democrats can be expected to continue making the case for long-held priorities that face long odds in the GOP-dominated legislature, such as Medicaid expansion or gun control. Since the Uvalde school shooting last year, Democrats have focused in particular on raising the age to purchase an assault weapon from 18 to 21, an idea Abbott and Phelan have resisted, claiming it’s unconstitutional.
In the Senate, Democratic Sen. Roland Gutierrez, who represents Uvalde, is planning to focus almost exclusively on filming this session. Gutierrez won re-election in November by a comfortable margin after Abbott spent his campaign funds to try to defeat Gutierrez.
“[The shooting] It’s affected me in a very profound way since Day 1,” Gutierrez said, “and the things that we’ve discovered from that tragedy — the failure that we’ve seen from the government that happened before, during and after — that’s where my focus is going to be. “
Gutierrez noted that both Abbott and Phelan have thrown cold water on the age-raising proposal. Still, Gutierrez said, “We haven’t had the lieutenant governor weigh in in a meaningful way here. It’s his chance to be a leader.”
Martinez Fischer is a veteran of the Chamber. He first represented San Antonio’s West Side from 2001-2017, giving up the seat for an unsuccessful Senate campaign. He made a comeback bid in 2018 and unseated his successor, state Rep. Diana Arévalo, in the primary, with the support of a host of former colleagues.
Martinez Fischer unsuccessfully challenged state Rep. Chris Turner of Grand Prairie for the caucus chair in 2020. But last spring, Turner announced he would not seek re-election as caucus chair after holding the post since 2017, opening up way Martinez Fischer to give another shot.
Martinez Fischer faced two opponents in the open race: State Reps. John Bucy and Gina Hinojosa, both from the Austin area. However, just before voting began, Bucy left and threw his support behind Hinojosa. It wasn’t enough to stop Martinez Fischer, who emerged victorious, heralding a fresh chapter for the parliamentary group.
Martinez Fischer said Turner did a “really good job” as caucus chair, but acknowledged they have “a different style in terms of how we engage.” Turner is known as a more careful operator. Martinez Fischer also noted that they have different life experiences, with Martinez Fischer being a Latino from downtown San Antonio and Turner a white man from suburban Dallas.
Reynolds was more direct, calling Martinez Fischer a “very different leader.”
“He’s a real strong, aggressive, strategic leader who doesn’t believe in giving up or surrendering,” Reynolds said. “I think he will fight to the end.”
When it comes to Republican leadership, House Democrats are watching how Phelan deals with the small but vocal faction of the GOP that opposes bipartisan committee chairs. Phelan has defended the practice as a valuable tradition and has said he plans to appoint roughly the same proportion of Democratic incumbents, but he could change who gets which posts.
Canales, who stood back during the quorum break, said he would not agree with Phelan’s punitive committee chairmen who left for the nation’s capital. But he said he would certainly understand retaliation, saying Democrats “may have pushed [Phelan] in a corner where he has to do something.”
“Right now, the speaker seems to be taking a very calm and logical approach to it,” Canales said. “He doesn’t seem to be out for blood.”
Phelan had chosen a Democrat, state Rep. Joe Moody of El Paso, to be his chairman, but stripped him of the title midway through the quorum recess. It remains to be seen how — if even — Phelan will fulfill the role, which is largely ceremonial, in the upcoming hearing.
Reynolds predicted that “Phelan’s speakership will be tested by the far right,” adding that Phelan’s critics within the party could be emboldened by the far-right faction currently blocking Kevin McCarthy from becoming speaker of Congress. Reynolds expressed hope that Phelan will “stand up” to the lieutenant governor “and not let him bully us.”
While the opportunities for such confrontations may seem limited for now, the members are well aware of how the sessions can take a turn for the dramatic.
“Absolutely” redundancy focuses members on less polarizing issues, Canales said, “but make no mistake: What I’ve seen during my tenure, which would be six sessions, is that no matter what or how things are ‘kumbaya.’ going, you’re going to be served some nasty red meat in the end, whether you like it or not.”