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El Paso state lawmakers describe life in exile at the nation’s capital

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State Rep. Joe Moody’s youngest son starts kindergarten Monday, but the El Paso Democrat won’t be there for that milestone. He’ll hear how the day went via an evening phone call from the Washington Plaza Hotel in Washington, D.C., his home since July 12.

On Tuesday, he’ll mark the second anniversary of the deadliest shooting in his hometown’s history from 2,000 miles away, joined by his fellow El Paso-area state representatives.

El Paso’s five state representatives are among 57 Texas House Democrats who have spent the past three weeks in Washington. They left Austin to deny the Texas House of Representatives a quorum  in an effort to block their Republican colleagues from passing voting restrictions during the special legislative session. Without a quorum, business in the House has come to a halt.

The special session, capped at 30 days, could run as late as Friday. The Democrats say they will stay in Washington until the House adjourns.

Being away from home hasn’t been easy, but El Paso lawmakers say the toll on their families is nothing compared to the sacrifices civil rights activists made decades ago to ensure Black Americans’ right to vote. 

“We’re just here to make sure that they didn’t suffer and sacrifice in vain,” said state Rep. Art Fierro, D-El Paso. He’s reluctant to even call his month-long absence from his wife and 12-year-old daughter a sacrifice.

Still, it hasn’t been easy for their loved ones in El Paso — or on themselves.

Overnight, their spouses became single parents. Fierro’s wife, state District Court Judge Anna Perez, now shuttles their daughter to volleyball practices and games. Moody’s wife has her hands full caring for their 5- and 7-year-old sons. She’s also 23 weeks pregnant. And state Rep. Claudia Ordaz Perez’s husband is busy watching Jack, Lady and Whiskey, their three “fur babies,” who she FaceTimes with daily. FaceTime also enables her to sit in virtually on her father’s doctor’s appointments.

Leaving the state was especially hard for the El Paso delegation because they were barely home during the final weeks of the regular legislative session that ended May 31. Unlike their colleagues who represent the Austin, San Antonio, Houston and Dallas areas, they can’t travel home in just a few hours: El Paso is more than an eight hour drive from the state capital, and nonstop flights from Austin haven’t been available since 2020. 

Moody considers himself fortunate that his sons were able to visit Washington for a few days, but it still wasn’t the summer he envisioned for his family after being gone much of the spring.

“I don’t think anyone gets in this line of work thinking that it’s easy, and typically the most important things are the most difficult to do,” Moody said. “I didn’t plan on being in Washington, D.C., this month, but I know where I’m needed and I know what the job requires right now at this moment. … The challenges we face are very real, which means the sacrifices we have to make are very real.”

House Democrats say the GOP-backed elections bills in the Texas House and Senate would create barriers for voters of color. Republicans say further restrictions are needed to curb voter fraud; however, there is no evidence of widespread fraud in the 2020 election, which had the state’s highest number of voters in history.

Though some Texas Republicans have cast Democrats’ departure from the state as a vacation, El Paso lawmakers describe a packed schedule of meetings with members of Congress, Vice President Kamala Harris, Democratic leaders like former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, and voting rights activists. Democrats want Congress to pass federal voting rights legislation that would protect Texas voters.

It took the first week to adjust to their new schedule and living out of a hotel room with camera crews staked outside, Ordaz Perez said. “It’s hard to get a sense of comfort … because we don’t know what tomorrow holds; we’re taking it a day at a time,” she said. “I think that’s what was certainly causing a lot of anxieties and little sleep” at the beginning.

She’s learned how to make her outfits stretch, having only packed for a week. That meant hand-washing clothes in the hotel room sink until she could find an affordable place to do laundry.

When there is down time, Moody and Fierro’s attention turns to their day jobs in El Paso at WestStar Bank and Life Ambulance Services, respectively. Both said their employers have been understanding about the situation, but they still have obligations to fulfill. Moody said his day often starts at 5:30 a.m. and doesn’t end until midnight.

Being in the nation’s capital has also offered several reminders of why they fled Texas.

A visit to the Smithsonian National Museum of American History and the African American History Museum during lawmakers’ second weekend there re-energized state Rep. Lina Ortega, D-El Paso, to keep lobbying Congress.

“You see the kind of sacrifice that women, that people of color have had to put up with in order to gain the right to vote,” Ortega said. “Compared to what they’ve done, we have done very little. It was a motivator to say that what we’re doing is absolutely the right thing to do. We need national voting legislation.”

Congressional action on voting rights won’t take place before the current special session in Texas ends. Gov. Greg Abbott has vowed to call as many special sessions as needed for Texas lawmakers to pass stricter voting legislation. He has yet to announce whether he’ll call a session immediately after Aug. 6.

What Texas House Democrats do after that date is unknown, though they’re expected to return Aug. 7.

El Paso lawmakers said they are encouraged by recent efforts by U.S. House members, including U.S. Rep. Veronica Escobar, D-El Paso, to put forth a narrower voting rights bill from the one that has stalled in the U.S. Senate. State lawmakers say the federal legislation would protect voting by mail and early voting, which Texas Republicans are trying to restrict.

“I do think there’s some major things we can point at right now that have moved the needle and I think have changed the discussion on voting rights in this country,” Moody said. “That’s a lot to be proud of and I think it’s actually going to lead to some tangible results — maybe not by Aug. 6, but certainly in the coming weeks and months.

“And when this story’s told, I think it will be something to be proud of.”

Cover photo: State Rep. Claudia Ordaz Perez, D-El Paso, and members of the Texas House of Representatives prepare for an MSNBC interview to discuss their quorum break. (Photo courtesy of Claudia Ordaz Perez)

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Molly Smith

Molly Smith has been a reporter for the El Paso Times and The (McAllen) Monitor. She’s covered education, criminal justice and local government. A Seattle native, she’s lived in Texas since 2014, with stops in Austin, the Rio Grande Valley and now El Paso. She can be reached at mksmith@elpasomatters.org or 915-247-8857.

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