Texas Capitol

The state Capitol that three of El Paso’s House Democrats walked into Monday after a four-week absence wasn’t the same place they abruptly left last month.

Relationships between Texas House Republicans and Democrats are strained after the ongoing quorum break derailed the first special legislative session and led Gov. Greg Abbott to call a second session, the three El Paso Democrats said in an interview with El Paso Matters.

Mary González

“It would be naive to think there wasn’t a shift in attitudes,” state Rep. Mary González, D-Clint, said of the environment she found herself in Monday, when she and Reps. Joe Moody and Art Fierro rejoined their House colleagues for the third day of the new session after departing for Washington, D.C., on July 12 to block Republican-led voting bills.

El Paso’s remaining House Democrats, state Reps. Lina Ortega and Claudia Ordaz Perez, did not join the rest of the delegation in Austin. Ortega is in El Paso, while Ordaz Perez remains in Washington.

Though El Paso’s legislative delegation has prided itself on its ability to work across the aisle to pass legislation that benefits El Pasoans, the likelihood of that happening has diminished each day the quorum break continued.

“We may stand on the brink of just bringing all-out partisan warfare to the Texas House,” Moody said. “I don’t think that serves communities like El Paso very well at all.”

The voting bills remain on the table, as well as numerous other bills Democrats oppose, including those that limit how teachers can discuss racism and those restricting transgender students’ participation in school sports.

Joe Moody

But Moody, González and Fierro also see a possibility to pass legislation that would return control to county judges, mayors and school districts to set mask mandates now that coronavirus is one of the issues on the session agenda. Legislation to fund virtual learning is also being considered. Abbott has firmly opposed the return of mask mandates.

“We won’t know how Republicans feel unless we’re here to have those conversations and share those stories of what we’re hearing in our districts,” González said in a video interview from Austin.

Moody said he spoke to Republican House Speaker Dade Phelan Monday and reiterated his expectation that lawmakers will “have meaningful conversations about the details of multiple bills and some of the harm they cause in communities like ours.”

Phelan stripped Moody of his position as speaker pro tempore last month as punishment for breaking quorum during the first special session.

There are also tensions between Democrats. Members of the Texas House Democratic Caucus who are continuing the quorum break, whether from Washington or their homes in Texas, criticized their colleagues on Twitter Monday, calling them sell outs.

“I know, irrespective of what I saw on Twitter, that Texas Democrats are all trying to get to the same place: one where every Texan can vote easily, securely and freely for the candidate of their choice,” Moody said. “And going by different routes doesn’t change that at all.”

The Texas Supreme Court Tuesday overturned a district judge’s temporary restraining order preventing the arrest of quorum-breaking lawmakers, and by afternoon, the House overwhelmingly voted to direct state law enforcement to bring absent members to the floor, using civil arrest warrants if necessary.

That was something Moody hoped wouldn’t happen.

“I think we should come together as a body and decide we don’t need to go that extraordinary step,” he said. “We know now where things stand in the courts and let’s figure out how we bring this back together. And let’s have a debate on these issues, and let’s talk about them and let these issues be fully vetted in this process the way we always do.”

Phelan signed 52 civil arrest warrants Tuesday evening for absent lawmakers, including Ortega and Ordaz Perez.

The House still lacked a quorum Wednesday morning and paused its proceedings until Thursday.

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.