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Some Texas lawmakers see less appetite for divisive measures

UPDATED: Sun., Jan. 6, 2019

In this Sept. 28, 2016, file photo, Texas state Rep. Poncho Nevarez, D-Eagle Pass, voices his view during a hearing in Brownsville, Texas. (Jason Hoekema / Associated Press)
In this Sept. 28, 2016, file photo, Texas state Rep. Poncho Nevarez, D-Eagle Pass, voices his view during a hearing in Brownsville, Texas. (Jason Hoekema / Associated Press)
By Paul J. Weber Associated Press

AUSTIN, Texas – Texas’ last legislative session ended with one lawmaker threatening to shoot another after reporting Hispanic protesters to immigration agents, and corporate giants from Amazon to the NFL issuing warnings over a “bathroom bill” targeting transgender people.

More than a year later, comes a test: whether a humbling 2018 for Texas Republicans will soften one of the most conservative statehouses in the country.

The Texas Legislature returns Tuesday, and unlike places such as Colorado and Minnesota where Democrats seized control of legislative chambers in November’s midterm elections, Republicans remain firmly in power. They’re ringing in a 20th consecutive year of controlling every statewide office. But they also took their licks: Democrats flipped 14 seats in the Legislature, closing the gap.

Beto O’Rourke’s star-making challenge against Republican Sen. Ted Cruz at the top of the ticket propelled the upsets, igniting his own White House prospects and leaving Texas Republicans wobbled after their worst election in a generation.

Now after years of the Texas Capitol playing host to some of the nation’s biggest fights over abortion, immigration and anti-LGBT laws, some legislators in both parties foresee the midterm results and 2020’s high stakes as curbing the appetite for divisive bills that derailed past sessions and turned off voters in the state’s booming big cities.

The party in power after the 2020 election will draw new voting maps – an upper hand Republicans used last time to carve Texas into a 101-49 House supermajority in 2011. That advantage has since shrunk to 83-67.

“I think the voters made it clear what issues they want us focused on,” said Republican state Rep. Jeff Leach, who held on to his suburban district near Dallas, where the GOP lost five House seats. “Their message to Republicans, at least, was: Don’t compromise your values and your principles and beliefs, but focus on the big aspirational issues that keep Texas strong for a generation to come.”

During Texas’ most recent legislative session in 2017, Leach supported a contentious bill that would have required transgender people to use bathrooms that correspond with the sex on their birth certificate. The bill ultimately failed amid a backlash from Fortune 500 companies.

Now, Leach says, “I have not had anyone tell me” that issue needs to be a priority.

Across the U.S., Democrats picked up more than 330 statehouse seats in November, according to the National Conference on State Legislatures. Other states where Republicans absorbed big losses while maintaining legislative power include Georgia, Pennsylvania and Virginia.

Already in Texas, there are hints of less turbulence on the eve of Republican Gov. Greg Abbott’s second term. Like many states, public school funding is the biggest issue singled out by both parties. Paying to help rebuild the Texas coast in the aftermath of 2017’s Hurricane Harvey, the nation’s most destructive storm since Hurricane Katrina in 2005, is another task.

Of course, calls for bipartisanship and getting to the unflashy business of state governance ring eternal at the start of every legislative session. And some Republican lawmakers had signaled to audiences of Texas conservative activists before the midterms that they would continue pushing bills on social issues, which would likely rekindle opposition with gay rights groups and big businesses.

The Texas Legislature is only at work for five months every two years, but reliably packs drama and spectacle into such a short amount of time. In 2003, Democrats fled the state to a Holiday Inn in Oklahoma to break quorum and stop a redistricting bill that cost them seats. A decade later, then-Democratic Sen. Wendy Davis staged a 13-hour filibuster to temporarily block a sweeping anti-abortion law, propelling her to a failed run for governor.

The last session saw Texas Republicans mostly at war with themselves. Abbott demanded the “bathroom bill,” though opponents included the moderate House speaker, who is now leaving office.

All the while, Texas was passing one of the nation’s toughest crackdowns on “sanctuary cities,” allowing police to ask people during routine stops whether they’re in the U.S. illegally. Tensions over the bill spilled into chaos on the session’s final day, when Republican state Rep. Matt Rinaldi called U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement on Latino protesters in the House gallery. Democratic state Rep. Poncho Nevarez angrily confronted Rinaldi, who later wrote on Facebook that he had warned Nevarez that he would “shoot him in self-defense.”

Rinaldi lost re-election to his Dallas-area district last year, and Navarez – re-elected to a fourth term in his district along the border with Mexico– says Republicans who push divisive bills this time do so at their own electoral risk.

“I think it’s going to be different. We went down a real dark path last session,” Nevarez said.

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