AUSTIN -- Texas House Democrats spent more than $1 million from various campaign coffers to fund their quorum break in July, when nearly 60 lawmakers left the state for Washington in an effort to kill a GOP-backed elections bill.
The money went toward two rented private planes, chartered vehicles, lodging and event space. It covered food, office supplies and COVID-19 testing materials. Some money went toward media consultants and security guards at the hotel where the lawmakers were staying.
New campaign finance reports filed last Tuesday with the Texas Ethics Commission offered the first glimpse of how much lawmakers spent -- and raised -- on their cross-country quest to derail the GOP priority measure. Later in the summer, Republicans approved new voting and election regulations, now in effect, after Democrats eventually returned to Austin and reestablished a quorum.
When the House Democrats left for Washington, they only had enough cash on hand to fund a few nights on the road. But support for the quorum bust from Democratic backers was almost immediate, and donations started rolling in before the lawmakers touched down on the tarmac.
Most of them would spend more than a month in Washington, racking up expenses at the Washington Plaza Hotel on Thomas Circle, traveling to meetings on Capitol Hill and later coordinating virtual programming amid a COVID-19 outbreak within their ranks.
Campaign finance reports covering the last six months of the year show that the House Democratic Caucus, the primary entity bankrolling the effort, raised more than $1.4 million between July and December and spent $1.2 million over the same period, largely on expenses incurred during the trip.
The caucus footed the bill on nearly all travel, transportation and equipment costs associated with the Washington sojourn, including private air travel to Washington and meeting rooms at the hotel. Individual members paid for some meals and travel expenses using their own campaign dollars or personal bank accounts, and many said they did so without hesitation.
"I'll be honest and tell you that I didn't even think about it. I mean, because to me, money could not be a factor for what was on the line," Rep. Jasmine Crockett, D-Dallas, told the Austin American-Statesman.
"Money was not at the forefront of my mind," said Rep. Jarvis Johnson, D-Houston. "As we were doing this, the sacrifice that we make to run for this office, we already understood what this job will cost us. So I wasn't concerned about money, I was more concerned about how we get out of Texas, protect Texans, protect voting rights of all citizens. That was my main concern."
Planning the departure
At the end of last year's regular legislative session, Democrats walked off the House floor to deny Republicans a quorum and block passage of a GOP elections bill that would make sweeping changes to the state's voting laws.
Republicans heralded the legislation as an effort to safeguard the state's voting system and restore public trust in election outcomes, despite the lack of evidence of widespread vote fraud. Democrats and voting rights groups said the measure would make it harder for Texans, particularly people of color, to cast ballots, calling it tantamount to voter suppression.
Gov. Greg Abbott then ordered a 30-day special session and directed lawmakers to tackle 11 conservative priorities, including "election integrity." As the elections legislation advanced, Democratic leaders formulated a plan to persuade at least 51 of their colleagues to cross state lines and deny Republicans a quorum in the House.
"Historically, breaking quorum is a strategy that's only reserved for the most egregious abuses of power, you know, threats to the foundations of democracy itself," Rep. James Talarico, D-Round Rock, told the Statesman. The elections bill "represented a kind of an existential threat to our democratic system. And what I said when we left the state was, 'We can debate issues, but we won't debate democracy itself.' And that, I think, kind of sums up why we left the state over this bill in particular."
They landed in Washington on July 12, capturing national media attention and drawing the ire of their GOP colleagues back home, who authorized arrest warrants for absent members.
House Democrats, aware their absence could only temporarily stall passage of the bill, spent the following weeks meeting with members of Congress, advocating for federal voting rights protections.
"It was important that Democrats show that we're willing and able to fight back," state Rep. Chris Turner, D-Grand Prairie and chairman of the House Democratic Caucus, told the Statesman. "We said from the moment we got to Washington, D.C., that we know we cannot stop this bill in Austin forever. We know Abbott will call session after session, and they will ultimately pass it, but we were determined to kill it for that particular special session and use that time to elevate the issue in Washington. We did both of those things."
Getting out of Texas
The trip began with one of the single largest expenses the Democrats would pay: Nearly $112,000 to rent two private planes from Executive Flightways to fly members to Washington.
In July, lawmakers told the Statesman that they decided to rent private planes to reduce the chance that members would change their minds or leak news of the plan before leaders were ready to make an announcement.
They also knew that House Speaker Dade Phelan, R-Beaumont, had the power to authorize arrest warrants and compel their attendance, but that power was limited to within the state. If he caught wind of their plan too early, lawmakers could be detained at the airport trying to board flights out of town.
"We all needed to leave the state at the same time, without anyone detecting our departure," Talarico said. "The decision was made by the caucus that the only way to accomplish that logistical feat was to use charter planes."
While getting the lawmakers to Washington posed the biggest logistical challenge, housing nearly 60 members and their staff in Washington for a month posed the biggest financial burden.
In addition to paying for hotel rooms, the Democrats rented out a series of conference rooms and meeting spaces, and a security officer was posted at the door, and meals were catered for members:
-- $425,000 for lodging.
-- $10,000 on gratuities for Washington Plaza Hotel staff.
-- $13,500 for food and beverages.
-- $9,690 for security, paid to the hotel.
During their time in Washington, lawmakers met with congressional leaders on Capitol Hill and hosted news conferences and virtual programming for members. Media coverage was a priority for Democrats, but it was also costly: They spent more than $20,000 on three media consultants to assist with handling the flood of interview requests from the press and setting up production equipment for an MSNBC town hall about the quorum break.
Administrative costs such as office supplies, room reservations and technology also ate up a significant portion of funds, as did transportation costs:
-- $160,000 for event spaces, including meeting rooms and audiovisual equipment to make those spaces functional.
-- $1,000 on office supplies.
-- $18,000 on chartered vehicles, rented cars and ride-hailing applications.
One week into the Washington stay, a new challenge emerged: Three lawmakers tested positive for COVID-19, and more would follow. The caucus began regularly testing members and staff, spending $534 on tests from CVS and $2,660 on tests from GW Medical Faculty Associates.
Housing nearly 60 people for an undetermined period of time is expensive, and lawmakers quickly turned their focus to fundraising, to collect enough donations to ensure they could continue to stay away from Austin and to deny Republicans the members needed to vote on legislation.
Turner said the caucus leadership never considered asking members to pay their own way, and credits Reps. Armando Walle, D-Houston, and Trey Martinez Fischer, D-San Antonio, with spearheading the caucus's fundraising campaign.
"Any time you're traveling for an extended length of time, it is expensive," Turner said. "We knew it was going to require a pretty focused and sustained fundraising effort to enable us to stay out there for an extended period of time."
A source close to the caucus said $1.2 million was raised in conjunction with the quorum bust.
The largest contribution came from Powered by People, Democrat Beto O'Rourke's political action committee. O'Rourke ultimately raised more than $700,000 for the House Democrats.
"When we heard that they were leaving Texas, we emailed everyone on our list and tweeted, posted on Facebook and Instagram -- every way we could possibly reach people to raise money for them and make sure that they had that clear support from Texas and around the country," O'Rourke told the Statesman at the time. "That's both moral support -- there were thousands of unique donors -- and then financial support of not having to worry about resources to be able to stay there and stay in this fight."
Other big-dollar donations poured in to support the effort, including these contributions of $20,000 or more:
-- $100,000 from End Citizens United, a PAC.
-- $100,000 from the Texas Justice and Education Fund.
-- $30,000 from the Communication Workers of America.
-- $25,000 from Lee Fikes, a Dallas oil executive.
-- $25,000 from the UAW SW Reg Cap Council.
-- $25,000 from American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees.
-- $20,000 from the United Steelworkers PA Fund.
Crockett, the Dallas lawmaker, said that support allowed members like herself to focus on meeting with members of Congress and advocating for the passage of federal voting rights protections.
"Beto stepped up in a huge way and had our back. (U.S. House) Speaker (Nancy) Pelosi had our back. So we got love from everywhere, I mean, there was money pouring in to sustain us. So I appreciate everyone. That really was kind of like, 'We want to make this as painless as possible for you.' But I would have gone through as much financial pain as I needed to under the circumstances," Crockett said.
But members did end up paying for some expenses out of pocket. Rep. Eddie Rodriguez, D-Austin, said he spent personal money to wash his clothes and buy extra supplies.
"I didn't really pack for beyond 10 days," he said, noting that he was optimistic the stalemate with House leadership would be resolved quickly. "Whether it was (laundry), meals and having to buy other necessities, I was using my own money. It was tough because I wasn't working, so I was making less money than normal."
Stalled voting rights bill
The special session ended without passage of the elections bill, but Abbott made good on his promise to call lawmakers back to Austin.
By mid-August, enough Democrats had returned to Austin to produce a narrow quorum. Most of the remaining members returned to their homes in Texas to consider their next move, while a small contingent stayed behind in Washington to continue protesting the legislation, reintroduced in the second special session.
Republicans pushed through the bill over Democratic objections, and Abbott signed it into law in September.
It makes sweeping changes to voting rules in the state, including banning drive-thru and overnight voting. It also expands power afforded to partisan poll watchers, creates a slew of new crimes tied to the election process, and creates new identification requirements for mail-in ballots. The law also requires early voting polling sites to be open at least nine hours a day, up from the previous eight-hour requirement -- but opening no earlier than 6 a.m. and closing no later than 10 p.m.
The U.S. Justice Department sued Texas in federal court to block several portions of the law, following five separate lawsuits challenging the law filed by voting and civil rights groups. Those challenges are pending.
Abbott defended the bill after the Justice Department lawsuit, saying it increases voting hours, makes vote harvesting a felony and works to restrict illegal mail-in voting.
"Only those who qualify can vote by mail," he said. "In Texas, it is easier to vote but harder to cheat."
Meanwhile, federal voting rights protections are still stalled in Congress. Senate Republicans on Wednesday blocked Democrats' move to advance the voting rights bill championed by the Biden administration.
"Going to D.C. was a move to try and get Congress to act, but for me it was twofold," Johnson, the Houston lawmaker, said. "I'm sending a message to the Texas Republicans that I'm not going to sit here and let you treat me and the constituents that voted for me like dirt. If this happens again in the next session ... then the fight is on again."
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