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Joaquin Castro Broke Quorum In 2003. Now He's Helping Texas Dems Derail Controversial Voting Bills

Democratic Congressman Joaquin Castro - File Photo
Carson Frame
Texas Public Radio
Democratic Congressman Joaquin Castro - File Photo

Dozens of Texas House Democrats arrived in Washington, D.C., Monday night. They left Texas to deprive the state House of a quorum for a special legislative session, and they hope their absence will prevent controversial voting bills from becoming law.

San Antonio Congressman Joaquin Castro, as a state representative in 2003, participated in a similar quorum break to Oklahoma to stop redistricting bills with more than four dozen Democrats at the time.

Nearly 20 years later, Castro will assist his legislative counterparts during their potentially weeks-long stay in D.C. and support federal voting legislation.

Texas Public Radio’s Joey Palacios spoke to Castro Monday afternoon in San Antonio as the congressman prepared to return to the nation’s capital.

The Democrats plan to remain in Washington until at least the beginning of August when the special session is over. In a press release Monday, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott claimed the Democrats leaving the state would stall issues like property tax relief and funding support to sheriffs, teachers and children in foster care.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

JOEY PALACIOS, TPR: Congressman Castro, you did something similar back in 2003 over redistricting when Democrats feared they could lose seats in the U.S. House. So can you take us back to that moment? I mean, why was it necessary for Democrats to do this back then?

JOAQUIN CASTRO, TX-20 (D): Well, it's just like now, we had exhausted every other tool that we had, every other way to express our strong disagreement with what amounted to Republicans trying to rig a system to make sure that more of their people would get elected. And what I see happening now is something similar, which is their false claims of voter fraud lies about the election being stolen from Donald Trump. And so Republicans in the Texas Legislature don't like the way that people voted last November. And so they're trying to put all of this under these unnecessary voting restrictions in place in a state like Texas that already has some of the most restrictive voting laws in the country.

PALACIOS: So going back then to 2003, the redistricting plan died at midnight as Democrats had spent two days in Oklahoma, but that plan also came back in to special legislative sessions where there was a second Democratic walk out of state legislators that went to New Mexico, specifically members of the Texas Senate. So as you watch members of the legislature leave the state again, do you feel like that this is going to be an effective measure nearly two decades later?

CASTRO: I think they could have more effect this time and perhaps buy enough time so that the federal Congress can step in and pass two bills, H.R. 1 and H.R. 4, that would protect voting rights and would stave off a lot of the things that Republicans are trying to do in Texas. And really, that's the big difference between 2003 and 2021, is that the federal Congress can actually step in here and do something in this moment in a way that in 2003 just wasn't available.

PALACIOS: And so speaking of that, you're a member of Congress right now, you represent San Antonio. Tell me the role that you're going to play in this. Are you going to be meeting with the Democrats as they're in Washington, D.C.? Or how are you going to be impacting the legislation in the U.S. House?

CASTRO: Well, I've been doing everything that I can not only to support voting rights legislation, but also to push our senators across the country — Democratic senators — to use their 51-person majority. The vice president, of course, has a tie breaking vote — but to use that majority to protect constitutional rights and protect the freedom to vote. And I'm going to be meeting with the Democratic legislators this week. We were out of session in the House of Representatives last week, and we were also back home for committee work week this week. But I'm headed up to Washington tonight and look forward to meeting them, meeting with them, and also helping them to press the senators and also asking President Biden to actively get involved personally, personally and (encourage senators) that may be holding out on removing the filibuster for the sake of voting rights legislation, pressing these senators so that even if they don't remove the filibuster on health care or immigration legislation or anything else, that they do it to protect people's voting rights. And so, you know, it's pressing the senators, but it's also making sure the White House gets engaged on a new level.

PALACIOS: It's been 18 years since 2003, and people born that year are now eligible to vote, which is a little coincidental since the Democrats are doing this to stop (Republican-created) voting legislation in Texas. Next year, these same people will probably be voting for the first time and the gubernatorial election, in the midterms, So what do you think that this message sends to those voters that Democrats have to use this tactic again?

CASTRO: Well, voting rights have been under assault in our state for years by the Republican majority. They don't try to win elections really by governing anymore. They try to win elections by keeping the people who usually vote against them from going to vote. And that's what we see going on in 2021. And I always remind the youngest generation of voters that the policies that the Congress or the legislature, the policies they passed today will impact their generation more than my generation or certainly my parents' generation. And so I hope that they get actively involved in making a push to protect people's voting rights.

PALACIOS: And what would you say to people that say that this would disrupt the legislative process in Texas, that this is slowing down certain other bills from getting passed as well?

CASTRO: Well, this is, what the Republicans are doing in Texas has disrupted democracy and it's cheating democracy. And so, you know, there's a reason that something like this hasn't happened in 18 years because it's the last resort — leaving the state to try to break a quorum. But there are times where it's also necessary. And this is one of those times.

PALACIOS: The Texas Republican Party still has a majority say on politics in the state, leaving Democrats to use this nuclear option. You know, so I'm wondering how much politics has evolved or not evolved in Texas, that especially since there have been points where Democrats didn't have enough members to use this at certain times?

CASTRO: Well, you know, the issues have changed some and evolved some over the years. But if you look at the evolution of a lot of the issues that Republicans are pushing, whether it's on stripping people of their voting rights or anti-choice legislation, gerrymandering, whatever it may be, everything in Texas over the past 18 years has just moved further to the right, just about. Republicans have continued moving further to the right, and Donald Trump just accelerated that. And what you have now in the Texas Republican Party is a party that's controlled by people like Donald Trump and also Allen West, who is the party chairman and is now running for governor. And so it's the Texas Republican Party is not a pro-business, moderate Republican Party anymore. It's a very hard right, even authoritarian leaning Republican Party in Texas.

PALACIOS: How long (are you) expecting them to be there? How long are you planning to support them while they're there?

CASTRO: We'll support them as long as we need to. And it's my understanding that they're going to do everything they need to do to make sure that Republicans don't pass voter suppression legislation, don't strip people of the right to vote in this special session that the governor has called.

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Joey Palacios can be reached atJoey@TPR.org and on Twitter at @Joeycules