As state legislators reconvened Thursday, filing into their Capitol chambers — many in cowboy boots — to pledge allegiance to the state flag and cheer, “God bless Texas!” they were confronted by two dozen protesters chanting, “Enough is enough!”
Among them was Karen Krajcer, a writer and mother of two who grew up in Houston before settling in Austin.
“Our cities are blue, but they’re being chopped up by redistricting — it’s happening right now,” said Krajcer, 43, noting that her husband, an architect, has benefited from the influx of transplants to the capital, but that they now worry: “Who’s going to want to move here with all of this happening? What kind of a place is Texas going to become?”
This was the year that the Republican governor convened three special legislative sessions. The state’s overwhelmingly conservative legislators launched a right-wing agenda as a direct protest to the Biden administration. At one point, Democrats left the state to block passages of voting restrictions, appearing with members of the Biden administration in Washington. But they ultimately returned to Texas, and the measures passed.
“During the Obama administration, Texas was the antithesis to the administration. “And during the Biden administration Texas was again,” stated Mark Jones, a Houston political science professor at Rice University.
Texas shocked the nation last month by effectively banning abortion — even for incest and rape — using a novel approach so far upheld by the courts that, instead of requiring state enforcement, allows individuals to file lawsuits against those seeking abortions or anyone who assists them. Texas also eliminated gun permits, blocked critical race theory and mask and vaccine mandates in public schools, sent state law enforcement to the border and started building a state-funded border wall.
The raft of conservative legislation, executive actions and executive decisions by Gov. GOP. Greg Abbott shattered expectations that Texas would turn blue, as it attracted more transplants and Californians. It’s also frustrated many Texans: For the first time in more than a decade, a majority of those polled by the University of Texas this summer said they thought the state was headed in the wrong direction.
Texas lawmakers aren’t done yet. During their latest monthlong special session, they will consider legislative redistricting to consolidate Republican power. Democrats have sued unsuccessfully to block it, and a proposal banning transgender youths from sports.
That was what brought Krajcer, a mother of a transgender girl aged nine years old, and two dozen others to the Capitol on Thursday. One counterprotester was not present. She was a woman who refused to be identified, and wore a button saying “Protect girls’ sports,” as well as a sign made by hand that stated, “No boys in Texas girls sports protect our TX daughters .”
” I have seven grandchildren and I want them all to be able play sports with me, without having to compete against men,” she stated.
She gave flyers to legislators during their passing. Although few legislators accepted her offer, one did give her a fist bump.
Standing across the hall, Angela Hale of Equality Texas, who has lobbied at the Capitol since the 1990s, said, “This is the most extreme session we’ve ever seen.”
More than 70 anti-LGBTQ measures have been proposed this year, Hale said, “but they keep bringing back this one.” Transgender activists have protested repeatedly, testifying during public comments where opponents called them perverts, their parents child abusers. Hale stated that some of their parents had left the state and moved because it was too much.
Krajcer said she started looking at real estate during a family trip to Portland, Ore., this summer, after Abbott banned mask mandates in public schools.
” I almost didn’t return home,” she stated. “I almost didn’t come home,” she said. Even in safe havens like Austin, Republicans continue to burst these bubbles .”
Her parents, both “dyed-in the-wool Republicans” in Houston, and Trump supporters in Houston have been calling state legislators to oppose the transgender youth bill. They fear that she will move if it is not. She felt helpless after the slew right-wing legislation she saw this year.
” If bills like these can pass, then what hope do you have for your family?” Krajcer stated.
When the Texas Supreme Court approved the Texas abortion ban, Krajcer was disappointed by the outcry from both within and outside of the state.
” People aren’t stepping up, she stated. “Everybody’s reaction was, ‘How did this happen?’ And I was like, haven’t you been paying attention?”
Another protester, Linzy Foster, mother of a 7-year-old transgender girl, said she and her husband have considered moving from Austin to New Mexico, where state laws protect transgender children and abortion rights.
Foster, 42, a hydrologist and native Texan, says most of her relatives are Trump-supporting conservatives, but she was still surprised by the vitriol she’s faced at the Capitol, where she’s been called a child abuser and “mutilator” by counterprotesters this year.
“And we had children present. Foster stated that Foster had to tell Foster that one of the children had to go to the bathroom afterward. It’s wrong. And then you think about all the things happening in our state that need attention.”
As PTA co-president, she’d like to see Texas — an anti-union “right to work” state — stop “bleeding teachers” and fix the electrical grid, whose failure led to widespread power outages and scores of deaths last winter. Foster warned her daughter to not talk about her transgender identity when she travels with her family outside of Austin.
For now, Foster says her daughter is doing well at her trans-friendly school. Foster added, “If it gets to bad, we have to go.” I must do my best to make her .”
Although Texas has been a top destination for Californians leaving in recent years, many transplants support conservatives. In 2018, more nonnative Texans voted for incumbent Sen. Ted Cruz than for Democratic challenger Beto O’Rourke, enabling Cruz’s victory by a 2-point margin. Last Year, the blue wave that many predicted would result in Texas’s Democratic victory failed to materialize. Republicans defeated challengers in most suburban and urban districts. Unlike Florida, which has become another conservative proving ground post-Trump, no Democrat has won statewide office in Texas since 1994, longer than any other state. On Thursday, at most one vehicle with California plates was seen outside the Capitol sporting a bumper sticker that read “recall Newsom”.
” Some of the Californians who are moving are political refugees. Some of those moving to Austin, tech workers, are bringing their political DNA. Jones stated that there are also Californians fleeing Gavin Newsom’s policies and Californians.
Texas is becoming bluer with every passing year, according to Jim Henson, who is a native of San Pedro, Calif. and directs the Texas Politics Project.
” This California migration has assumed a symbolic significance that exceeds its political impact,” Henson stated. People from all over the country and here are calling to find out what’s happening. Their expectation just a few short years ago was that Texas was headed in a blue or at least competitive direction, and it seems that was wrong.”
For the first time, the Supreme Court has freed Texas legislative redistricting from federal oversight under the Voting Rights Act of 1965, allowing Republicans — who control both houses of the state Legislature — to configure districts to their advantage, experts say, solidifying their majority through 2032.
Abbott, a former state attorney general and judge who’s up for reelection next fall, has championed more conservative policies after he faced a backlash from his party’s right wing over pandemic lockdowns, masks and vaccines, Henson noted.
Because Texas voter turnout is among the lowest in the country, Abbott is catering not to the wishes of nearly 21 million voting-age Texans, the 17 million registered to vote last year or even the registered Republicans, Henson said. Henson stated that his target was 1.7 million ultra-conservative voters who are most likely to attend the March primary. These include Allen West, a Black U.S. Army veteran and tea party stalwart, as well as the outgoing chair for the Texas GOP, known for its incendiary right wing rhetoric.
” Extremely conservative voters are driving this agenda right now,” Henson stated. The prevailing question is, “How far can you go?” If you issue a ban on abortion that is as far as you can get toward a ban, legalize permit-less carry, empower poll watchers, legalize this conservative agenda, will you create a problem for yourself in the general election?”
So far, there have been no major corporate protests or boycotts of Texas like there were in Georgia after Republicans passed voting restrictions there earlier this year. There were marches for women’s rights Saturday in Austin, Houston and more than 500 other cities nationwide in response to the abortion ban (the Houston march was led by celebrity chefs Padma Lakshmi and Gail Simmons, in town filming the next season of “Top Chef”). But people still came to the Austin City Limits music festival, which began last week, and a weekend of motorcycle racing at the Circuit of the Americas.
Outside La Barbecue restaurant, a popular Austin lunch spot, manufacturing consultant Rick Saltzman said the new abortion law almost prevented him from visiting for the motorcycle race with his friends from Ohio.
“I said to my wife, ‘We had these tickets ahead of time, but I’m not fond of going to Texas,'” said Saltzman, 72, as he stood next to his BMW motorcycle after lunch. “I thought, should I really go to Texas with what’s going on?”
“Did you really?” said friend Blaine Bahm, 63, who’s more conservative and said he “likes what’s going on” in Texas.
Outside the Capitol, Anthony Filitov, 38, an office worker from Los Angeles — also in town for the race — toured the grounds wearing an anti-COVID-lockdown T-shirt.
” “The country is just going in the wrong way,” he stated. “If my job allowed me to move, I would consider Texas .”
Nearby. Natalie Arneson visited upstate New York to play with her children and three Texas cousins. They were near a Confederate Memorial Statue.
Arneson, 38, a performer and native Texan, is liberal, as is her younger brother, although he’s also a gun owner. Their parents and three younger siblings are conservative. One sister works for Texas Right to Life, and she lobbied to get the ban on abortion passed.
” We figure out how we can talk to one another,” she stated.
“Or sometimes not,” said brother Matthew Arnold, 36, a mover who lives outside Austin.
His wife, Kelsey Arnold, 32, a commercial insurance underwriter, is a Democrat who supports the abortion ban, although she doesn’t discuss it with liberal friends in Austin.
“The stuff people got upset about is not even in the law,” she said, but “they’re so angry, emotions are running so high, there’s no point talking about it right now.”
Conservative Texas activists said they’re emboldened by recent success, that it’s drawing like-minded voters who see the state as a grand experiment in “limited government.”
John Seago, legislative director at Texas Right to Life, called the abortion ban “the most encouraging developments in the Texas pro-life movement in the more than a decade that I’ve been involved.”
Seago stated that activists are preparing for the U.S. Supreme Court’s consideration of a Mississippi case that could uphold Roe vs. Wade. Texas is one of the half-dozen states that have so-called trigger legislations that would make abortion illegal.
“We have to keep that,” he stated. He also mentioned the abortion ban, which opponents tried to amend to allow for incest and rape exceptions.
“These attacks to undermine the pro-life victories are going to continue to come,” he said. “In Texas, we’re getting a glimpse of what an abortion-free state will look like, what it will look like if Roe vs. Wade is overturned.”
Seago, 35, a father of two, lives in Austin, where he said some of his friends moved from Southern California to escape high taxes and a liberal ethos, especially in public schools. He said that people who moved to Austin saw the difference between Newsom and Abbott during the pandemic.
“They want to be conservative and have strong values,” Seago stated. “It’s a refugee situation, people who are not comfortable with the California values that are controlling the institutions.”
Matt Rinaldi, who leads the Texas GOP, agreed.
“The Californians and other outsiders moving to Texas are the ones keeping Texas red,” said Rinaldi, a former state legislator who moved from Connecticut 20 years ago. “I will get many emails from people saying, ‘I am from California and I want to move.’ What’s a good district where I’ll have good representation?’ They’re actually shopping.”
Rinaldi said he wished Republicans had been even more proactive this year, that he’d still like to see them ban transgender youths in sports and reconsider legislation to ban employer vaccine mandates and child gender modification.
” “I am optimistic for the future so long as we keep the course in protecting liberty and limited government,” he stated.
On Thursday, some Democratic lawmakers stopped at the Capitol to take photos of LGBTQ protesters and offered encouragement and reassurances.
” After sharing her story, Ann Johnson, a Houston native, said that she would continue to work to ensure everyone is aware of your humanity and that the state will protect you.
Foster wiped away tears.
” “I feel like I should remain and fight,” she stated. “We’re Texans too.”