The next six months in the Texas Capitol are expected to be tense, with money tight and the political conversation already dominated by social issues like who can use which bathroom.
But as lawmakers kicked off the 85th Legislative Session on Tuesday, they did it with a sense of optimism. Those fights will come in later days. This day was a celebration.
The session’s first day was marked by pomp and circumstance inside the Capitol, and protests and prayer rallies on the outside. Newly elected freshmen legislators and crusty veterans showed up with their spouses and children dressed in shiny dresses and colorful suits. Old colleagues hugged and shook hands all over the Capitol, catching up on family and work lives during their year-and-a-half break. In both chambers, members received a standing ovation when they were sworn in.
“We may bring different political perspectives, but we unite under one Capitol dome for a cause that is bigger than any one person or any political party,” Gov. Greg Abbott told the Senate soon after its members were sworn in. “It is the cause that makes Texas more than just a state. It is the cause that makes Texas a passion.”
But there were signs of the skirmishes to come. Even as Abbott spoke, protesters from a Black Lives Matter rally could be heard chanting outside. And as the day was getting started, state Rep. Eric Johnson, D-Dallas, proudly geared for a fight. He proclaimed on Twitter that he “Rolled up to the Texas Capitol bumping ‘Fight the Power’ by Public Enemy.”
“Any questions?” the tweet read.
The Capitol was packed with all kinds of Texans — from shaggy-haired activists to lobbyists in suits. Most statewide elected officials were there. And there were plenty of tourists who showed up just to catch a glimpse of the first day. The line into gallery to watch the proceedings in the House stretched through the middle of the building and down three flights of stairs. Meanwhile, the House and Senate floors were packed with lawmakers’ friends and family.
With no real race for speaker, the proceedings in the House were somewhat lacking in drama. Maybe the biggest source of intrigue was Rep. Dawnna Dukes, D-Austin, who is currently under investigation by the Travis County District Attorney’s Office over allegations that she misused her staff and state funds. In September, she announced she would resign, but she told the Tribune on Tuesday that she had changed her mind.
While her seat was empty as the House was gaveled in around noon, she made it to her desk in time to take the oath of office.
In the Senate, members ribbed Sen. Kel Seliger, R-Amarillo, with stories of his love for marshmallow Peeps and motorcycles as they elected him president pro tempore.
For others, especially new members, the proceedings had a first day of school feeling.
One freshman, Rep. Victoria Neave, D-Dallas, got ready for the day in the South Austin Omni Hotel. Six family members helped her get ready to get out the door by 10 a.m. It was an exciting moment for all of them.
“Seeing her being sworn in — it’s like all the work is finally paying off,” said Lizette Delbosque, Neave’s 18-year-old cousin.
Neave had two outfits in her hotel room to decide between. One was a white dress with long sleeves – intended to pay homage to the suffragettes who paved the way for her to work in the Capitol. The other was a more conservative choice that the older women in the room favored — a suit that would allow her to blend in.
As she pondered, another cousin, Patricia Cedillo, whispered: “Don’t listen to them. Wear that dress.”
Before Neave left for the Capitol, her godmother drew the women into a circle and led a prayer for her goddaughter. “Be with her, support her, guide her,” she prayed.
Neave, wearing her white dress, hugged each one before running out the door.
The Millions March Texas campaign marched from Huston-Tillotson University to the Texas State Capitol on Jan 10, 2017.Shelby Knowles for The Texas Tribune
While lawmakers were mostly jovial, protesters and activists fought to turn the attention of the day to their chosen causes. The most vocal might have been 100 or so who marched from the Huston-Tillotson University campus in East Austin to the Capitol.
The diverse group was smaller than expected — more than 1,000 people said on Facebook that they would attend. The marchers came from varied racial and ethnic backgrounds and represented several left-leaning groups, including Black Lives Matter and Next Generation Action Network.
Once at the Capitol, the group dispersed inside to speak with their lawmakers. The organizer, the Austin Justice Coalition, pushed a 10-point policy plan that prioritizes treatment over incarceration in drug cases, raising the minimum wage, fairness in criminal prosecutions and government transparency.
Many protesters said the recent presidential election made their call to action more urgent. Others said they were drawn to the march to call out discrimination against women, minorities and members of the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer communities. One of the most prominent bills filed so far this session is Senate Bill 6, which would require transgender people to use bathrooms in public schools, government buildings and public universities based on “biological sex.”
Civil rights and gay rights drew Steven Richmond, a 25-year-old black man from Dallas, to Austin. Richmond said his background, including some time spent in a homeless shelter, makes him a voice lawmakers should heed on housing issues and the plight of minorities and LGBT people.
“I come from a result of the police literally stopping me now and then and asking for my ID. I come from being bullied. I come from being categorized as something negative.”
By Matthew Watkins, Aliyya Swaby and Johnathan Silver, The Texas Tribune