In Texas politics, moral victories can be meaningful

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When people talk about elections having consequences, they usually mean that winners get to exert their will over the lawmaking process.

But election consequences are often more subtle than that.

Consider the case of state Rep. Ina Minjarez, the San Antonio Democrat who has devoted much of her time in the Legislature to finding common ground on issues that cut across the partisan divide, such as foster care reform and cyberbullying.

This year, however, Minjarez grew frustrated with a relentless GOP culture-war agenda that ignored urgent problems (the state’s fragile power grid; the devastating impact of the COVID-19 pandemic) in favor of targeting transgender kids and critical race theory, allowing permitless carry of handguns, restricting voting access and weaponizing private citizens to enforce a near-total abortion ban.

So she decided to walk away.

Last week, Minjarez, one of the most dedicated and effective members of the Texas House, announced that she will run for Bexar County judge rather than seek another term in the Legislature.

The way Minjarez sees it, the Texas Legislature will continue to be a dysfunctional body until/unless voters send a message to this state’s leaders.

“It’s all determined on what the election results are going to be,” she said on the Express-News’ Puro Politics podcast. “The session before (in 2019), the Republicans got the scare of their life when it looked like the AG (Ken Paxton) barely held on to his seat, (Lt. Gov.) Dan Patrick as well. Because of that, we had such a great session.

“That was the whole focus on public education funding. We lovingly referred to it as the ‘Kumbaya Legislative Session,’ because we were are all in sync together.”

In the 2014 midterms, every single statewide Republican candidate won by a margin of at least 19 percentage points.

In 2018, four statewide Republican incumbents (including Paxton and Patrick) won re-election by less than five points. Democrats gained 12 seats in the Texas House and two seats in the U.S. House.

Yes, Republicans maintained their 24-year unbeaten streak in statewide elections and held control of both houses of the Legislature. Nonetheless, they knew voters had sent them a message. There was serious concern within the party that Democrats might flip the Texas House in 2020.

That set the stage for what Minjarez referred to as the Kumbaya session. In 2019, Texas Republicans largely put aside their preoccupations with social wedge issues and actually addressed the everyday needs of their constituents.

Republicans and Democrats brokered an $11.6 billion public-education finance package that included $6.5 billion in new spending for schools (a major Democratic priority) and $5.1 billion in property tax relief (a major Republican priority). It was a rare moment in recent Texas governance in which something big happened, and both major parties emerged victorious.

“This one law does more to advance education in the state of Texas than any law that I have seen in my adult lifetime in the state of Texas,” Gov. Greg Abbott said as he signed the school finance bill into law.

The cooperative spirit of the 2019 session extended to the passage of a bill that raised the minimum age for tobacco purchases from 18 to 21, a rare example of state lawmakers following the lead of the San Antonio City Council.

In 2020, Republicans received a more comforting message from voters. Democrats failed to score any net gains in the Texas House or Congress. U.S. Sen. John Cornyn won re-election by nearly 10 percentage points.

GOP lawmakers responded with this year’s brazen disregard for bipartisanship. And Minjarez came away “wondering whether I wanted to continue as a state representative.”

The 2018 election demonstrated, however, that even the most committed culture warriors will bend in the face of a voter backlash. And even a victory can nudge extremists toward moderation if that victory is uncomfortably close.

The lesson for Texas voters going into 2022 is that moral victories can be meaningful if they alter the conduct of this state’s GOP leaders, who have gotten used to fearing their party’s primary voters while disregarding the general electorate.

Minjarez said even if Democrats fall short in next year’s big races, “if we come close, that is what’s going to prompt Republican leadership to want to work together.”

It’s a point that applies to the gubernatorial candidacy of former El Paso Congressman Beto O’Rourke, whose narrow defeat to U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz helped drive Democratic turnout in 2018. Even in a losing cause, O’Rourke affected the behavior of the state’s most powerful Republicans (not that they would care to admit it).

Democratic voters should be mindful that even when they can’t elect the candidates they want, they can exert influence on the candidates they don’t want.

ggarcia@express-news.net | Twitter: @gilgamesh470



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