Paying little attention to the heat advisory or soaring temperatures in Houston, hundreds showed up to hear former presidential candidate Beto O’Rourke speak about voting and voting rights on Sunday.
Much of the rally focused on the defeat of Senate Bill 7, the sweeping Republican bill that would have restricted polling places and allowed elections to be overturned.
O’Rourke encouraged residents to register, run for public office, and prepare to make noise for the state legislature’s upcoming special session — the harbinger of unfinished Republican “election security” bills.
His visit to Bayou City is part of an ongoing statewide “Drive for Democracy” tour by Powered by People, the voter registration and organizing group he founded following his 2020 presidential run.
The rally was attended by several local elected officials in Houston, including Congresswoman Sheila Jackson Lee, Mayor Sylvester Turner, Commissioner Rodney Ellis, and four Democratic statehouse lawmakers that helped break quorum last month to kill Senate Bill 7.
O’Rourke and the elected officials took turns celebrating the recent Democratic victory in the legislature and sobering attendees about the work that remains, namely passing the For the People Act, a major congressional voting rights bill stalled in the Senate by Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema, two Democratic Senators who have said no to passing the legislation with a slim 51 majority.
Asking Reps. Mary Ann Perez, Christina Morales, Ann Johnson, and Jarvis Johnson to stand before the crowd, O’Rourke said their act of courage in the legislature had “purchased us some time.”
“Not only did they stop SB 7,” O’Rourke said, “but they drew the eyes of this country upon Texas — and I hope they gave those Democrats in the Senate who actually have a majority, some backbone to use it.”
Commissioner Rodney Ellis stirred up the crowd by telling statehouse lawmakers to break quorum again during the special session.
“If they change the rules, if they walk over you, if they disrespect you, get the hell up and walk out again,” Ellis said.
The commissioner then turned his attention to O’Rourke, asking the audience who else could have turned out a crowd with 90 percent humanity.
“Beto, here’s my message: run Beto, run,” Ellis said to a cheering audience, which slowly began chanting the message.
Ellis gave the microphone back to O’Rourke, O’Rourke gave Ellis a tightlipped god-damn-you smile, and then he quickly went back to talking about Senate Bill 7. A similar moment occurred when former Harris County Clerk Chris Hollins spoke at the rally and thanked “Governor O’Rourke” for introducing him (more cheers).
As county clerk, Hollins oversaw the expansion of vote by mail during the pandemic, as well as the introduction of 24-hour voting and drive-thru. Hollins said 15,000 Harris County residents cast their ballots with 24-hour voting, and 200,000 chose to vote by mail.
“We brought Democracy to Houston and Harris County,” Hollins said of the massive volunteer effort and public service workers that helped run the expansion smoothly.
“That’s what we’re fighting for, right now,” Hollins said, warning that Republicans were trying to make those popular measures and more illegal.
Congresswoman Shelia Jackson Lee made a surprise appearance and was one of the last speakers at the rally. Like others, she encouraged residents to register to vote and touted Democratic victories in the House, including the For the People Act and George Floyd Justice in Policing Act. The congresswoman said that despite being defeated, Trump still had influence in Washington and that the former president was helping stall legislation.
“America is now bowing down to the altar of a deposed president, impeached twice,” Jackson Lee said. “He looms of halls of Congress, he finds himself in meeting rooms, he’s whispering in the ears of the minority leader of the U.S. Senate.”
As the evening winded down, O’Rourke warned that 47 different state legislatures had seen legislation inspired by the “Big Lie” of Trump’s victory.
“If you do nothing, not willing to sacrifice and struggle like those who came before, then all of those laws will pass, and this, what Abraham Lincoln called the ‘last best hope earth,’ will perish from the planet,” O’Rourke said. “And it will be you, and me and this generation who lost it, and we cannot have that.”
The Drive for Democracy tour will bring O’Rourke to Austin on Sunday for another major rally.
Fernando covers Texas politics and government at the Texas Signal. Before joining the Signal, Fernando spent two years at the Houston Chronicle and previously interned at Houston’s NPR station News 88.7. He is a graduate of the University of Houston, Jack J. Valenti School of Communication, and enjoys reading, highlighting things, and arguing on social media. You can follow him on Twitter at @fernramirez93 or email at firstname.lastname@example.org