How Texas got its Progressive Caucus

by | Sep 14, 2021 | Politics, Texas Legislature

It was no coincidence the Texas Progressive Caucus formed days after a string of Democrats suddenly returned to Austin to restore quorum in the House.

Although a press release announcing its formation made no mention of quorum, its founding members remained in Washington, frustrated by the end of the month and a half impasse they believed had finally put Democrats in a position of strength over the governor and Senate Republicans.

In reality, talks of forming the caucus had started weeks earlier but quorum convinced founding members to act quickly in creating a new left flank for Democrats in the state House.

Progressive Caucus Chair Ron Reynolds, a Missouri City attorney who has served in the House since 2011, said the idea was to create a platform for members to shake things up and speak freely, including about the quorum break and special session. 

“For me, it just didn’t make sense,” Reynolds said of fellow Democrats returning to Austin without negotiating anything, which he called a case of failed leadership. 

“To see the floor proceedings, it just pained me to see that we were really irrelevant,” Reynolds said. “The only thing they wanted us for was to make quorum so they could get their business done.”

To form the caucus Reynolds approached Rep. Jasmine Crockett of Dallas, an impassioned civil rights lawyer who finished her first term in the state House this year.

Crockett told the Signal the Progressive Caucus would offer an alternative voice to the Texas House Democratic Caucus, the official caucus of state House Democrats. It would push bolder messaging, she said, because the House Democratic Caucus needed to accommodate all of its lawmakers in both safe and unsafe districts.

“The HDC technically has been the voice of all Democrats, so to speak, but I didn’t really feel the HDC was speaking for me,” Crockett said of forming the caucus. 

“I needed people to know that there were what I considered to be stronger voices that maybe you’re not hearing from because it’s coming through the filter of HDC,” Crockett said. “They’re putting out messages that will work for all the elected Democrats, which some of them are only there by the skin of their teeth and some are solidly there.”

The end of the quorum break and the bluntness to which Crockett has spoken to as a moral and strategic failure by fellow members has made her a media favorite in Texas. It has also landed her along with Texas Progressive Caucus Whip Ana-Maria Ramos, another outspoken Democrat, in hot water with leadership in the House, according to Reynolds.

“They say, ‘you gotta tone it down or you may not get a committee assignment, or you may not get a chairmanship’ — I don’t think our caucus is concerned about titles,” Reynolds said. “We’re concerned about outcomes for Texans and marginalized and underserved communities.” 

Claudia Ordaz Perez, the new caucus’ treasurer, told the Signal she considered herself a moderate member who is willing to work across the aisle, but this session left her no choice. Perez felt a Progressive Caucus was needed to hold the line against an increasingly extreme Republican agenda.  

“When you look at this past special legislative session, you hear Republicans talk about how this was the most conservative session in Texas’ history, and it absolutely was,” Perez said.

“I mean look at everything that just happened, especially me coming from El Paso,” Perez said citing the 2019 mass shooting in her city and the permitless carry law passed by the Republican-led legislature.

“The Republican Party is vastly different than it was ten years ago, and it’s only going to get progressively worse,” Perez said. “It’s not the same environment as it was before. We’re living in a different time. After Trump, it’s just so different.” 

With 21 members and counting, the newly formed Texas House Progressive Caucus is already of considerable size. 

It has a long way to go before resembling the influence wielded by its larger cousin, the nearly 100-strong Congressional Progressive Caucus in Washington.

The CPC was formed by six members in 1991, including Peter DeFazio and then-freshman Maxine Waters, who both still serve in the U.S. House, Ron Dellums (the first DSA member in Congress), and then-freshman Bernie Sanders, the first chair of the caucus and currently its only Senator.

Having escaped the 2020 elections almost entirely unscathed, it is now the largest caucus and consequently the loudest voice among Democrats in Washington. Most recently under the leadership of Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-WA), the caucus has engaged in a bit of handwringing with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Democrats, threatening to withhold the vote of its 96 members on a major bipartisan infrastructure deal unless it includes spending for social programs and climate infrastructure.

It’s that sort of wheeling and dealing witnessed by Texas lawmakers that Reynolds said served as the inspiration for creating Texas’ own Progressive Caucus. 

Before the start of the first special session that would see Democrats break quorum for six weeks and shortly after walking out to stop the Republican voter suppression bill during the regular session in May, Reynolds and a handful of other Texas Democrats made a short trip to Washington D.C. to push for federal voting rights legislation. The visiting Democrats met with Vice President Kamala Harris, key Senate Democrats, Speaker Nancy Pelosi, and U.S. House members, including members of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, Reps. Jayapal, Ilhan Omar, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and others.

Reynolds said the Progressive Caucus and its members pushed Speaker Pelosi and Majority Leader Chuck Schumer to the left on issues like criminal justice reform and climate change. He hoped to begin the same process in Texas. 

“In terms of what they are able to do, in terms of holding the line, being the conscience of the House and moving the progressive agenda forward, even against the interest of Speaker Pelosi — and she’s a fierce woman, a great tremendous leader,” Reynolds said. “But their presence changed the conversation.”

fernando@texassignal.com | + posts

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 fernando@texassignal.com

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