From Texas to D.C.: A Legislator—and Her Child—Fight for Voting Rights

“It’s not just about Texas—it’s about Georgia, it’s about Arizona, it’s about Florida, it’s about every state where Republicans are trying to force through bills based on a lie, based on the idea that Trump really won.”

—Texas state Representative Erin Zwiener (D)

Rep. Erin Zwiener—second from left—and her Democratic colleagues en route to D.C. on Monday, July 12. (Twitter)

Thursday, July 8, marked the start of the special legislative session in Texas. Calling a special session is already unusual, and in particular, the agenda for this session—set in this case by Gov. Greg Abbott (R)—is considered by many to be a Republican wishlist, tackling wedge issues like voting rights, trans rights, medication abortion and border security, and shirking issues like the state’s crumbling electrical grid.

Despite powerful testimony during weekend hearings through the night on House Bill 3 and Senate Bill 1—extreme pieces of election legislation that would ban drive-thru and 24-hour voting options and further restrict the state’s vote-by-mail rules—both House and Senate committees voted to advance the election bills, rejecting every amendment offered by Democrats. That left Democrats at a crossroads: Should we stay or should we go?

Ultimately, over 50 Texas Democratic legislators opted on Monday to leave the state en masse to prevent a quorum in the House and to freeze the bills from advancing through the chambers. On Tuesday, lawmakers remaining in Texas passed a motion designating the out-of-state Democrats to be “legislative fugitives” and asking that “the sergeant at arms, or officers appointed by him, send for all absentees … under warrant of arrest if necessary.”

One of those “fugitive” Democrats is Texas state Representative Erin Zwiener (D)—a mother to a 3-year-old daughter named Lark, as well as a creative writing teacher and life-long environmentalist. Due to very real child care constraints, Zwiener faced an impossible choice: Do I flee the state with or without my child?

Being a mother in the public eye is a strong part of Zwiener’s identity: Elected in 2018, she unseated former incumbent Republican Jason Isaac and campaigned while pregnant, then gave birth while in office. Ultimately, on Monday, Zwiener opted to bring Lark with her while she makes history and flees the state. 

Zwiener joined Ms. to discuss how these drastic measures relate to Texas Democrats’ overall strategy, and how their quick exit affected her as a wife, parent and legislator.  

The interview was real and honest: Throughout the 30-minute call, Zwiener switched back and forth between mothering and soothing Lark—who despite being confused and jetlagged, is a “trooper,” says Zwiener—and answering questions about the urgent mission in Washington, D.C., to secure the right to vote for all Texans. 

Roxy Szal: What a difference a week makes! We spoke last week while you were still in Texas, and when I asked you about overall Democratic strategy, you said all options were on the table. Now, you’re there in D.C. with your colleagues—this was more or less the “nuclear option.”

Can you talk to me a bit about overall strategy? It came to this so quickly—how did this come to be, and what are you all hoping for?

Rep. Erin Zwiener: I do want to say that when you and I last spoke, this trip was not foregone. It was certainly an option on the table, but the decision was not made. We had our hearing on House Bill 3, and the same day a group of us met to start discussing our options.

I joined with other members in what we call ‘frontline districts’—meaning we must defend our seats intensely in the general election—as well as leaders of our caucus. It was our job to decide both if we should go and if we were to go, when, and then to try and work out some of the logistics of where and how. It unfolded fairly quickly.

When we had the hearing on the bill—I’d say we had it on Saturday, but it ended Sunday. It was a hearing that was over 23 hours. At the end, several of my Democratic colleagues offered amendments to the bill. None of them were taken, and it became clear to us both that we weren’t going to make the progress we needed to on the bill to be comfortable allowing it to pass. Whatever version would have passed would’ve been based on a lie, and it would’ve harmed the ability of disabled Texans and Texans of color in particular to vote.

Part of our calculations involved how likely are Republicans to use this procedural move, putting a call on the House to vote on “the call of the House,” and they did that [Tuesday] morning—so we are officially fugitives from the Texas House.

I want to be clear: It is not illegal for us to break quorum, but now that they have put the call on the House, we are officially violating the rules of the House, and so they can send the sergeant at arms after us. Then there’s an argument over whether or not the sergeant at arms can deputize people like DPS troopers to look for us as well. There’s a legal argument there.

But we were very concerned that Republican leadership in the House might structure things so that we wouldn’t have an opportunity to leave, and that’s part of our calculation to leave before Tuesday. 

“We are officially fugitives from the Texas House. … It is not illegal for us to break quorum, but now … they can send the sergeant at arms after us.”

“I have news for Texas Republicans: If you’re afraid of Texans voting then you’re in the wrong business,” said Zwiener during a voting rights rally outside the Austin Capitol on June 20. (Texas Democrats / Twitter)

[At this point in the interview, her daughter Lark in the background calls for her mom and Zwiener patiently soothes her.]

Szal: Let’s talk about Lark for a little bit. It’s kind of like the elephant in the room—you traveling with your 3-year-old, it’s just incredible. 

Already, when I see that photo of the Texas legislators en route to D.C., it’s so inspiring, and then seeing you there with your baby, it was just really moving. I’m sure that was not an easy decision and it sounds like taking this kind of trip as a parent of a young child will no doubt continue to be a struggle. 

Zwiener: Roxy, she only slept six hours last night. We didn’t get to D.C. until almost midnight, and it’s a strange place, so she just had a tough time falling asleep. She’s never fallen asleep in a room with other people because she wants to interact with you forever, so that’s always been hard for her. Then, this morning she started asking to go night-night at 9 a.m.

Szal: Can you talk to me not only about how you made the call to go to D.C. at all, but then to bring your child with you to “make that good trouble”? 

Zwiener: There were a lot of factors for us to consider. You know, one is money, because my job [as a legislator] pays $600 a month. I love it, but it does not pay the bills, and so my husband is the one who earns the money to pay our bills. He recently got a promotion and a new position at his job that involves him having to be at work at 7 a.m.—which is before any of the child care facilities in our area open.

As of Sunday night, we also only had two days a week of daycare secured. [If Lark stayed with him,] it would’ve put him in a position of just spending many of his waking hours moving her from place to place, shuffling between friends and family, especially since we live in an area that’s semi-rural so it’s not like there’s places around the corner. This often means an hour-round trip drive to get her somewhere to be watched for the day. That would’ve been hard on him and also on my daughter.

The other big factor is I’m not okay with going 25 days without seeing my daughter, and I’m now trapped out of the state until August 7, and I really don’t want to put my unvaccinated 3-year-old on a commercial aircraft, especially as cases are rising. Whereas my husband and I are both vaccinated, it’s logistically possible—albeit, still expensive—for him to get on a jet and fly up here for the weekend and spend some of his days off with us. 

Planning that is still tough. I’ll be frank. I don’t know where we’re going to be this weekend. We have not finalized our plans for these whole 25 days. Obviously my husband does not love that we are gone. He would like to see both of us everyday, but he’s been gracious enough to yield to my desire to be with her, as well as recognizing the logistical problems, and we’re going to make sure to plan to get him up here at least once, if not twice. I say up here, wherever we are.

Szal: I saw that selfie that you tweeted of you and Lark on the plane. It seems to have really struck a nerve with people. It’s already challenging to travel with a small child, let alone as a “fugitive”!

What do you think it represents to people to see that—to see a mother engaging in civil disobedience, and then to bring her daughter along? What do you think it represents to your constituents or just women in general, especially mothers who aspire to be in politics? Do you hope this will have an impact on Lark? 

Zwiener: The narrative that Republicans want is that we’re out here on a party trip. The truth is leaving was not a light decision for any of us. 

We have members who are giving up gainful income to be here, putting themselves in tight financial spots. We have a member who was going to get married on the House floor this week and had to cancel her wedding. There are people caring for aging relatives. There are so many who are moving mountains to get their family here. Representative John Bucy basically drove for a day straight [with his wife and child] to get here. There’s probably another six or seven members that have young children and are not happy about being separated from them.

My point is: We don’t take this lightly. This isn’t a jaunt. This is an extreme step that we took because of an extreme threat, and I think for folks seeing the realness of that, drives it home.

It’s just a common narrative that women are supposed to raise their children—and then if they’re interested in politics, they can dig in. It was a new and unusual thing for me to be running and pregnant and then with a newborn in 2018.

I also think it gives a lot of folks hope that they can do other things while being a mom. We have this culture of motherhood that argues it should be all-encompassing. I love being a mom. I love my daughter. I am 100 percent present with her every day—but I also can have a full life, and I think she is happier for me to have a full life and to see me doing things and for her to be a part of it.

I think it is good for all children to see that their mothers are full human beings just like their dads are—whatever shape that takes for an individual mom—and I think we have more and more women who want a path out of that narrow view of motherhood and are very excited to see examples of it in the world.

Maybe my least favorite thing about holding office is having to parent in public in the public eye. I don’t live a life that is easily compartmentalized. If I want to see my daughter with any frequency, it means I have to bring her to some stuff. What makes it hard is what you are doing is always being judged—always. 

I joke that there is no right way to be a mother in public. You show up with your kids and you’re a great dad. But if you’re a mother you’re either hovering too much, or you’re not keeping a close enough eye on them, or you’re not getting them outside enough, or you have them in the sun too much—somebody always is ready to tell you what you’re doing wrong, literally always.

I see other mothers feel that same pressure who are less in the public eye than I am, and so I think there’s something really powerful about normalizing the messiness and the difficulty of parenting. You know, it’s not easy, but my child is such a trooper. She did fantastic right up until we got to the hotel room and did not want to take a bath, but we got through it. 

“It is good for all children to see that their mothers are full human beings just like their dads are—whatever shape that takes for an individual mom—and I think we have more and more women who want a path out of that narrow view of motherhood and are very excited to see examples of it in the world.”

From Texas to D.C.: A Legislator—and Her Child—Fight for Voting Rights
Texas Democrats, including Rep. Erin Zwiener and Lark, meet with Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) on Wednesday, July 14. (Twitter)

Szal: Let’s talk about what your D.C. reception looked like and felt like. Who have you met with in the Senate so far? What do those conversations look like? What’s on the agenda for the coming days? Who and what is the plan here?

Zwiener: Members are having several meetings. Today [Tuesday] the ones I’m aware of that are scheduled are with Senator Alex Padilla [(D-Calif.)], Majority Leader Chuck Schumer and Sen. Cory Booker [(D-N.J.)]. I’m going to be in the meeting with Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand [(D-N.Y.)]—who, you will appreciate, went out of the way to make it clear my daughter was welcome, so Lark will be joining me at that meeting later today.

That’s our first round. We’re all working hard to get more meetings set up. As crazy as our schedules are as state representatives, senator schedules are much trickier, so we’re all doing everything we can to get those meetings set up and talk to some of the key folks up here and hopefully get them energized to act on voting rights for Texans.

Szal: How would you like readers to help you and your colleagues in this fight? As y’all are making these plans and things start to formulate, how could people help?

Zwiener: I want folks to reach out to their senators and tell them how important this fight is not just for Texans, but for the entire nation. What we have in Texas are people in power afraid of losing it because of voters exercising their sacred freedom to vote. That’s wrong. It is deeply wrong. 

There is a dangerous precedent to set for the rest of the country, and it’s not just about Texas—it’s about Georgia, it’s about Arizona, it’s about Florida, it’s about every state where Republicans are trying to force through bills based on a lie, based on the idea that Trump really won. 

Well, I’ve got news, he did not. He lost, it’s over, it’s gone … but these laws are based on a lie, and they will make it harder for people of color and people with disabilities to vote. I mean, I’m here because I’m willing to put it all on the line for the people I represent.

We need our senators to have courage, and I know from my own experience as an elected official that hearing from their constituents bolsters their courage.

Ramona Flores provided editorial assistance and research for this article.

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Roxanne Szal (or Roxy) is the managing digital editor at Ms. and a producer on the Ms. podcast On the Issues With Michele Goodwin. She is also a mentor editor for The OpEd Project. Before becoming a journalist, she was a Texas public school English teacher. She is based in Austin, Texas. Find her on Twitter @roxyszal.