40. 15 Minutes of Feminism: What the Heck is Happening in Texas? (with Rep. Donna Howard and Ms. Digital Editor Roxy Szal)

With Guests:

  • Texas state Representative Donna Howard, one of the Democrats that fled the state. She represents Texas’s own district 48, based in Austin. She’s an Austin native, has served in the Texas House of Representatives since 2006, and is a member of the House Appropriations Committee and State Affairs Committee, as well as the chair of the Women’s Health Caucus.
  • Roxy Szal, Ms. magazine’s digital editor and a co-producer for “On the Issues.” She’s been reporting on the ground from Texas, and can weigh in status of democracy in the Lone Star State.

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In this Episode:

Republican lawmakers in Texas seem obsessed with passing extreme voter suppression legislation, banning critical race theory and outlawing abortion outright. In protest, Texas House Democrats have fled the state en masse and are making national news while camped out in the U.S. capital. Texas Governor Greg Abbott has threatened to arrest legislators when they return from Washington, D.C., *and* vowed to call special session after special session until the elections bill passes. On Saturday, July 31, thousands of people descended upon the Texas Capitol with signs demanding lawmakers “Protect Voting Rights,” “End the Filibuster” and “Say No to Jim Crow.”

So … what the heck is happening in Texas?! If you haven’t been following along, don’t worry—we’ve got you covered in this week’s edition of “On the Issues,” 15 Minutes of Feminism. (Okay, 17 minutes!)

Have a guest suggestion, topic suggestion or just want to say hi? Email us at ontheissues@msmagazine.com!

Background Reading:

Transcript:

Michele Goodwin  00:10

Welcome to our 15 Minutes of Feminism podcast, part of our “On the Issues with Michele Goodwin” studio at Ms. magazine, a show where we report, rebel and tell it like it is. Now on today’s show, we have another 15 minutes of feminism for you. And we want to know, what the heck is happening in Texas? Democrats fleeing the state, Republican voting restrictions … If you haven’t been following along, don’t worry, we’ve got you covered. 

We’re joined this week by Ms. digital editor, Roxy Szal, who’s been reporting on the ground from Texas and who knows exactly what the heck is going on. And Representative Donna Howard has stopped by our digital studio to further break down what’s happening in Texas, and why she and colleagues left the state—okay, some said fled the state—and why Governor Abbott claimed to have her arrested when she returns. So buckle up. Stay tuned, you are in for 15 minutes of feminism counted in Ms. terms. 

So I’m really fortunate on this episode to be joined by one of my producers, you will know her from what’s brilliant on our website. That’s Roxy Szal, who makes things happen. But Roxy, I’m so happy to have you on the podcast and to bring you from the digital into the audio because I want to know, what the heck is happening in Texas? And why did you go to Texas? Why were you at the legislature?

Roxy Szal  01:35

Oh, my gosh, what the heck is going on in Texas? 

Michele Goodwin

What’s going on? 

Roxy Szal

I know. So to answer this question, I need to set the stage a bit. Till now at least 18 states have enacted 30 laws that restrict access to the vote. And this wave of voting restrictions is the most aggressive the U.S. has seen in more than a decade.

Michele Goodwin  01:53

Wait, wait, stop, stop, stop, stop, stop. Roxy, what did you just say? I mean, just so that people can know that they heard it right, in a place that celebrates democracy, in a country that has taken people around the world to make sure that others have a right to vote, and that voting processes are fair. Did you just say that there have been how many states and how many…

Roxy Szal  02:16

Since January 1 till July 14th— 

Michele Goodwin

—2021. You’re not talking about—

Roxy Szal

2021, this year alone. 18 states have enacted 30 laws that restrict access to the vote, and counting.

Michele Goodwin  02:30

And counting. And Texas is one of them.

Roxy Szal  02:34

Yeah. And so of course, you know, these efforts are largely motivated by what we’re calling “The Big Lie,” which is this idea that a massive conspiracy robbed former President Donald Trump of a second term. And like you said, Michele, this issue is important, particularly important in Texas, where voting laws in the state are already the most restrictive in the entire country. And unsurprisingly, voter turnout here is also among the worst in the country. 

And so, despite this fact, during the regular legislative session, which runs from January through May in odd numbered years, including this year, Texas Republicans, with the backing of Republican governor Greg Abbott, attempted to ram through the now infamous Senate bill 7, which would essentially alter the entire voting process in Texas, creating new limitations to early voting hours, increasing vote by mail restrictions, eliminating local voting options like drive-thru voting, just a mess. And so Democrats— 

Michele Goodwin

—it sounds like a hot mess. 

Roxy Szal

Truly. And so you know, the other part of this hot mess is that Democrats really weren’t left with a lot of options. You know, Texas is one of 23 states that has a Republican state government trifecta. And so in order to derail that extreme bill that I mentioned back in May, during literally the final hour of the state legislature session for the entire year, Democrats staged a walkout and their absence left the House without a quorum, which requires two thirds of 150 House members to be present in order to take a vote.

Michele Goodwin  04:01

So okay, Rep. Howard, you’re one of the courageous folks of Texas, you represent Texas’s district 48, which is based in Austin, you’re an Austin native, and you’ve served in the Texas House of Representatives since 2006. What’s going on? And where are you? I mean, can we disclose your location at all?

Texas Democrats: On Abortion Rights and Voting Rights, “I Don’t Want To Go Back”
Rep. Howard at a For the People rally at the Texas Capitol on June 20. (Twitter)

Donna Howard  04:30

I think it’s pretty obvious from the social media that I am in Washington, DC. I am in isolation in my hotel room, because I’m one of those that unfortunately tested positive despite being fully vaccinated. So I’m following CDC guidelines. But luckily, we’re used to doing zooms now. So I am able to keep having meetings. I’m able to be here with you today and I’m so appreciative of that. 

Michele Goodwin

I appreciate having you here. 

Donna Howard

Well, thank you, and Roxy laid it out so well. This is an outrageous situation we find ourselves in, quite frankly, the Texas legislature was ramming through some very discriminatory policies that were going to actually create less of an opportunity to vote, when we are one of the lowest voting turnout states in the nation. 

And as the minority party, we tried to work with our colleagues. And in fact, during the regular session, we did have some negotiated changes and additions to the elections bill, we weren’t going to vote for it, but it was better. But unfortunately, when it went to the Senate, they stripped out all of those provisions. And as Roxy said, at the very last hour, we got that bill back to the house, without any public hearing, without any opportunity for debate,

Michele Goodwin  06:03

Wait wait wait, without any public hearing? 

Donna Howard

Correct. 

Michele Goodwin

No opportunity for to debate? How in the world could that be democratic? That’s not democratic.

Donna Howard  06:13

You’re absolutely right. It’s not democratic. And, and we were in a position of recognizing at that point that we were pushed up against a wall, that this legislation was going to pass, regardless of the lack of input, that the author did not even know what was in the bill, that after, after this all ended, they admitted that it was egregious, what was going to be proposed. This is just an absolutely unbelievable situation.

Michele Goodwin  06:46

So let’s talk a little bit more about Texas. And I’m so glad that one of our team members, my producer, Roxy Szal, was able to be on the ground meet with you and others. And let us just say that Governor Greg Abbott has said, as soon as they come back, and I guess that includes you, back in the state of Texas, they will be arrested, they will be cabined inside the Texas Capitol until they get their job done. Do you fear for your arrest?

Donna Howard  07:13

You know, the Governor does not have the authority to arrest us. The authority to detain us is part of the Constitution. And it is part of something that the Speaker of the House could do. There’s nothing about arresting, but they can detain us.

Michele Goodwin  07:31

But that is, that’s absolutely threatening.

Donna Howard  07:34

It is threatening, it is threatening. And the rhetoric is treating us as if we were criminals, as if we were actually animals to corral and cabin, it’s just, the rhetoric is just through the roof.

Michele Goodwin  07:52

Yeah, it’s alarming. It’s absolutely chilling. And so another aspect of this, as Roxy has talked with us about the voting and voter suppression, but also coming out of Texas, hence “What the heck is going on in Texas,” there has been legislation in Texas to ban critical race theory. But in addition to that, to make sure that no one’s taught about Native American history, to make sure that there’s no talk about suffrage and women and voting or any of that, what the heck is going on in Texas?

Rep. Donna Howard (center) and colleagues meet with Richard Trumka, AFL-CIO president, to discuss voting rights. (Twitter)

Donna Howard  08:26

The most extreme of the Republican party has been able to select who is on the ballot, and by virtue of their being a one party state, that is the de facto winner in November in the general election.

Michele Goodwin  08:40

And I want to come back to that. Because there would be some that say, Well, why not vote them out, but I want to come to you, Roxy, and then I’m going to come back to that question. So Roxy, what’s your sense of why this type of, these types of laws are being passed? This kind of extreme legislation is being enacted in Texas, what’s behind all of this?

Roxy Szal  09:06

You know, I think it’s kind of two things. And so, you know, I might have said this before, but calling a special session is quite unusual. You know, it’s only typically done in the case of emergencies. And, you know, Governor Abbott caught a lot of flak in February, during the electrical grid debacle, you know, the electrical grid in Texas could be considered an emergency. That would have made a lot of sense to focus on. 

Michele Goodwin

There were people who died. 

Roxy Szal

Yes, during the session. Millions of Texans were left without power during that freeze in February. And just last month, ERCOT, which operates much of the of Texas’s electrical grid, asked us in June to conserve our energy usage to relieve pressure off the grid. But because the electrical grid is not on the agenda, Representative Howard and her colleagues can’t pass legislation on it and can’t discuss it and so I think part it is like what—

Michele Goodwin  10:01

This is kind of like some Houdini move, this is what you’re saying, right? 

Roxy Szal

It’s a distraction.

Michele Goodwin

It’s a distraction, right? Like, look over here, don’t look at the fact that you had no electricity, and that there were people who literally froze to death and other people who were deeply harmed. That’s basically what you’re saying. It’s a kind of bait and switch.

Roxy Szal  10:21

Yeah, exactly. And LaTosha Brown, she was on the steps of the Capitol on July 8, on the start of the session from Black Voters Matter. And she told me point blank, this is political theater. You know, this is, and it’s also what Representative Howard said, the representatives are trying to out-Trump each other because the demographics of the state are changing. The more you can focus on cultural issues, the less attention is spent on some of these failures that literally killed hundreds of people.

Michele Goodwin  10:49

So let’s talk about another piece of legislation within the abortion area, Rep. Howard, because Texas has enacted, there’s been a law that’s that’s been enacted, which basically some will say, allows for a bit of vigilantism for the so that citizens can take it into their own hands to pursue individuals that are helping a person get an abortion. What’s behind that?

Donna Howard  11:18

Yeah, this is one of the most sinister, sly maneuvers that anybody’s seen so far. A lot of the the previous legislation to restrict access to abortion has had the ability for the state to enforce it. And so the courts could then be called upon to create injunctions and intervene and prevent it from being effective. 

In this case, state’s not involved. Instead, they’ve deputized, basically, anyone anywhere, to file a lawsuit against somebody who they believe has aided and abetted an abortion after six weeks gestation. 

Michele Goodwin

And here we could be talking about when somebody is in an Uber or Lyft, or a friend is giving a ride to someone to go to a clinic to terminate a pregnancy. 

Donna Howard

That’s correct. It’s providing childcare for somebody to do all the traveling they have to do in order to meet all of the ridiculous requirements that we currently have in place that you have to do before you can even get the abortion, the person that’s actually scheduling the appointment, to providing some financial assistance to help them with their travel and transportation. You know, it’s absolutely mind boggling what’s being—

Michele Goodwin  12:44

It’s pernicious. Well, you know, in a backdrop of which, you know, that Texas has been considered the deadliest place in the developed world for a person to be pregnant, because of the very high maternal mortality rates. Just for clarity, Texas would compete with Louisiana for that. But this is in the wake of such egregious and aggressive efforts taking place at the legislative levels in Texas.

Donna Howard  13:14

That’s correct. That’s absolutely correct. It’s been part of the goal here is to chip away and chip away and force clinics to close in this great big state, you could drive for hours and hours before you can get to a clinic. 

And then all the restrictions that are in place that you have to have 24 hour ahead of time, an appointment where you get a transvaginal sonogram, and then you have to come back, you know, 24 hours later, and all kinds of obstructions that make it extremely difficult for especially, especially people who are marginalized and find themselves pregnant and in a position where they do not want that pregnancy. And yet, they have all of these expenses and obstacles that they have to incur. And it absolutely is impacting those of little resources, people of color, those in the rural area. It’s really just egregious.

Michele Goodwin  14:08

So I’ve got a couple of quick questions for you both before we get to our silver lining. And so these are really quick. All right. So what’s the status of the Texas electric grid? Is it working? Is there power in Texas?

Donna Howard  14:20

There’s power in Texas. Yes. And, you know, we did make some changes and they are being implemented. But there’s a lot more to do, despite what governor Abbott has said. It is not fixed. But there are things that are improving the situation.

Texas state Rep. Donna Howard (center) and colleagues meet with Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) on July 14 to discuss voting rights. (Twitter)

Michele Goodwin  14:35

Exactly. So Roxy, really quickly, how do you think that Abbott will respond next? He’s already threatening to arrest Representative Howard and some others. He doesn’t have that power. But what’s he going to do next Roxy?

Roxy Szal  14:47

I don’t know what is going to happen to be honest, and maybe Representative Howard could speak to this more but I do know that like I said, tension is building and just like the last time you know governor Abbott does not like to be embarrassed and when the democrats walked out in May it was embarrassing for him. It made national news, you know, the Democrats were praised as heroes. And so I’m scared.

Michele Goodwin 15:10

What’s something good that’s come out of this Texas situation? I’ll start with you, Rep. Howard?

Donna Howard  15:16

I’m struggling there. But I do you think what is good is the awareness that’s out there, the activity that we see amongst people, the marching that’s going to be going on this next week to the Texas Capitol. With so many groups coming together and recognizing that this is about our voice. This is about our power. This is about our very democracy.

Michele Goodwin  15:40

Thank you so much. What about you, Roxy, what’s the silver lining that’s come out of you being on the ground in Texas?

Roxy Szal  15:45

You know, I’m the digital editor at Ms. And I’m noticing the serious engagement on our Texas coverage. And so what that makes me think is that people are noticing, you know, even if people that are not located in Texas are worried about the fight for voting rights in Texas.

Michele Goodwin  16:03

Guests and listeners, that’s it for today’s episode of “On the Issues with Michele Goodwin,” our 15 minutes of feminism. I want to thank my guests Representative Donna Howard and our Ms. Digital editor and my producer Roxy Szal for joining us and being part of this critical and insightful conversation. 

And to our listeners, I thank you for tuning in for our 15 minutes of feminism. We hope you join us again for our next episode where you know we will be reporting, rebelling and telling it like it is with special guests tackling issues related to the Olympics: An uneven playing field? We’ll be joined by the ACLU’s Ria Tabacco Mar and it will be an episode you will not want to miss. 

For more information about what we discussed today, head to Msmagazine.com, and if you believe as we do that women’s voices matter, that equality for all persons cannot be delayed, and that rebuilding America, being unbought and unbossed, and reclaiming our time are important, then be sure to rate, review and subscribe to “On the Issues with Michele Goodwin” in Apple podcasts, Spotify, iHeart Radio, Google podcasts and Stitcher, wherever you listen to your podcasts. We are ad free and reader supported. Help us reach new listeners and bring the hard hitting content you’ve come to expect by rating, reviewing and subscribing. Let us know what you think about our show, and please support independent feminist media. 

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This has been your host Michele Goodwin, reporting, rebelling and telling it like it is. “On the Issues with Michele Goodwin” is a Ms. magazine joint production. Kathy Spillar and Michele Goodwin are our executive producers. Our producers for this episode are Roxy Szal and Oliver Haug, and I want to thank Lillian LaSalle, who is our social media intern. The creative vision behind our work includes art and design by Brandi Phipps, editing by Will Alvarez and Marsh Allen, and music by Chris J. Lee. Stephanie Wilner provides executive assistance.