State Rep. Philip Cortez (D-San Antonio) returned to the Texas House chamber on Wednesday last week, according to the journal clerk with which he checked in.
Democrats made their move in an attempt to kill the election reform bill prioritized by the House GOP.
“A small working group of Democrats decided to begin active discussions here in Austin on improving HB 3 and asked that I return to establish open communication lines,” Cortez said last Wednesday.
“I returned to Texas to try to engage in good faith dialogue about the aspects of the bill that I, and others, think are harmful.”
A few of Cortez’s Democratic colleagues took umbrage with his return to Austin.
“[Cortez] is not negotiating on our behalf,” Rep. Gina Hinojosa (D-Austin) said in reaction. “He made the decision to rejoin Republicans without speaking to the Dem delegation.”
Rep. Ina Minjarez (D-San Antonio) said, “Though I cannot speak to what led to his decision, it is disheartening to think that some representatives might value a gavel over protecting the voting rights of all Texans.”
Multiple House members told The Texan they did not see Cortez on the floor Thursday, Friday, or Saturday.
On Friday, House Republicans said they were only nine members away from restoring a quorum. Then on Sunday, it was announced that Cortez had flown back to D.C.
“After discussions on improving House Bill 3 have not produced progress, I rejoined my Democratic colleagues in Washington, D.C,” Cortez said in a statement.
“I stand firm in my resolve to remain with the Democratic Caucus until the special session ends, and to do whatever it takes to fight for the freedom to vote for all Texans.”
Rep. Chris Turner (D-Grand Prairie), chair of the House Democratic Caucus, also said, “We welcome Rep. Phil Cortez, who is a valued member of our Caucus, back to Washington, D.C. with open arms.”
The lower chamber issued a call of the House motion the day after Democrats flew to the nation’s capital — which can entail ordering the arrests of truant members to enforce attendance.
On Sunday, House Speaker Dade Phelan (R-Beaumont) signed a civil arrest warrant for Cortez after the San Antonio representative had returned to D.C.
“To the Sergeant-at-Arms of the House of Representatives…or any officer appointed by him,” the order reads, “you are hereby commanded to take The Honorable Philip Cortez, a member of the House of Representatives of the State of Texas, who is now absent from the House, wherever said member may be found in the State into your custody and safekeeping and bring said member before the bar of the House.”
In a statement, Phelan said, “Rep. Cortez returned to the Texas Capitol of his own volition and represented to me and his fellow members that he wanted to work on policy and find solutions to bring his colleagues back to Texas.”
“As a condition of being granted permission to temporarily leave the House floor, Rep. Cortez promised his House colleagues that he would return. Instead, he fled the state and has irrevocably broken my trust and the trust of this chamber.”
This is the first public instance of a civil arrest warrant being issued during the current quorum break.
Cortez is one of the 13 Democrats serving as a committee chair under Phelan’s tutelage. While most Republicans across the state, the governor and lt. governor included, have stated the truant Democrats should lose their chairmanships, whether it can be done with no quorum is a question on which there is much division.
Phelan has been silent on the issue, too, other than to say it cannot be done without a quorum.
House Democrats continue to stress their commitment to running out the clock on the first special of the 87th Legislature. That end date is August 6 but Governor Greg Abbott has said he will call continuous special sessions until the key legislation is passed.
Editor’s Note: This article has been updated to include mention of Cortez’s chairmanship.
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Brad Johnson is a senior reporter for The Texan and an Ohio native who graduated from the University of Cincinnati in 2017. He is an avid sports fan who most enjoys watching his favorite teams continue their title drought throughout his cognizant lifetime. In his free time, you may find Brad quoting Monty Python productions and trying to calculate the airspeed velocity of an unladen swallow.