July 26, 2021
What’s at stake in Texas: An Interview with Representative Ann Johnson

This is a transcript of an interview with Sister District Co-Founder and Executive Director Lala Wu that originally appeared on Instagram Live. Remarks have been edited for clarity and brevity. To watch the full video, view it on Sister District Instagram.

Lala Wu:
We were extremely proud to support Representative Ann Johnson last year, running for the Texas House. She was the only red to blue flip in the Texas House, and is now making waves as a leading voice in the Texas walkout.

Representative, you as well as over 50 Democrats walked out and fled the state, going from Texas to Washington DC, to block the Republicans from ramming through a very horrible voter suppression bill.

Could you give us a little background on how you all made this decision and what it’s like on the ground right now?

Ann Johnson:
Thank you so much. I have to give a shout out to your South Bay group who was so instrumental in making sure that we got elected.

I was standing out at the polls and a young lady came up to me and she said, “I got three postcards today about you!” You all really did make the difference and helped us flip the seat.

I am so proud to be here, because I could be one of the Democrats to stand with more than 50 to break quorum. This is incredibly important and historical, because there are only five times that the Texas House has broken quorum, and we are actually number 4 and 5.

The reason that we took this extreme act of breaking quorum is because Texas Republicans are attempting to pass an extreme voter suppression bill that will take away the freedom to vote for millions.

So, why come to DC? We came to DC because we’ve recognized that we are simply another domino that Republican legislators, who are loyal to Trump and the “Big Lie,” are trying to make fall. We already saw the domino fall in Georgia. Texas was supposed to be next, but we have prevented it at this point.

It’s not just Texas, it’s every state that is being run by Republican legislators who are trying, under this idea of the Big Lie, to suppress votes.

It will disproportionately impact communities of color, our essential workers, and where I’m from in Harris County.

They want to prevent things like drive-through voting, which was used 60% of the time by women. And that makes sense because women have kids in their car, have somebody else that they’re caring for. Rather than taking them into the polls, they were able to vote in the comfort of their vehicle. Those are voters who should have access to the ballot box.

We need a national solution to protect the Voting Rights Act because we’ve had two really bad decisions come out of the US Supreme Court. We need Congress to act. We are here to put the pressure on them, and I am literally on borrowed time.

The minute I go back to Texas, I will be arrested. We are buying Congress time to stop this so that they can act and pass the John Lewis Voting Rights Act.

Lala Wu:
Thank you so much for your and fellow Democrats bravery. I mean, in addition to risking arrest or electoral challenges, I know that one representative postponed her wedding. I know that there’s been great personal sacrifice to get everybody to this point. We’re so incredibly grateful.

When you talked about the dominos, it reminds me of why we do what we do at Sister District, which is build progressive power in state legislatures. So much is in the hands of the state legislatures to make sure that we’re able to implement all of these standards.

I want to also talk a little bit about a fact that many people are surprised to learn – that being a state legislator is not a full-time job.

State legislators like you have to balance their other careers, their families, the rest of their lives. And also that the compensation for being a state legislator is quite low. In Texas it’s just $7,200 a year.

So this walkout is costing you all a lot of money, and there is a huge opportunity cost to you monetarily as well. Can you talk a little bit about how this might be affecting you, your family and those of others?

Ann Johnson:
We all are homesick, and we do miss home. I miss my wife, I miss my dogs, I miss my family. Many of my colleagues, some of them are single parents and their children are back home being watched by their grandparents.

Some colleagues have elderly parents that have medical issues at the moment, and they’re normally the primary caregiver, but they are here in DC.

We are an incredibly diverse group of Democrats, not just in who we are personally, but who we are professionally and where we come from geographically. Texas is a massive state. The one common factor with all of us is we do completely recognize that this moment is absolutely vital to the protection of our democracy.

We are part-time legislators. We get $7,200 a year. We are meant to have a different profession, but we are being called right now into a special session by Governor Greg Abbott.

When Hurricane Harvey hit and cost a billion dollars and devastated families in their homes by flooding, he didn’t call a special session. When COVID hit and thousands of Texans died and we saw a significant impact economically, he didn’t call a special session. When we had four of the top 10 mass shootings in the United States in Texas, he didn’t call a special session. When we are in the middle of power outages in Texas as a standalone power grid, he didn’t call a special session for any of these issues that really impact Texans.

This special session is a million-dollar taxpayer funded campaign ad for Governor Greg Abbott.

He has put this idea out of a voter suppression bill, he’s attacking transgender children, and he’s attempting to implement a full ban on abortion in Texas. This has nothing to do with the people of Texas or policies that will benefit them. This is merely a campaign ad for Governor Abbott, who has two primary opponents.

My oath is to the constituents of Texas, not to the political ambitions of Governor Greg Abbott. The only way that I could stand up for them is to lead the state and not be held hostage by him, merely to be present as he ramps through extreme red meat items.

Lala Wu:
Absolutely. This is about voting rights, but it’s also about all of the rest of the conservative agenda, and whether or not the Republicans really want to live and die on those issues, this is what they think is going to help them win. Like you said, it’s really about power-building.

I would love to just talk a little bit in more detail about the bill itself. One thing that really struck me was that this bill comes largely from the innovations that your county, Harris County, was able to identify and to roll out last year to help people vote. Can you talk a little bit about that and what some of those measures are?

Ann Johnson:
Sure. This bill is twofold. Many of the provisions in it are really driven by the national Republican narrative.

One day we saw Governor Greg Abbott tweet out, “Easier to vote, harder to cheat.”

That is a Republican think tank talking point that is being used nationwide. It has nothing to do with the policy of the state of Texas.

But Harris County recognized that the law allowed us to have 24-hour voting and drive-through voting. Texas in 2020 had the highest voter turnout ever, and that scares the bejesus out of them.

So now they have said you can only vote certain hours out of the day and prescribed a time limit, and said we have to get rid of drive-through voting. They have specifically targeted the success of Harris County.

We know 24-hour voting was effective, but it was geared toward the pandemic, so Republicans are saying, “Well, that was just a pandemic issue. We can’t allow that to carry on.”

But during the pandemic Texas started doing alcohol-to-go from restaurants. The first thing Governor Greg Abbott passed and signed this session was alcohol-to-go. So if alcohol-to-go is good enough for Texans, surely 24-hour voting and drive-through voting ought to equally be good for Texans.

Don’t forget in Texas we have the highest rate of voter suppression in the nation – we are ranked 50th. It is harder to vote in Texas than it is anywhere in the nation.

When I talk to Senators from other states they say, “Well, voting is not that bad.” And I say, “No, no, no. Let me tell you what they do to us in Texas.”

These Senators shake their head and say, “Wow, we didn’t realize the level of suppression that you were already facing.”

That’s why a national solution is so important and why we need your help. In the same way that you put the pressure on the campaign, we really need the pressure on the House and the Senate and the president to say, “Look, these Texas Democrats have left the state, they are facing arrest. They have bought you days and weeks to get this done. The clock is ticking and it’s urgent.”

Lala Wu:
It is a really grim reminder of this context, that Texas is ranked 50th in terms of voter suppression, it is already extremely hard to vote there, and Republicans want to make it even harder.

Ann Johnson:
A couple of the specifics of this bill: they criminalized simple penalties, like people who are trying to assist the disabled and the elderly. And when I say criminalized I’m talking third degree felony, two to 10 years in prison.

What’s worse is they’ve given unfettered access to the ballot box by partisan poll watchers.

So the same people that were at the insurrection on January 6th, the same people that are Proud Boys, will now have the opportunity to stand over the shoulders of our communities of color, at Wheeler Avenue Baptist Church, and look at who they’re voting for.

We’re really seeing the democratic process and fair elections being turned on its head towards extreme partisan individuals. We’ve already seen from January 6th that those individuals will stop at nothing.

Lala Wu:
I served as a poll watcher in 2020, and many of us were election protection volunteers, working on the hotlines. Those rules about poll watchers are very helpful. They keep everything separate and neutral. It’s one of the most egregious parts of the bill, opening the door to intimidation in a way that is unconscionable.

Anybody who has worked on election protection in Texas knows that it’s one of the hardest states. You have to study pretty hard to understand how to help voters navigate this process. We don’t want it to be harder, we want it to be easier for people to cast their ballot, to exercise this freedom.

I do want to ask you about what’s at stake here and what you are fighting for. What do you love about Texas? Why is this worth the fight?

Ann Johnson:
I grew up in Texas, and my dad was in the legislature in the 60’s. I grew up with people like Senator Carl Parker and Senator Babe Schwartz being around for weekend dinners.

They were two of the original “killer bees;” they killed legislation that was purely partisan. They broke quorum. We heard from one of them recently that when they broke quorum, the other side recognized that what they had done was wrong, and they corrected and said, “You’re right, I went too far.”

Well, this is a totally different time. When you talk about breaking quorum, for me it’s like, this is what you do as a Texan. You stand up in the moment of protecting your democracy against extreme partisanship.

But unlike the historical days where there was truly a conscience within the Republican party, what we see now is Governor Abbott will stop at nothing. We’ve seen him recently talk about how we’re not going to require children to wear a mask at school, in the moment of another COVID outbreak. He does not care who gets in his way.

I don’t expect him to compromise. We need to stay out of Texas until August 7th, break quorum, and then take the next step from there. We had a 23 1/2 hour hearing, where more than 400 people, including the disabled and the elderly, showed up to testify about how this bill would impact them and potentially criminalize them for merely attempting to cast their ballot. Maybe some 50 testified that they liked the bill.

We offered numerous amendments, and all of them got shut down on partisan grounds. Unfortunately, we are truly in the fight for our lives because they have the majority and they have not shown any willingness to listen to the people. They are really driven by this extreme partisan power.

I want to thank you all because your support, your presence, your tweets, your reaching out, those who came to testify, you are the reason we are holding together. Your presence and wanting to know what we’re doing is really uplifting for all of us.

Lala Wu:
Thank you so much, Representative Johnson. It’s really, really great to hear an update from you on the ground. We are going to continue to amplify the work that you and the other Democrats are doing so courageously in DC.

Ann Johnson:
Thank you. Honored to be with you.