Democratic Texas Representative James Talarico didn’t come to Washington, D.C., to embarrass Fox’s Pete Hegsuth, but that’s what he did last week. The youngest member of the Texas delegation, now 32, Talarico violated a lot of Democrats’ precepts, including my own (I’m a Never Foxer), to mix it up with the lightweight Trump-backing Fox prime-time host. He took him down.
“You have made a lot of money personally and you’ve enriched a lot of corporations with advertising by getting on here and spewing lies and conspiracy theories to folks who trust you,” Talarico told Hegseth. He challenged him: “Tell your voters right now that Donald Trump lost the election.” Hegseth sputtered; Talarico went viral.
Since then, he’s been on MSNBC with Joy Reid and Jonathan Capehart and joined CNN’s Jim Acosta; I’m sure I’m missing someone. Monday night the whole Texas delegation is doing an MSNBC voting rights town hall. Meanwhile, he’s been meeting with congressional leaders and voting rights icons to try to push congressional Democrats to work harder to pass a voting rights bill that will make the rollback planned by the Texas GOP impossible.
It’s hard work, whether in his diverse House District 52, the Austin Capitol, or Washington, D.C., where Democrats nominally run all three branches but President Joe Manchin—oops, I mean West Virginia Senator Joe Manchin—seems to have the last word on what’s possible. In an interview, Talarico confirmed that Senate leaders told the Texas Democrats that the two pending infrastructure bills are their priority, but said their D.C. visit had raised the “pressure” to make sure some kind of voting rights legislation passes before the Senate goes into recess on August 6.
I appreciate Talarico’s optimism, but retain my pessimism that any kind of voting rights legislation can follow closely on the heels of whatever infrastructure bill passes—if any. If Talarico and Co. succeed in staying out of Texas through the special session, Governor Greg Abbott is promising to call another one ASAP. This is an uphill climb.
But I don’t know “uphill” as intimately as Texas Democrats do. So if Talarico’s at least somewhat optimistic, I’m going to try to get there, too.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Can you help our readers understand which aspects of the Texas bill will hit your constituents particularly hard?
That’s a tough question, because there are so many harmful provisions. One is the reduction of early voting hours. My district has a lot of working folks who can’t take off in the middle of the day to go vote so they need extended hours. I have a lot of senior citizens in my district, and this bill will make the provision of mail-in ballots harder. I have a lot of my own family members in my district, this is where I was born and raised, and this bill would empower partisan poll watchers like the Proud Boys to stand over my grandmother’s shoulder while she is trying to cast her ballot. That’s why this is not only political, but it’s very personal.
Were Democrats able to add amendments to soften the impact?
Well, the discussion is a little confusing because there have been different versions of this bill. As you know, we are in special session right now; we had regular session in the spring. The same basic voter suppression bill has had many forms. In the regular session, the Texas House Democrats watered down the bill to some extent, though it was still very harmful. But in the Senate, led by Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick, his version was even more extreme: It eliminated Souls to the Polls, where mostly African American congregants go vote after church on Sunday—then it shortened the hours, and pushed them back to 1 pm, which is after people usually go vote. It also had a frightening provision that would have made it easier to overturn elections—and that was the bill we were able to defeat in the regular session with the walkout.
Now the bill is somewhere in between the watered-down version and that real extreme version, but it still has so many classic voter suppression methods. If you dig into the meat of this bill as I have, some of the hidden provisions make it really hard for voters who don’t speak English to access an assistor. I used to teach in San Antonio, and a lot of times our parents would have their children go with them to vote, so they could read them the ballot or help explain…
You don’t have ballots in Spanish in Texas?
No, we do, but sometimes voters either can’t read or need a little more help. You’d bring your son or your daughter, or another assistor, to help you through the process. We’ve historically done that in Texas with no problem.
I know your delegation has been splitting up to meet with individual senators, although you all met with Vice President Kamala Harris. Who’ve you gotten to meet with?
Yes, I was in the meeting with the vice president. I was also in the meeting with Senator Elizabeth Warren. Others have met with Senators Cory Booker, Kirsten Gillibrand, majority leader Schumer, and of course Senator Manchin.
Has any member of your delegation met with President Biden yet?
Not yet. We have requested that meeting, and I hope we’ll be able to meet with the president in some way while we’re here. But we have not gotten word that’s been scheduled.
You didn’t get to meet with Senator Manchin personally…
No, that was mostly our leadership and senior members of our delegation—and as you know I’m the baby of the bunch…
They had to keep you out!
Yes! But one of my colleagues, Representative Senfronia Thompson, who is the longest-serving woman and African American in Texas history—she’s an icon—she met with Senator Manchin, and she shared how her parents in Houston had to save up money to pay the poll tax. An incredibly powerful story, to hear how previous generations struggled so mightily to access the franchise.
Yet he still says he won’t support a so-called “carve-out” of the 60-vote rule to pass a voting rights bill. What do you think is going on there—what did you hear from your colleagues?
Our colleagues walked away from the meeting feeling optimistic about what would be possible with Senator Manchin. He’s obviously a big supporter of voting rights. H was a secretary of state and he wants to be a leader on the issue, which is a great place to start from—we can’t say that for every senator, especially not on the Republican side of the aisle. He’s also, obviously, been very committed to the filibuster, which I disagree with. It’s a Jim Crow relic that needs to be done away with if we’re going to let our democracy function. But it seems that there may be an opportunity to pass some core voting rights provisions—something like the John Lewis Voting Rights Act—which Senator Manchin believes could get significant Republican support. Now, whether or not that’s true is something that’s above my pay grade. But we in Texas are desperate for anything that could prevent this bill from becoming law in Texas.
Manchin did float a compromise voting rights proposal that was pretty good, even endorsed by Stacey Abrams, which McConnell trashed as the Stacey Abrams “compromise,” and you know what that means. But infrastructure seems like everybody’s priority right now. What are you hearing?
What we were told at the meetings—the Senator Manchin meeting and the Senator Schumer meeting—is that they want to get past infrastructure before they go to voting rights. But they also said our presence here has put a lot of pressure on them to get to voting rights as quickly as possible. Which was our goal. We also wanted to galvanize the national media to be talking about voting rights and to be putting that pressure on leaders of Congress and on the president and the vice president. I’m not a senator, but from what I’ve been told, the Senate needs pressure and the Senate needs a deadline. And thankfully we have both of those things now because the Senate’s August recess is coming up, August 6 I believe, which is also when our special session ends in Texas.
The last thing I’ll mention is that week is also the anniversary of another Texan, President Lyndon Baines Johnson, signing the Voting Rights Act…
Also on August 6.
Seems like the universe is trying to tell us something about what needs to happen at the beginning of August…
Let’s hope we listen.