The Grey Area in Politics

By Chenelle Hammonds, intern in the University of Houston Office of Governmental Relations

My time serving as an intern during the Texas 85th Legislature was extremely informative. Perhaps one of the biggest lessons I learned during my time here is that politics is not black and white; voting decisions and political stances are not always as simple as a vote with Republicans or a vote with Democrats, at least in Texas anyway. Before arriving, I previously thought that Republicans and Democrats, for the most part, voted a certain way and seldom agreed with one another. However, after being here I’ve learned that various other “factions” exist beyond political affiliation. In Texas there seem to be “coalitions” formed along geographical lines, and between rural and urban elected officials. Often times there would be debates between rural members on issues specific to their districts like water access and the abatement of feral hogs, which would then turn into pretty contentious debates against members representing more urban districts.  Sometimes there would even be division between urban districts as well, with members from large-city districts forming their own coalitions to advocate for issues unique to their cities (i.e., Houston delegation, Dallas delegation, Austin delegation, etc.). Some of the more prominent issues that created a division between large cities were property tax relief reform, pensions for local firefighters, and statewide regulations for ridesharing applications like Uber and Lyft. To see Democrats and Republicans come together as members of rural districts, or come together as members of the Houston Delegation was something that I had not anticipated prior to my experience in the legislature. While it was pleasing to witness bipartisanship across party lines, it was also a bit concerning seeing bickering within the two political parties.

In the Texas Legislature you have intraparty divisions, most notably between “Conservative Democrats,” “Moderate Republicans,” and “Freedom Caucus Republicans.” Similarly, it was not uncommon to see Conservative or Southern-border Democrats supporting pro-life legislation or voting for measures that reinforce traditional gender definitions. Interestingly enough, I would witness moderate Republicans like Representative Sarah Davis standing up for gay rights and a woman’s right to choose. I was moved to see Republicans like Representative Byron Cook stand up against the “Show Me Your Papers” amendment to Senate Bill 4 and tell his Republican colleagues to follow suit. Although he authored a bill requiring burials for aborted fetal remains, interestingly enough, he also carried HB 3771 which removed ectopic pregnancy surgery from the State definition of abortion and withheld various overreaching pro-life bills (like women being charged with murder for abortions). He also kept bills like the bathroom bill (the “Texas Right to Privacy Act”) and ending in-state tuition for DREAMers from passing out of committee as Chairman of the House State Affairs Committee. Others like Republican Representative John Zerwas came out publicly against school choice vouchers and the “bathroom bill.”

Representative J.D. Sheffield, another moderate Republican and a physician, stood with Democrats this session against anti-vaccine measures and attempted to pass bills aimed at educating parents about the life-saving benefits of vaccinations.  He also was the lone member of the House Republican caucus last session who voted against campus carry. Hence, the lines between “Republican” and “Democrat” in the Texas legislature can sometimes be blurred. This gave me a bit of hope, seeing that even in such a hostile political climate as we are living in today, there are still elected officials who believe in voting their conscience, voting for what’s right, and not merely “cosigning” on whatever positions their colleagues have taken.

Moreover, one might find it strange to know that even the most hard-line Conservatives in the Texas legislature, known as the “ Texas Freedom Caucus,” actually worked alongside Democrats on a few issues. Most notably, the Freedom Caucus and House Democrats joined forces on two key pieces of legislation relating to criminal justice reform authored by Representative Harold Dutton: HB 122 which proposed raising the age of criminal responsibility to 18, and HB 152 which would have allowed offenders to make an appeal to restore their constitutional rights if previously convicted in Texas. To my surprise, coming to the defense of Representative Dutton’s proposed justice reforms were Tea Party members like Representative Matt Schaefer and Representative Jonathan Stickland urging other Republicans to vote with them in support of these bills. Even more shocking was hearing one of the most Conservative members in the Texas House and Tea Party member Representative Kyle Biedermann admit that he had been staunchly against raising the criminal age of responsibility to 18, but after hearing countless testimonies arguing about the positive impact this law would have on Texas, he shifted to support of this law. Although both of these criminal justice bills ended up dying eventually, it was astounding to see the same Republicans who caught heat this session for killing hundreds of good bills and tacking on controversial amendments to others be amenable to siding with the Dems on a few important issues. (The “strengths-based perspective” is coming in handy right now!)

So why is this information important to know for social workers? As social workers, we are likely to encounter other professionals in the workplace who have different values, perspectives, and ethics from us. We may not always agree with a colleague’s value system or their perspective on what is the best way to handle social issues that harm our clients or even the logistics behind a not-for-profit startup; however, we must still work together. What my time in the Texas Legislature has taught me the most is that common ground can be found even amongst the unlikeliest of sources. Dismissing others whom you seemingly disagree with “on paper” only takes away opportunities for teamwork, coalition building, and community advancement for the greater common good. Although we all have our own set of beliefs, whether they be informed by our life experiences, our careers, our political identification, etc., we all can stand to put personal differences aside and focus on what we can agree on. Due to the complexities of social work practice, which is inundated with several “grey areas,” I encourage all of us to dig a little deeper for that common ground each time we find ourselves conflicted by personal disagreements both in and outside of the workplace.

 

 

 

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From Anguish to Advocacy

by Andrea Elizondo, intern in the Texas Legislative Study Group

I am going to be honest. It has been a few weeks since what I term the anti-immigrant sentiment bill – formally known as SB 4, “the anti-sanctuary city” bill – was signed into law by Governor Abbott on Facebook Live, and I am still mad. Additionally, the fact that SB 1018, which is a bill about giving childcare licensing to immigrant family detention centers, even passed one chamber makes me angry. Although, I feel some sort of relief that this bill has since died.

I am upset because SB 4 is going to hurt family friends who are hard-working parents, but just happen to be undocumented, and former classmates who are achieving their dreams while being undocumented. SB 4 and bills like SB 1018 have the potential of hurting mothers and children who are running away from personal and community violence from the Northern Triangle (Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador). SB4 also harms those who I have assisted at the South Texas Family Residential Center in Dilley, Texas and those living in the short-term shelter in McAllen, Texas after being released from similar detention centers. These bills have the ability to hurt the unaccompanied minors that are fleeing personal and community violence in the Northern Triangle, whom I met through focus group interviews as a research assistant . Overall, this legislation is going to hurt the immigrant community that I am part of and the community I plan to work with as a social worker.

As a daughter of immigrants and an immigrant myself, it has been challenging to stay sane and remain hopeful during this legislative session and at the beginning of the Trump Administration. It is during these times that remaining bitter, disillusioned, and hopeless are tempting. There is the daily reminder I give myself that dwelling in these negative emotions is not going to help me, nor is it going to help anybody else, for that matter. I should also turn my energy from anger to planning advocacy efforts when I am fully established back home.

Robin Chancer’s recent blog post titled, “How to Stay Sane if Trump is Driving You Insane: Advice From a Therapist,” talks about the “radical acceptance” of moving forward by remaining hopeful and finding ways to help disfranchised populations during this harsh political climate. The radical acceptance is that our nation and this state are passing policies based on fear and misunderstanding, and that people are hurting. Then there is grief in realizing that the pain is real. Finally, the next step is to practice “mindful attention” to the good. This is where you ask yourself “How can I support ____ people in my community?”.

My examples of mindful attention of after this internship:

  • Get in touch with United We Dream to get training on conducting presentations on “Know Your Rights,” “How to Plan in the case of Deportation,” and “Protect Yourself from Deportation.” Reach out to local immigrant communities in my area and give these presentations in both English and Spanish.
  • Register to be a Deputy Voter Registrar for Harris and Galveston County so I can register and teach people how to vote in their local and state elections every year. This will be my way to encourage more civic engagement.
  • Volunteer with the University of Houston Law Center’s Immigration Clinic whenever they take weekend trips to help prepare asylum-seeking immigrant mothers at immigration detention centers for their asylum interviews.
  • Reach out to the Children’s Center, Inc. to see how I can help unaccompanied minors in Southeast Harris County and Galveston County.

I look forward to working towards these steps now that the session is over. After all, one of the reasons that I decided to embark on this internship is that I wanted this experience to make me a better advocate for my community and I am planning on achieving that.

No matter who is president, governor, or who is in Congress or the state legislature, I can still help and organize my community for political advocacy. There is still good in this state and this country, and neither Governor Abbott nor President Trump cannot take that away. I will not let them rob my joy, and I will not let these policies define me and my community. We have been here before and we will get through this.

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On the Need to Stay Humble

By Trang-Thu (Mimi) Duong, intern in the office of Representative Gene Wu

The culture that exists in the Texas Capitol gives a new meaning to my understanding of cultural competency (or cultural humility). Being in this building, in a place that I was unfamiliar with and among people with different worldviews than me, has been humbling. All the customs I’m used to – social norms and ways of communicating – are continuously being rearranged. This 85th Texas Legislative Session has been hard, and I’ve learned that the veterans of this building have found their own coping mechanisms.

The Texas Capitol is like wizard chess. Wizard chess is not a traditional chessboard with regular pieces you have to move; it’s magical chess like in Harry Potter, where the pieces move on their own and they have the potential of doing major damage onto each other.

This is relevant because major damage has been accomplished this 85th Session in the name of winning, and I don’t think people realize the potential damage that could inflict. SB 4, the anti-immigrant “show your papers” bill was signed by Governor Abbott. SB 8, the “fetal burial” bill has passed both the Senate and the House. SB 6, the “bathroom bill”, was amended onto an education bill. And children can continue to be shamed for not having enough money to buy a hot lunch. These laws have the potential of doing serious harm, and I don’t think these bad plays understand the consequences.

But then, like in all chess games, there’s a positional moment when you can outplay your opponent, and small wins mean victories. Churches continue to be places of refuge for immigrants, and abortion after 20 weeks is still a thing. We will now have separate but equal bathrooms, but there’s still a chance of keeping our vulnerable safe. There’s a slow roll out of non-government agencies/for-profits taking over Texas, but it’s not an overhaul of the entire system.

This is the coping bravado that exists among the veteran staff of Democratic Senators and Representatives and moderate Republicans. It’s going to get bad, but the game can still be won. There is a beauty to getting up after you’ve been magically hit by another wizard piece, just like there’s a beauty in being engaged in the legislative process again and again

Social workers have an advantage here, whether we’re focused on micro, mezzo, or macro practice. There is a sense of the bigger picture, and the knowledge that things take time to improve. This is a self-awareness that keeps Texas minorities fighting session after session. There is a constant growth and development that keeps us humble and patient to fight another day.

Learning the culture of this Capitol empowers me to share with everyone what it’s like in Texas politics. So that the culture of this building isn’t so unfamiliar to the masses, and so that more of us can be in here to support those that have been fighting for decades.

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‘Til Next Time

By Erin Eriksen, intern in the Texas Legislative Study Group

Everything seems too raw and imminent right now to have any kind of reaction to my experience in this internship that doesn’t sound desperate or overly maudlin. While our work is mostly finished in the Legislative Study Group (LSG), we don’t yet know the outcome for Texas. We’ve only just seen the beginning of what Governor Abbott is or isn’t going to sign into law.

Governor Abbott signed the anti-immigrant SB 4 into law over Facebook with no press presence on Sunday, May 7. Indeed, some of the more insidious things have happened on Sundays, which makes it all seem more like a of sorts than legislating. SB 24, the “sermon safeguard” bill, intended to protect religious sermons from being subpoenaed, was ceremoniously signed at Grace Church in Houston. This bill was a direct response to the Houston Equal Rights Ordinance and the petition’s signatures that got thrown out due to being invalid, as opponents tried to put the enacted ordinance on the ballot. Also on a Sunday, portions of the anti-transgender legislation SB 6 (or as Chairwoman Senfronia Thompson dubbed it the “toilet bill”) were tacked onto a Public Education bill, SB 2078, which dealt with emergency hazard prevention in schools. And, oh, yes, I could go on…

In the end it doesn’t really matter what day a bill gets signed, it’ll become law just the same. However, I feel that the optics lean toward a certain bravado that is all too increasingly common among today’s leaders and lawmakers.

In an effort to galvanize some form of a silver lining, I tried to think about what was meaningful to me this session. I was pretty quick to realize that what ranked number one, while insanely obvious, was that this experience made a huge impact on me. It was all of the phone calls and conversations that I had with people trying to understand these bills. Stalwarts fighting for the environment and the manager of a groundwater conservation district who spoke with me for an hour with such passion for her job and her community. A fellow LSGer and I researched SB 6 shortly after the text of the bill became available. During that time I spoke with two mothers of transgender kids about what ramifications would emerge with the passing of SB 6. I also got to speak with a father who seemingly fell into becoming a leader in his community (one that was frequently used to justify the so-called “need” for SB 6) after he watched a young child transition at his child’s school. He spoke with passion advocating for this child and making sure they had rights equal to the students at the school. The advocates I spoke with let me use the knowledge that they spent years cultivating, and I got to walk into their world, their passion, what they have spent so much time fighting for.  I’ve become friends with some of these people over the course of this session, and that feels amazing.

I don’t know what type of dance the pink dome and I will have with next legislative session…but here I come!

 

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Don’t Let Women’s Rights Get Left Behind

by Melissa Davila, intern in the office of Representative Jessica Farrar

It has been almost 140 days since the 85th Legislative Session started, but it feels like it just started yesterday. I remember the day I spoke to my family about applying to this unique opportunity and whether the experience was worth putting my life on hold for. The experience has definitely been worth it. However, as much as I have enjoyed and learned this session, the last three weeks have been very hard. My office was striving to survive the long hours, and most importantly, we were striving to survive the disappointment of watching good bills that were filed fail to be passed, and bad bills end up passing despite fear and opposition from constituents and legislative members.

Although I felt that nothing was going to affect me as much as SB 4 – the anti-sanctuary city law signed by Gov. Abbott last week – I was wrong. The passage of SB 8 was very hard, as I felt so connected with this issue. So, what is SB8? This legislation relates to prohibiting certain abortions and the treatment and disposition of a human fetus, human fetal tissue, and embryonic and fetal tissue remains. It creates a civil cause of action, imposes a civil penalty, and creates criminal offenses. Now, let’s be clear, I personally would not suggest to a woman or a couple to have an abortion, but I would also never question anyone’s decision to have one.

I chose to study social work due to my previous employment. I worked at Texas Children’s Hospital in the department of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation where I was able to learn about different diagnoses and the many medications and treatment that children with diseases and illnesses need to survive. This has led me to have so many mixed emotions as I have witnessed this issue myself. I have seen how much a woman suffers from an unplanned pregnancy. Having a child from an unplanned pregnancy is impactful enough on a woman’s life, but can be especially difficult if the father chooses not to be part of the pregnancy. I was already struggling trying to digest this type of legislation when Rep. Matt Schaefer, who was also one of the authors of the House’s version of SB 4’s “Papers Please” provision, proposed an amendment on the floor. He was attempting to revive HB 87, a bill that had previously died in the State Affairs committee, which sought to remove the current exception for women to receive abortion care after 20 weeks if the fetus has severe fetal abnormalities.

Thankfully, State Affairs Chairman Byron Cook spoke against the amendment. He shared the testimony of many parents and physicians who went through a pregnancy where the fetus had a severe fetal abnormality and the anguish the family goes through in those situations. He asked for the House to vote no on the amendment. The amendment was eventually defeated 71-65, which was still too close.  The debate around the bill and the amendments filed on the bill were emotional and tense. However, the best moment of the night was when Representative Donna Howard gave an amazing and heartfelt speech and pointed out several issues with the legislation.

After all of the grief, emotions, and passionate pleas, I was left with several thoughts. Why doesn’t the Legislature try to stop abortion by preventing the need for an abortion in the first place rather than making abortions illegal? Why doesn’t the Legislature ensure schools provide accurate and adequate sexual education to our students? Why doesn’t the Legislature make birth control affordable for women? I believe that SB 8 will not prevent abortions, SB 8 will just make abortions unsafe.

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Empowered and Relieved

by Arielle Day, intern in the Texas Legislative Study Group

Empowered and relieved are the primary emotions I am experiencing as Sine Die, the last day of session, approaches. My classmates and I embarked upon this journey knowing that we would have to surmount a steep learning curve in an environment that isn’t particularly social worker friendly, and we did just that. In the beginning, feelings of insecurity surfaced regarding whether or not I, a social worker, am actually equipped with the necessary skills to work in an environment as contentious and cold as the capitol. To my surprise I discovered that my social work skills and knowledge base necessitate my participation in the political process and actually grant me an advantage in political settings.

Active listening, critical thinking, setting boundaries, empathy, effective verbal and written communication, self determination, and self-care are just a few of the social work skills and concepts that have proven to be more important to my work in this environment than classroom discussions have ever been able to convey. Having a base level of knowledge and training as a social work student was enough to build off of and rely on when the pace and demands of session intensified. On most days, something as seemingly simple as setting boundaries and having a realistic self-care plan in place was the difference between coming to work as a productive team member ready to tackle the day’s workload or showing up like a limp dishrag ready to self-destruct.

“After this… I know I can do anything.” This is a statement several of my classmates and I have repeated to each other over the course of the last few weeks. The sixty-hour (and sometimes more) work weeks, the high-stress situations, the anxiety provoking phone calls, and the inevitable bonding that took place within the group gives cause for renaming this internship, Social Worker Boot Camp. In accordance with the desired outcome of this social worker boot camp – and the mission of the Graduate College of Social Work – I now feel that I have obtained the necessary skills and training to promote and achieve sustainable social, racial, economic, and political justice.

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Matters of Personal Privilege

by Joel Kissell, intern in the Texas Legislative Study Group

The first major hurdle towards the end of the Texas legislative session is over. At midnight, on Thursday, May 11th, any bill originating in the House of Representatives was effectively dead if it had not received a vote on the floor. Some of those bills may still find their way through the legislative process—if their companion bill is passed in the Senate and sent to the House for approval or as an amendment added to other legislation—but the majority of these bills will have their next opportunity in two years when the legislature reconvenes. The days were long in the Legislative Study Group as we put together our analyses for bills, many of which would probably not get their moment, watching our legislators work their way through the bills from last Monday’s calendar on Thursday night.

Over the course of the week leading up to this deadline, several members took time to give speeches to their colleagues about their bills and about the vagaries of the process. These speeches, called Matters of Personal Privilege, supersede all other rules of parliamentary procedure and can be a powerful tool of persuasion. On May 4, Representative Senfronia Thompson of Houston stood up for one of her bills that was removed from the Local and Consent Calendar (typically used for non-controversial bills or bills that impact a small number of cities or counties) by some of her colleagues without warning. The bill, HB 2629, would have required cosmetology programs to include training on identifying signs of human trafficking. A few days later, Representative Helen Giddings of Dallas took to the microphone for her own speech on May 9 after a similar maneuver removed HB 2159, which would have given school districts the option to offer a grace period for children whose lunch accounts were empty, from the Local and Consent Calendar. These two speeches demonstrated the members’ passion for the issues and their frustration with the machinations happening behind the scenes in the legislature.

In a sharp counterpoint to the speeches during the previous week, Representative Drew Springer of Muenster delivered his own emotionally-charged speech an hour before the looming House bill deadline on May 11. The bill, HB 810, was next in line but unlikely to get taken up for consideration as other members stalled for their own unrelated reasons. Springer’s plea emphasized his personal connection to the other members and HB 810, which I am less familiar with, but which enables increased access to investigational adult stem cell treatments for certain patients. Watching the way his speech was received in contrast to the others given that week, where members could be seen laughing and not paying attention, was disheartening. Human trafficking and lunches for schoolchildren could be dismissed as collateral damage resulting from parliamentary moves, but this speech was the one that made the membership change their minds and make sure HB 810 was passed. There is always more happening behind the scenes that affects our understanding of the legislative process, but as I reflect back on my experiences here in Austin, I am reminded that it is always personal.

 

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