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.




About GCSW Legislative Interns

This blog is brought to you courtesy of The Graduate College of Social Work's Austin Legislative Internship Program. The College selects graduate MSW students to intern at the Texas Legislature during its legislative session every two years. Student interns work as full-time staffers in the Legislature, either as policy analysts with the Legislative Study Group, a Caucus of the Texas House of Representatives, or in legislators’ offices. Here, they will share their unique experiences!
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