The Texas Legislature’s Sole Black Freshman Had Big Plans. She Ended Up Mostly Playing Defense.
State Rep. Jasmine Crockett, D-Dallas, approaches the Texas House like she does a courtroom: She wants everything on the record.
The sole Black freshman in the Legislature, Crockett stood out during this year’s session for both the number of bills she filed and her passionate delivery on the House floor.
But her experience as a first-time legislator also shows the consequences of such an outspoken approach. New members are often encouraged and expected to keep a low profile. Crockett took the opposite tack, debating her fellow members enthusiastically on the House floor and drafting ambitious legislation that sought to reform policing, expand voting options and loosen drug laws in the state.
In her first session, she filed more House bills than any other first-timer, she says. Of those of which she was the main author, none became law.
In an interview, Crockett said her chances at passing bills plummeted in early May during debate over House Bill 1900, which Abbott signed Tuesday and which will financially penalize large cities like hers if they cut police budgets. The bill became a GOP priority in the aftermath of protests over police brutality after the murder of Houston native George Floyd. Calls to defund the police and invest the money in other social service areas became a movement that sparked outrage for Republicans in Texas and beyond.
Her speech was a conversation she said she never planned to have.
During the debate, Rep. Craig Goldman, the Fort Worth representative who authored HB 1900, mentioned that the governor had sent troopers from the Department of Public Safety to Dallas to address a shortage of officers and rising violent crime. Crockett said Goldman was using “false rhetoric.”
In 2019, Dallas officials reported a sharp decline in violent crime after DPS troopers arrived. But some city officials and community members said the troopers did more harm than good, over-policing poorer neighborhoods with mostly residents of color, questioning people about their immigration status and stopping people without valid reasons.
When Crockett questioned Goldman about the state’s role in sending officers into Dallas, and he could not answer, she said lawmakers had not addressed the elephant in the room.
“Sadly enough, plenty of people haven’t been to South Dallas, where Black people are afraid most of the time because they don’t know if they’re going to get killed,” Crockett said on the floor, enunciating as her voice started to break. “And instead of us doing something to protect people in this state, we decide to punish, punish people who are already suffering. That’s what’s wrong in this House.”
Goldman did not return a request for comment about the exchange. To Crockett, that moment stands out because Goldman was trying to fix an issue in an area he didn’t represent. But Crockett has other examples of times she spoke out against proposals she and other progressives found detrimental — like her comments on Senate Bill 7, which would have created restrictions on early voting, or the time she was overruled after calling a point of order on House Joint Resolution 4, which would have denied bail for those who were charged with violent or sexual offenses.
In other words, in one of the most conservative legislative sessions in years, Crockett and other Black Democrats found themselves fighting against bills that they said would hurt their communities of color. But many felt the mostly white legislators pushing them were uninterested in their objections.
In the end, they’ll take their victories in what they stopped. The policing bill may have passed, but the legislative session ended Monday without the voting bill or the bail legislation receiving final approval.
‘A lot of puffery’
Hailing from St. Louis, Crockett attended the University of Houston Law Center before settling in Bowie County as a public defender and starting a law firm. She and her team represented protesters from last summer’s demonstrations against police brutality.
Crockett said she ran for office because she wanted to extend her ability to fight injustices to amending law at the state level. Some of her platform issues included reforming the state’s criminal justice, gun and voting laws.
But the 40-year-old said she wasn’t prepared for the onslaught of heavily conservative policies this session. After seeing the state struggle with the pandemic, mass shootings, a potential budget deficit and health crises, Crockett said she expected the Legislature to make headway on those issues. However, many of the longer debates centered abortion restrictions, unfounded threats of voter fraud and allowing the permitless carry of handguns.
“Instead, we just had a lot of puffery,” Crockett said. “I don’t know that we’ve got any real fixes going forward.”
Republicans, of course, are leaving with their own disappointments. The voting bill, which they argued was necessary to protect the integrity of elections, failed at the final hour Sunday night when most House Democrats walked off the House floor, breaking a quorum and making it impossible for the chamber to approve the bill before the midnight deadline for legislation. Crockett was among the Democratic lawmakers who gathered at an East Austin church afterward to celebrate their triumph. But before then, GOP leaders were bragging about “the most conservative legislative session in a generation.”
Conservative leaders say their legislative victories will have major positive effects on Texans, arguing that the police funding bill was to protect public safety, the abortion bills were to protect life and the permitless carry bill was to restore gun rights.
Meanwhile, Crockett authored several pieces of legislation that would have had major immediate impacts on the state but were nonstarters in the GOP-led Legislature. House Bill 1174 would have allowed for electronic voter registration. House Bill 1232 would have allowed any eligible voter to vote by mail. And numerous bills aimed at reforming policing never received a vote by the full House.
Successful bills of that scope are usually carried by more experienced legislators, but even Crockett’s counterparts had similar difficulty.
The Texas Legislative Black Caucus pushed through some police reform legislation after Floyd’s murder, such as limiting police chokeholds and requiring an officer to intervene if a fellow officer is using excessive force. But Rep. Senfronia Thompson’s George Floyd Act — a sweeping reform bill that would remove qualified immunity, among other changes — never made it out of committee.
“Obviously, we wanted to pass the bill in the name of George Floyd, but Republican colleagues were not agreeable to that,” State Sen. Royce West, a Dallas Democrat, said on the Senate floor Monday. “If people want to get those reforms through, then they’re going to have to [elect] people who will vote for those reforms.”
State Rep. Jarvis Johnson, D-Houston, said the debates and bill proposals this session have shown ignorance and a lack of empathy among lawmakers. Specifically, he said it’s been difficult to be around a body that doesn’t believe that the Founding Fathers or legendary figures like Davy Crockett were racist or owned slaves.
“There’s no understanding, and then as you try to educate, they get frustrated and insulted that you’re telling them that’s not true,” Johnson told The Tribune. “And then I have to use the process, at least to my advantage, the best way I can, to stop some bad bills and then they get upset.”
Crockett said she tried to speak out against controversial proposals — even when that meant her bills would be sidelined as a result.
“There’s only so much that they’re going to be able to do,” she said. “They may kill all my bills from now until the end of time because they will have that power so long as the majority stays the way that it is. But that’s not going to stop me from trying to kill theirs.”
State Rep. Ron Reynolds, the vice chair of the Texas Legislative Black Caucus, mentored Crockett during the session. He said most freshmen sit in the background, but Crockett is not the type to avoid challenging anyone, even senior members, when she senses injustice.
“When she’s passionate about something, she doesn’t mind putting forth her best efforts, even if it means going against leadership or if it meant her bills may be killed,” Reynolds said. “She realizes the stakes are so high that she can’t take a backseat.”
Though she wasn’t able to accomplish everything on her agenda, Crockett said she plans to be more defensive come next session, since this year didn’t represent the pressing issues Texans in her district face.
Moving forward, her goal as a member of the minority party is to “stop the bleeding.”
“How many of my progressive policies do I really plan to get passed under those circumstances?” Crockett said of the Republican-dominated House, Senate and governor’s office. “If I can effectively kill a bad abortion bill, a bad voter suppression bill or a bad gun law, that will do more for those in my district.”
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This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune at https://www.texastribune.org/2021/06/02/jasmine-crockett-texas-house/.