Being one of a few Democrats in a House full of Republicans
State Rep. Rafael Anchia takes on his seventh session as a member of the Texas Legislature, which convenes this month.
Anchia, a Democrat whose district includes Oak Cliff, is up against a majority of traditional and Tea Party Republicans. Their top priorities include legislation that would affect immigrants, transgender people and women.
Anchia sat down with us about a week after Donald Trump was elected President of the United States.
How are you feeling?
Since [Election Day] I’ve been really, really bummed. I know people who didn’t get out of bed for two or three days after the election. They’re so dejected.
The lege opens in January. How are you feeling about that?
Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick feels really emboldened by a Trump presidency. And he’s pushing a lot of things that are not pressing to the state but instead are causing a division that we saw in the Trump campaign. He wants to force people to go into the bathroom of the gender that’s on their birth certificate. It is incredibly cynical because it seeks to prey upon and demonize transgender Texans who are among the most vulnerable in our society. The language of the [so-called “bathroom bill”] equates trans Texans to pedophiles and suggests that the lieutenant governor is trying to protect women from trans people who may seek to attack them in the bathroom. The irony is that sexual assault is already illegal. The penal code already provides for a reasonable expectation of privacy in bathrooms. All those things are already illegal. But he’s seizing on the lack of familiarity. Facts don’t matter. We already have laws on the books that protect women in bathrooms, yet we demonize these people.
Let’s talk about immigration, since that hits home for our neighborhood.
The governor is already talking about sanctuary cities and the repeal of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals. Because immigration issues poll very highly, those are going to be very high on their list of priorities. You may remember that former Gov. Rick Perry called maybe two special sessions on sanctuary cities, and he never got it passed. We have flourishing immigrant populations that make our cities succeed. But the lieutenant governor equates allowing local police to make decisions prioritizing importance with not turning in bad guys. It’s ultimately going to make cities less safe because [requiring police to arrest undocumented immigrants] will take the police focus off of emergencies.
What else? On immigration, that is.
The repeal of in-state tuition for undocumented immigrants. These are young people we’ve invested in through public education, who have come here as young children, played by the all the rules, gone to college, and now we want to tell them they’re not welcome.
Meanwhile, trying to fix Child Protective Services was maybe in the lieutenant governor’s third press release about ‘priorities’ for the session.
We’re under a federal court order to do it. The federal government is forcing the state to reform the system. This is something I’ve been complaining about for years. We had failed privatization of the system. We have chronically underfunded the system, so their caseloads have been exponentially higher than recommended national averages. There are 31,000 kids in foster care right now, and there’s not a huge waiting list to help them. That’s something we should be doing to protect the most vulnerable among us.
What about school finance?
We didn’t do anything last session about school finance, when we had money. Now we’re in an environment where we have less money because of oil and gas revenues. There are plans to recapture what they call “Robin Hood,” where school districts with more wealth contribute to lower income schools. So that would cut some funding, but there’s no plan to fill that bucket back up. There’s a discussion of vouchers that would pull more tax revenue from public schools. Eliminating the franchise tax, which has underperformed, no doubt, but would leave a massive hole in the budget with no strategy for filling that back up. So all I’m hearing is strategies to pull money out, and that’s very troublesome.
There was at least one Democrat who beat a Republican in Dallas County, right?
Yes, in District 107, the Republican incumbent lost to a Democrat, Victoria Neave. She used to intern for me. She’s going to be a great member of the legislature.
What are your strategies this session?
It’s going to be about forming coalitions. Democrats have been the backstop for Speaker Joe Strauss. When there were 74 of us, he won speaker. Now there are 55 of us. Joe is a classical conservative and very practical in his desire to help the state. The house needs to serve as the bulwark for the Texas Senate, which is far more rightwing than the house. As Sen. Royce West put it, the Senate had been the adults in the room. This session it’s going to have to be the House.
I like your bill to rename the Texas Railroad Commission for the job it is supposed to do — regulate the state’s energy business.
We need to change the name and not raise money from industry participants that have matters pending before them. That at least creates the appearance of impropriety. The Railroad Commission should have a searchable database for violations so that members of the public can research operators in their area and see if they have pending violations. The University of Texas and Southern Methodist University received $5 million in the last appropriations bill to study whether seismic activity could be from manmade causes like fracking or horizontal drilling. [The Railroad Commission’s] first reaction was to attack that study. It’s irresponsible of the Railroad Commission to rule out manmade causes of seismic activity. I’m very critical of their role as a regulator. I believe they should be much more aggressive as a regulator.
And you have some gun bills?
It should be disturbing to everyone that the 7/9 gun that killed Dallas Police officers was bought in the parking lot of a big-box store with no background check. And this is wildly popular. The polling suggests that 90 percent of Americans and 87 percent of Republicans support background checks. Data from the federal government shows that 40 percent of the guns trafficked in Mexico come from Texas. That vicious cycle has got to stop, and this is one way to do it. Cartels, terrorists, criminals, the insane, domestic abusers … there are many categories of people who should not have these guns. We also want to allow public universities to opt out of campus carry. Campus carry is not popular. Every private university in Texas that was given the opportunity to opt out did. And that gives me the idea that public universities would do the same given the choice.
I think it’s going to be a hard slog. This session is going to be difficult because of the ideology motivated legislation that’s going to come out of the Senate and our budget deficit. Those two things are going to put a lot of stress on the legislature and hurt our ability to make truly needed changes in CPS, education, transportation funding. Those are things we should be worried about.
This interview was edited for clarity and brevity