State Sen. Bryan Hughes stood at the center of a small group of conservatives rallying Saturday morning in front of the Texas Capitol. Microphone in hand, Hughes touted Senate Bill 1 — the Republican-backed voting legislation he authored that Democrats found so odious that they broke quorum and left Texas last month to halt its passage.
But the East Texas Republican and his conservative supporters were up against considerable star power Saturday. Willie Nelson, former Democratic presidential candidate Beto O’Rourke and the Poor People’s Campaign — a national civil rights advocacy group — held a rally capping a four-day voting rights march that began Wednesday in Georgetown.
Hughes and the Republican National Committee had scheduled their own gathering to counter “Beto O’Rourke’s sham voting rights march,” the committee’s news release said.
“The Democratic process will eventually work out,” Hughes told the American-Statesman. “Our Democratic friends will come back, we’ll debate, we’ll vote, and we’ll pass Senate Bill 1. I can’t tell you when, but that’s going to happen.”
O’Rourke’s rally was, in part, a show of support for the 57 Democratic Texas House members who fled to Washington, D.C., to avoid Texas law enforcement and keep the quorum broken until the end of the special legislative session. Last month, House Republicans voted to authorize the use of arrest warrants if necessary to compel absent members to return to the chamber.
On July 22, as O’Rourke gifted the House Democrats $600,000 to continue their Washington stay, many House members asked the former El Paso congressman to use his network to hold rallies in Texas and build momentum against the voting legislation authored by Hughes and his GOP colleagues.
“I want to thank our courageous legislators who are in Washington, D.C., right now,” O’Rourke said from a stage set up Saturday on the Capitol’s south steps. “We are the courage this country needs. Let’s keep it up.”
The four-day march organized by the Poor People’s Campaign began Wednesday morning with a Georgetown-to-Round Rock leg, then picked up again Thursday morning with about a 10-mile walk into North Austin that was joined by the Rev. Jesse Jackson, the political activist and former Democratic presidential candidate. The final leg of the march brought the crowd to the Capitol on Saturday morning, where the Rev. William J. Barber led the group up to the stage where Nelson would play.
“The worst thing we could do is make this a binary issue just about Black folk versus white folk. This has got to be about the fullness of the Democracy,” Barber said.
“This is not just a ‘Bothered by the Republicans’ rally. Because we would have the For the People Act if it wasn’t for two Democrats,” he said, referring to the congressional bill that would preclude the state legislation Texas Republicans are attempting to pass. “And I think y’all ought to be bothered that two Democrats are what’s allowing what your state Legislature is making to be legal.”
The two Democrats he was criticizing are U.S. Sens. Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona. Manchin said he is opposed to changing voting rights legislation “in a partisan manner,” and Sinema is opposed to ending the Senate filibuster in a way that could provide another path for passage.
Texas House Democrats met with Manchin in Washington last month in an attempt to sway him.
Cyndie Phillips was one of the roughly two dozen people who appeared Saturday at the Capitol on to stand with Hughes and oppose the O’Rourke and Nelson rally, which attracted hundreds of people.
She said she was a fan of Nelson’s until earlier that morning, when she first learned that Nelson was performing alongside O’Rourke: “I used to think his music is great. But anybody who is a Hollywood elite or is a superstar-type person that turns political and goes into politics and they’re advocating for lies, which is exactly what’s being portrayed over here, then they lose me. Because I’m on the side of truth.”
“An American icon — gone,” she said.
Hughes, on the other hand, said he’ll retain his Nelson fandom.
“We believe in free speech, to peaceably assemble, to state your views, to hash it out, to have a debate,” Hughes said. “This is America, man, this is great.”