Why Texas’s lone Black freshman Democrat refuses to give up on the fight for voting rights
Carlos Kosienski/Sipa

Why Texas’s lone Black freshman Democrat refuses to give up on the fight for voting rights

For Texas State Rep. Jasmine Crockett, holding public office was not a goal she ever set. Neither was becoming a civil rights attorney.

But after being the victim of racist hate mail while attending undergrad at Rhodes College and watching Black people face inequalities in the criminal justice system, both careers became a calling she had to answer.

Today, Crockett is making waves as the outspoken and passionate lone Black freshman Democrat in the Texas state legislature. In her first year in the state House of Representatives, Crockett proposed more than 60 legislative bills — many of which she drafted herself — that tackled criminal justice reform, loosening drug laws and expanding voting access. Though none of them passed, she hasn’t given up.

Crockett said she came into office determined to advocate for vulnerable Texans and refuses to be silenced by more senior colleagues who don’t always agree with her.

“My intent was to make sure that my constituency absolutely knew their voices were being heard,” Crockett said. “I never intended to sit on my hands and let falsehoods go unchecked.”

Crockett has emerged as one of the faces on the frontlines of a fight to protect voting rights in the Lone Star State. And she’s been battling Republicans alongside other women of color from the Texas legislature. State Reps. Gina Hinojosa, Jessica Gonzalez, Rhetta Andrews Bowers and Senfronia Thompson — who is the longest serving woman and Black American in the state House — are among the Texas House Democrats who fled the state last week to block Republicans from passing a restrictive new voting law. The lawmakers are in Washington DC rallying for Congress to pass federal legislation that would counter the bill.

Crockett’s leadership among Texas House Democrats in DC is consistent with her ongoing advocacy for voters of color in Texas. Since being elected last July, she has introduced bills that would create online voter registration and same day voter registration, increase ballot drop boxes, codify drive-thru voting and allow voters who will turn 18 in time for the general election to be able to vote in the primary.

Crockett said she doesn’t plan to leave DC until after Aug. 7 when the special legislative session ends and the bill dies. She said staying in DC is worth the sacrifice and isn’t concerned about Texas Gov. Greg Abbott’s threat to arrest her and the other lawmakers when they return to Texas.

“If we can’t fight for us, then I don’t know who is going to fight for us,” Crockett said.

Crockett said ensuring voters have equal ballot access is critical to boosting voter turnout noting that when more people vote, Democrats often win because “we tend to fight for a broader cross section of people.”

A fight for criminal justice reform

As a civil rights attorney who once worked as a public defender, Crockett brought a familiarity with the state’s criminal justice system and knew what she wanted to change as a Texas lawmaker.

She filed bills that she said would minimize police contact with Black and brown people and save them from “unreasonable uses of force.”

For example, Crockett proposed a law that would allow people facing nonviolent misdemeanors to receive citations instead of jail time. Other bills would have the decreased the amount of time people are held in jail before being formally charged and loosened punishments and restrictions surrounding cannabis use.

Crockett has run into opposition from both Democrats and Republicans with these bills and has yet to see anything get passed.

“It’s just been frustrating and it’s been disappointing,” she said.

Still, Crockett receives praise and accolades from some colleagues in the state legislature.

Texas State Rep. Ron Reynolds has been a mentor to Crockett since she was elected. Reynolds said he coached her on the culture of the state legislature and encouraged her to speak up about the issues she cared about.

Reynolds said it’s rare for a freshman legislator to be vocal and introduce so many bills, but he advised Crockett to not let the backlash from colleagues stop her.

“Many people will try to silence someone like her and I didn’t feel that was best for the fiery personality that she is,” he said. “She is a fierce advocate for her constituents. She’s a great orator, she does her due diligence and she comes prepared.”

From the courtroom to the state Capitol

Crockett decided during college that practicing law — instead of her initial career goal of anesthesiology — would allow her to help people facing inequity and racism. She recalled needing an advocate when someone left racist hate mail in her campus mailbox and when her Black friends had their cars keyed on campus.

“I wanted to be that shero who could assist people at a very confusing and difficult time,” Crockett said. “I went ahead and took that mantel.”

Crockett spent more than a decade working as an attorney, including a stint as a public defender in Bowie County, Texas and then opening up her own private practice focusing on civil rights law in Dallas in 2015.

As a public defender, she realized that most of the people needing help from public defenders were Black. She also recognized that people of color faced harsher sentences than White people, she said. Crockett studied the code of criminal procedure and focused on helping people of color get reduced bonds and shorter jail time.

In 2010, she ran for Bowie County District Attorney with the hopes of being in a position to effectuate more change. She was defeated in the race.

“I was constantly walking in courtrooms where the disparities are glaring,” Crockett said. “For me, I was like we need to change the laws in regards to how we are policed. We need to change the laws as to what is considered to be criminal activity.”

In her private practice, Crockett represented a long list of clients who faced injustices including hundreds of protesters who were arrested last summer during the Black Lives Matter movement.

She said she announced her run for the state House in 2019 after seeing her Dallas district suffer from high poverty and high incarceration rates.

“I honestly didn’t feel we had the firepower in Austin,” Crockett said. “And I said this is what I have to do and now is the time.”

A ‘modern day civil rights movement’

For Crockett and other Democrats, traveling to DC was an urgency given Texas Republicans were close to passing a sweeping elections overhaul that would make casting mail-in ballots harder; ban drive-thru voting centers and 24-hour voting; empower poll watchers, making it easier for courts to overturn election results; effectively outlawed Black churches’ “souls to the polls” get out the vote push and more.

Crockett said federal legislation is the only way to save millions of Texas voters from being disenfranchised. The restrictions could also impact next year’s midterms in which Abbott is up for re-election.

Crockett said the battle for voting rights feels like a “modern day civil rights movement.”

Political observers say Crockett’s persistence is emblematic of other women of color in politics. Kelly Pittman, director of research at the Center for American Women and Politics, said research shows women, especially women of color, run for office to get policies passed or because they are fighting for a cause. Many, like Crockett, are also advocating for diverse communities.

“They are there for achievement over ego and they are seeking solutions,” Pittman said. “Women of color are more productive with sponsoring or co-sponsoring legislation.”

Sisterly support

Despite facing an uphill battle with getting legislation passed, Crockett has become a leading voice for Black and brown Texans and has garnered support from other Black leaders as well as voting rights activists who have joined her in DC.

Crockett said one of her strongest support systems is her sorority Delta Sigma Theta. Sorority sisters, she said, have showed up at the Texas Capitol to support her during hearings for voting legislation and worked on her campaign.

Her sorority sister Crystal Ward was among the campaign volunteers who knocked on doors and made phone calls.

“It makes me proud to know that a friend and sorority sister is doing the good work, getting into good trouble,” Ward said. “She does hold her ground with everything that she believes in, she is truly for the people.”

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