WASHINGTON — As she began to testify to a congressional committee in late July, state Rep. Senfronia Thompson addressed the Republicans in the room who had said she should be back in Austin.
“I’m here because this is the seat of democracy and my people who I represent have a right to be able to vote — unabridged — just like all of you,” replied Thompson, who represents a mostly Black and Hispanic district in northeast Houston and Humble.
Thompson then described how, as a child, she watched her grandmother work to earn $2 a week, setting aside pennies and nickels to pay a $1.25 poll tax to vote in general elections. She rode the bus to the polls, “a place for colored people to go and vote.”
Primary elections were white-only in Texas until 1944.
Thompson, who grew up in Houston, explained that her grandfather couldn’t afford the tax, which stayed in place in Texas until 1966, two years after federal poll taxes were outlawed. So he didn’t vote.
“I can tell you when I first voted — 60-something years ago — I had to buy a poll tax,” Thompson said. “And they did not exempt me as they did others.”
It’s a story Thompson has told repeatedly over the last month as the 82-year-old lawmaker has become the breakout star of the Texas Democrats’ stay in Washington, D.C. And it’s part of what makes her the ideal messenger for the group that decamped to D.C. for the last month to stop voting legislation that they say would again restrict the rights of people of color to vote.
“It is very difficult for me to look at the history, the progress that African Americans may have made in this country without looking back at the struggles that we have gone through and the struggles that we keep going through,” said Thompson, a member of the Texas House for 48 years who is the longest-serving woman and Black person in the Legislature. “That’s why I’m here.”
“We’re talking about something that makes and breaks this country, when we’re talking democracy — the vote,” she said. “You’re damn right I left Texas, and I’m glad I did.”
Surrounded by local faith leaders and fellow members of the Texas Legislative Black Caucus (TxLBC), Rep. Senfronia Thompson (D-Houston) speaks during a news conference about voting rights at Unity Baptist Church on July 26, 2021 in Washington, DC. Local faith leaders called on Black churches across the country to join with the Texas Legislative Black Caucus in their efforts to protect voting freedoms. (Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images)
Drew Angerer, Staff / Getty Images
Paying attention to ‘Ms. T’
Thompson’s testimony at the hearing and her similarly captivating appearances in D.C. at news conferences and in cable TV interviews are a reminder of what makes her such a revered figure in Austin.
Nearly five decades into her tenure in the House, Thompson, known as Ms. T, is arguably its most loved and feared member — by Democrats and Republicans alike.
Thompson is a “hugely important” figure who is seen as “a conscience of the House,” said Dennis Bonnen, a Republican who worked with Thompson for nearly two decades in the House, including most recently as House Speaker.
Bonnen said he doesn’t agree with Democrats’ complaints about the voting bill and believes Republicans are rightfully upset by the quorum break.
Republicans say their foes are greatly exaggerating the risks of the new voting restrictions they have proposed, which they argue are necessary to guard against voter fraud, though there is no evidence fraud is a widespread problem. Republicans say they have already taken out portions of the bill that Democrats most opposed and they have accused the Democrats in D.C. of abandoning their jobs.
But both sides agree on Thompson’s influence in Austin.
“If you’re a member of the Texas Legislature — whether speaker of the House or a new member — if you’re not worried about paying attention to where Ms. T is and what she’s thinking, you’re going to regret it,” Bonnen said. “The worst place for it to play out is for one of her incredibly fiery and passionate speeches from the front mic and usually when that happens it’s all over for you — and I think that’s a bit of what people got when she was in Washington. They got to see her great ability to communicate and connect with everybody.”
Bonnen said his wife taped Thompson’s congressional hearing because “she said, ‘Well, I knew it would be good.’”
“She actually did show who she is,” Bonnen said of Thompson’s many appearances in D.C. “If you watch her in that hearing — and that wasn’t the only thing she did — but if you watch her in that hearing, she connects with people and tells stories and she makes you feel her position and understand her position whether you agree or disagree.”
Texas State Rep. Senfronia Thompson (D-141) becomes emotional after speaking at a press conference on voting rights, on July 16, 2021 in Alexandria, Virginia. Members of the Texas Legislation Black Caucus held a press conference at the site of the 1939 Alexandria Library sit-in, where five Black men were arrested for attempting to register for a library card. Members of the Texas House Democratic Caucus continue to lobby for voting rights reform in Washington, DC after leaving Texas to block a voting restrictions bill. (Photo by Kevin Dietsch/Getty Images)
Kevin Dietsch, Staff / Getty Images
Staying power for the Democrats
That’s a big part of how Thompson has been able to build a long list of legislative victories — often over long odds.
Thompson is a Democrat in a legislative body that Republicans have controlled since 2003, yet she still passes significant legislation every session. She has successfully pushed bills increasing penalties for hate crimes, banning racial profiling by police, establishing alimony rights and more.
A Houston attorney, Thompson was born in Booth and grew up in Houston where she graduated from Booker T. Washington High School before earning a bachelor’s degree at Texas Southern University, a masters from Prairie View A&M University and law degrees from TSU’s Thurgood Marshall School of Law and the University of Houston.
Even as House Democrats were preparing to bail in July, Thompson was still trying to work with Republicans, they said.
“She was still working the Speaker, she was still working the Republicans, and I think she would be the only one who could still do that,” said state Rep. Jarvis Johnson, a Houston Democrat.
Democrats are hoping she’ll be able to pull off one more Hail Mary: convincing Congress to pass new voting rights legislation.
Thompson has been a regular source of inspiration for Democrats over the last month. She has often been the first one in the hotel conference room, where the caucus has held daily zoom meetings with advocates and lawmakers, and the last to leave — as she often was at her desk on the House floor in Austin.
“When you come down here, Ms. T is here,” said state Rep. Ann Johnson, a Houston Democrat. “Anything that we have scheduled — there are other members that have other things they’re doing, Ms. T is always present. And it’s because she’s present that so many people are present.”
On several occasions, Democrats said, she’s given speeches to the caucus at times when it seemed some members were ready to bail on the quorum break and go home. State Rep. Shawn Thierry, a Houston Democrat, said it was especially important during Democrats’ last week in D.C.
“When things get awry and people start to argue and are a little stressed and tired, we always bring it back to Ms. T and she’ll give a speech and remind us all to lock in and get our sea legs back,” Thierry said. “Obviously people get anxious. So many of us have so many commitments back home and obligations and some people are afraid of what’s going to face us when we get back, and so she’s usually the voice that will remind us to stay steady and stay calm.”
Jarvis Johnson said Thompson would tell the stories about how it was hard for Martin Luther King and other civil rights leaders.
“They weren’t near their families,” he said. “They had to be away from their families for long periods of time. They had to sacrifice their jobs. They had to sacrifice their homes. This is what she saw.
“She has become our glue.”
Texas State Rep. Senfronia Thompson (D-141) attends a press conference with fellow Texas State Representatives on Texas Gov. Greg Abbott and the group’s meetings with federal lawmakers on voting rights, on July 20, 2021 in Washington, DC. Members of the Texas House Democratic Caucus continue to lobby for voting rights reform in Washington, DC after leaving Texas to block a voting restrictions bill. (Photo by Kevin Dietsch/Getty Images)
Kevin Dietsch, Staff / Getty Images
‘We became spark plugs’
After nearly a month in D.C., Thompson said in an interview with Hearst Newspapers that she remains optimistic, even as she’s clear-eyed about what is waiting for the Democrats when they return to Austin. Republicans have the votes to pass voting restrictions and it’s unclear how long Democrats can remain out of Texas to stall them.
“We’re going to get run over,” Thompson said. “But that’s why we’re here … We believe this is our only hope.”
“It’s very disappointing,” she said. “It’s very hurtful too. It’s hurtful in this sense: When you think about moments in life that you can rejoice and victories, but always having to look back not only at the struggle, but to repeat those struggles. And I’m talking about the struggle for just African Americans, and people of color to be able to be treated as real Americans and to be allowed the same privilege that so many of my colleagues take for granted when it comes to voting.”
Thompson has raised particular concerns about provisions in the GOP bill that would expand what partisan poll watchers are able to do in polling places while restricting elections officials’ ability to deal with those they believe are out of line. She testified to Congress about instances when she had seen Republican poll watchers show up to her polling place “that looked like they was from the Proud Boys looking at you like you were in the wrong place.”
“They don’t have to worry about African Americans and Hispanics coming to their precincts and intimidating them,” she said. “But they want impose that upon me and my constituents. And I think it’s grossly unfair. It’s undemocratic. It’s un-American. And I’d like for them to know that and I want them to know how I feel about that.”
Republicans say it’s not just any person off the street who can show up as poll watchers — they are hired by parties, and that they are there to safeguard against fraud, not intimidate people.
The U.S. Senate may vote as soon as this week on a new voting bill that Democrats have been hammering out over the last week or so. But it appears to stand virtually no chance of passing as Republicans remain unanimously opposed and can easily filibuster it for a second time. Democrats, meanwhile, don’t appear to have the votes to amend or do away with the filibuster.
Still, the fact that the Senate will have voted twice on elections legislation by the time many Texas Democrats leave D.C. is significant, Thompson said.
“When we left the Capitol of Texas, and we merged on the Capitol of Washington D.C., we ran into a engine that was cold and had been dormant for a while,” she said. “We became spark plugs for that engine. And we cranked that engine up and got that engine running again.”
“I’m always optimistic that things are going to get better,” Thompson said. “Does it take time? Yes. But it doesn’t mean that you should stop.”