WASHINGTON — Just a few feet from Sen. Elizabeth Warren, state Rep. Erin Zwiener’s 3-year-old daughter sat quietly on the marbled floors of the Hart Senate Office Building, alphabet books and sticker sheets strewn around her as the former presidential candidate conferred with runaway Texas Democrats about voting rights.
Lark has been tagging along since Monday, when more than 50 Democrats from the Texas House fled from Austin.
“She’s a freaking champion,” said Zwiener, of Driftwood. “I joke that she’ll be set for her gubernatorial campaign one day.”
Since they’ve arrived in Washington, the Texas runaways have emphasized their personal sacrifices as they try to thwart Gov. Greg Abbott’s special session agenda on election rules they view as suppression.
Most had only a few hours to pack up their suitcases and settle personal affairs. A handful brought children, to avoid weeks of separation. But many left children, spouses and elderly parents back home.
Some are dealing with pressing medical issues.
One delayed her wedding.
On Thursday – her birthday – Rep. Celia Israel of Austin was supposed to tie the knot with her partner of 26 years, Celinda.
House Democrats knew they might need to flee on short notice if they wanted to break quorum and avoid being detained by the sergeant at arms. The time came after Republicans worked through the weekend to push the bill through committee and tee up a floor vote by Tuesday.
When Israel got word the plan was going into effect, and had to break the news, her fiancée was en route to a wedding dress fitting.
“I was so scared. I forced the words out of my mouth,” Israel said. “I don’t know if you know any Latinas from South Texas but you try telling them they’re not going to have their wedding as planned.”
The pair were to be married under the pink dome of the Texas Capitol, a building Israel calls the “Cathedral of Texas.” Rep. Donna Howard, Israel’s deskmate and close friend, was lined up to officiate.
The honeymoon was planned for Big Bend, a favorite destination for the couple.
Hinojosa floated the idea of asking the U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi to perform the wedding in Washington.
But “I said ‘Hell no, I can’t.’ We’re Texas girls,” Israel said.
The wedding is now postponed, at least until the current special session, and the self-imposed exile from Texas, end no later than Aug. 6.
The fugitives have committed to breaking quorum through then, said Rep. Chris Turner of Grand Prairie, who chairs the House Democratic Caucus. But Abbott has vowed to call one special session after another until they bend to his will.
“We’re going to have to go back eventually,” said Rep. Ina Minjarez of San Antonio.
She’s more flexible than others. Her two step kids are out of college, she said, and “I have a husband who’s supportive. I can stay the course.”
But some of her colleagues are single parents with small kids, or their families sole breadwinner.
“Eventually, there’s going to be hard decisions made, because a lot of us have to go back home. We have responsibilities,” she said.
Economic and family pressures aren’t the only considerations.
Rep. Bobby Guerra, 67, of McAllen is considering an early flight back to Texas next week. He has a torn rotator cuff and surgery scheduled soon.
“I already have ‘doctor’s orders’ but I didn’t want to come back this week because I didn’t want to be the first one to pack up,” he said into his phone in the Plaza lobby. “I’m in a lot of pain.”
“Somebody may come get me. But this thing is killing me,” he later told The Dallas Morning News, motioning to his left shoulder.
Zwiener’s husband works early hours and couldn’t join her in Washington for weeks. Childcare wasn’t readily available. Zwiener is considering enrolling Lark in a local summer camp but for the first two full days of exile, she joined mom on her daily rounds.
The girl sat patiently during press gaggles and meetings with senators and drew the attention of national media documenting the spectacle of more than a third of the Texas House decamped to Washington.
“I’m not willing to go 25 days without seeing my daughter,” Zwiener said. “Our biggest sacrifice in this is that my husband doesn’t get to kiss his daughter goodnight…. It’s tough. We wouldn’t be here if it didn’t matter so much.”
For her, the new normal includes doing interviews and checking in on staff from the Washington Plaza, the Democrats’ home away from home — a 4-star hotel ranked as the capital’s 39th best on TripAdvisor.
She crossed paths with some Austin constituents in the lobby Wednesday. They brought groceries and offered to watch Lark later while she took meetings.
Rep. John Bucy, of Leander, was also parenting while taking meetings with federal lawmakers and arranging media hits.
His wife, Molly, is 27 weeks pregnant. And they have a 17-month-old daughter, Bradley, who is too young to be vaccinated against COVID-19. So they decided to make the 20-hour drive rather than join colleagues on one of the two chartered jets they’d arranged, arriving past midnight Tuesday morning.
Molly, who works in finance, managed to get some work done from their room while taking care of their first child.
“I knew the biggest pull to wanting to go back would have been the strain of not seeing my daughter,” Bucy said. “We just wanted to take that temptation out of the equation.”
The hotel has an outdoor pool, which is also tempting as Washington suffers a week of oppressive heat and humidity. News media camped out in the lobby haven’t yet spotted any elected officials taking a dip, though a few of their kids have.
“I know there’s a lot of ‘they’re on vacation’ spin, but we’re busy,” Zwiener said. “If we end up with time, great. Of course I’d love to take my daughter to the Museum of Natural History. I’m not counting on it.”
Washington Bureau Chief Todd J. Gillman contributed to this report.