Open carry bill sparks unusual alliance
AUSTIN – Last Saturday, Rodney Ellis was greeted in his Capitol office by a surprising gift. Just hours after backing a controversial amendment to the Senate's open carry bill – a move that thrust him into an unlikely alliance with the chamber's far-right members – the Houston Democrat was staring down at a fancily wrapped box of chamomile tea.
"(Sen. Don) Huffines sent me some tea," Ellis, who drinks the herbal brew every night, said with a chuckle.
He remarked that while the gift was unexpected, he didn't mind collaborating with his tea party colleague if it meant winning an otherwise insurmountable battle.
Paraphrasing the old political adage, he said, "There are no permanent friends, no permanent enemies, just permanent interests. Hey, it's about trying to get the votes on something I'm trying to pass."
Huffines' open carry amendment, which would have barred police officers from stopping or detaining someone solely for openly carrying a handgun, won approval in the Senate, but was stripped out by a conference committee in the session's waning days. On Friday, the open carry bill was headed to the desk of Gov. Greg Abbott, who has pledged to sign it into law.
The amendment died, but some lawmakers said the unusual coalition of tea party Republicans and minority Democrats who kept it alive for nearly a week may not be going anywhere.
"The issue of civil liberties crosses party lines," said Huffines, R-Dallas, who called his amendment "a common-sense, civil rights" change. The unlikely coalition, he added, worked well. "We're aligned on a lot of issues."
Open carry was expected to be a lock to pass in the final weeks of the session. Then Huffines, a freshman and member of the Senate's so-called "Liberty Caucus," proposed the controversial amendment.
Though most Republicans support the licensed open carry of handguns, Huffines' amendment drew sharp opposition from GOP senators who declared it anti-police and bad for public safety. The minority Democrats, all representing the state's largest cities, opposed the open carry bill generally. They supported Huffines' amendment, however, as a way to discourage racial profiling by police who come upon residents carrying weapons. Republicans suggested their support also was aimed as creating a poison pill to tank the open carry bill altogether.
For the tea party Republicans, the amendment simply underlined Texans' constitutional right to bear arms.
During the Senate debate, Huffines paired up with Democrat Dallas Royce West, who stood sentinel behind him for support and often bent down to offer words of advice. Other Republicans chided the pair, saying they wanted to debate Huffines, the freshman senator, not West, a lawyer with more than two decades in the Legislature under his belt.
A similar coalition cropped up in the House, when Rep. Harold Dutton proposed the amendment during that chamber's debate last week.
the Houston Democrat was the first lawmaker to bring up the issue this session, after seeing video of Oregon police angrily detaining a black man for openly carrying a long arm, while respectfully approaching a white man doing the same. Dutton gave an impassioned speech calling on his colleagues to tack the amendment onto the House's open carry bill, drawing strong support from tea party members like Matt Rinaldi, R-Irving.
"I was a little surprised," Dutton said. "I thought, 'oh, you do?' And that was when I realized, maybe we're on to something here."
Texas politics has seen its share of unusual alliances. The state's vast expanse alone has created an inevitable urban-versus-rural divide that has made for strange political bedfellows in the past. Ellis remembers working with Waco Republican David Sibley in 2000 to ensure Texas became one of the first states to institute post-conviction DNA testing requirements. And Dutton recalled some urban Democrats and Republicans coming together to oppose statewide seatbelt requirements during his first session in 1985.
Never before, however, has the state Legislature swung so far right ideologically. As the new tea party members find their voices, and Democrats see theirs further diminished, the unlikely alliance like the one formed over open carry could become more common.
Ellis said the alliance is strengthen by both groups' general distrust for government and shared feeling of being outnumbered: "The so-called Liberty Caucus, the tea party crowd - there are certain issues where you find an alliance because they have what I would consider a tremendous suspicion of government. And so do African Americans in particular, and Hispanics."
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