TEXAS — The Lone Star State made national headline news more than once in 2021, thanks to a long list of new and controversial politics and laws enacted in Texas this year.
As the saying goes, as goes Texas, so goes the nation. At times, it seemed like all of America’s culture wars were being waged in the Lone Star State, from debates on how teachers should instruct students about history to mask wearing in the pandemic to a woman’s right to have an abortion.
Here’s a look at the most important Texas stories that caught the nation’s attention.
In February, Americans watched in disbelief as they saw images of Texans huddled together under blankets around fire pits inside their homes in the state, while temperatures outside dipped to single digits. An unusually cold winter storm put Texas into a deep freeze and stressed out its independent power grid, causing not just the lights to go out, but the heat to cut off, too. Millions of households were without power, water and heat for days, stretching into weeks on end for many. By the state’s own estimate, more than 210 people died during the winter storm. Other estimates put storm-related fatalities closer to 700.
The big question on most Americans’ minds was why the U.S.’s largest energy-producing state couldn’t manage to keep the power on when the temperatures dropped. The biggest question on Texans’ minds remains: Will it happen again?
The U.S. ruling affirming a woman’s right to abortion, Roe v. Wade, started in Texas. Now, many fear, a new Texas abortion ban could be the challenge that contributes to a reversal of the pivotal 1973 U.S. Supreme Court decision. The 87th Texas Legislature passed the nation’s most restrictive abortion law during its regular session this spring, and the world took notice. The law, Senate Bill 8, effectively bans abortions after six weeks. The law immediately faced legal challenges that continue today, with the U.S. Supreme Court recently rulling that Texas abortion providers had the right to challenge the law in federal court. What caught the country’s eye was the law’s unique enforcement mechanism, with which ordinary citizens can sue anyone who helps a woman get an abortion. Under the law, defendants who sue, for example, the Uber driver who takes a woman to get an abortion could receive a $10,000 award if they win in court. The mechanism makes it extremely difficult to fight the law, but California Gov. Gavin Newsom said this month that he would copy the Texas law in proposed legislation aimed at limiting the sale of assault weapons and “ghost guns” in his state.
The Texas Legislature went into its regular session in January with the governor’s priority list of legislation, including an election reform bill. The bill included what lawmakers said would address election integrity. The law seems to be a reaction to former President Donald Trump, who lost the 2020 election, but won Texas by 5.6% points, and his campaign’s unsupported claims of voter fraud. Although Gov. Greg Abbott declared the Nov. 2 election in Texas a success, he joined his fellow Republican leaders across the country with a promise to pass a bill that would leave no doubt in future elections.
The Texas Legislature took up a bill that was widely criticized by Democrats as nothing short of voter suppression in a state that already has some of the most restrictive voting laws in the country.
When the bill came up for a vote in the Texas State House during the regular session, Democrats walked out, breaking quorum and essentially killing the bill.
Abbott immediately called a special session, asking lawmakers to take up the bill again. This time, Democrats, in an eleventh-hour move, left the state and headed to Washington, D.C., again breaking quorum and preventing a vote on the bill. Their middle-of-the-night trip to the nation’s capital made national headlines as they held press conferences to decry the Texas bill. Frustrated Texas Republicans remained in Austin while their colleagues from across the aisle worked the halls of Congress to try to shore up support for federal legislation that could override anything the Texas lawmakers passed.
The Democrats’ efforts eventually failed when Abbott called yet another special session, where the controversial bill finally passed.
Since then, the NAACP and other organizations have filed lawsuits against the state in early Sept., alleging the law “includes a series of suppressive voting-related provisions that will make it much harder for Texas residents to vote and disenfranchise some altogether, particularly Black and Latino voters and voters with disabilities."
The Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol building in Washington, D.C., shocked the nation already reeling from former Trump’s claims that the 2020 Presidential Election had been “stolen.” Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, an ardent Trump supporter, was a leading figure in the calls for Congress to object to certifying Democrat Joe Biden’s win against Trump in what should have been a largely procedural vote. But while Cruz was rallying support for his plot to object to the election results unless Congress agreed to an “emergency audit” of the election, Trump supporters and protestors were massing outside the Capitol, eventually breaching the building in a violent attack.
Since then, 59 Texans have been arrested and charged with participating in the Jan. 6 attack, a large number of them from North Texas. While Texans don’t make up the biggest number of rioters arrested from the total count of 727 so far (Florida holds that record at 62), some of them made national news. Jenna Ryan, a 50-year-old real estate agent from Frisco, flew on a private jet with several other North Texans to attend Trump’s rally scheduled for the morning of Jan. 6. Ryan claimed she was innocent, but her documentation of the entire event on social media was her downfall. Her face became the image of the Jan. 6 rioters in national stories.
Ryan continued to draw attention to her case with her posts on Twitter and TikTok. Before her court date, she bragged in a tweet that she wouldn’t go to jail because she had “blonde hair,” “white skin” and “did nothing wrong.”
The judge sentenced her to 60 days plus about $1,500 in fines and restitution after she pled guilty to a misdemeanor charge. She has since used her TikTok account to reveal her incarceration weight-loss plan, during which time she will be doing “a lot of yoga” and not eating the “awful” food. “Hopefully they have some protein shakes,” she said.
“If I can lose 30 pounds, it would be so worth it,” she told her followers. “Wish me luck!”
Meanwhile, most of Texas’ Republican members in the U.S. House voted against forming a commission to examine the events on Jan. 6. That commission’s examination continues today.
Texas lawmakers this year were tasked with redrawing the state and congressional districts maps as part of a regular 10-year exercise that follows the release of the U.S. Census results. Those results revealed a huge influx of new Texans — 4 million in a decade — nearly 95% of who were Black or Hispanic. But when the Republican-led Legislature redrew the maps in preparation for the 2022 mid-term elections, critics of the newly formed districts cried foul, saying the lawmakers had created a map that intentionally weakens the voting power of people of color. A day after Abbott signed the new maps into law on Oct. 25, a group representing Hispanic voters joined several Black Texans to file a lawsuit in federal court challenging Texas's new congressional maps, saying they were a violation of the Voting Rights Act.
Six weeks later, the U.S. Justice Department filed a similar lawsuit, putting Texas once again at odds with the Biden administration.