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Opinion: What I saw when I worked as a political reporter in California and Texas

As I ran a Facebook Live broadcast on a hearing in the Texas Legislature on transgender bathroom policy, one thing became clear: I wasn’t in California anymore.

Dozens of people, mostly in support of allowing transgender people to use the bathroom of their choosing, snaked around the corner, lined the hallway, and spiraled down a staircase waiting to express their disapproval for one of conservative leaders’ top priorities for the 2017 special session of the Texas Legislature.

Despite their protests, a veteran political reporter told me, the bill requiring transgender people to use the bathroom that aligned with the gender on their birth certificate would almost certainly pass because of the big Republican names on the committee.

The past two summers, I have worked for newspapers in the two most politically opposite capitols in the United States: Sacramento, California and Austin, Texas. I sometimes saw similarities between the two political landscapes. But much of the time, I felt like I was working in alternate universes.

Leaders of the same party don’t necessarily get along

Two years ago, I never would have expected the aggressive rhetoric and public verbal jousting that goes on between state leaders of the same party. They are on the same team, working to achieve the same platform points. Right?

Wrong.

Texas Gov. Abbott and Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick have blamed the more moderate House Speaker Joe Straus for the failure of conservative priorities to pass the Legislature.

Tensions between Straus and Patrick, who heads the Senate, are high. Patrick claims the two went the entire regular legislative session without a meeting. Abbott says some of his special session priorities failed to pass because the House was “dilly-dallying” around.

California Senate President Pro Tempore Kevin de León and Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom’s relationship, though not as publicly combative as Texas officials’, showed signs of strain during debate on a gun control package during the summer of 2016.

Newsom’s office accused de León of “petty personal grudges” after an amended version of one of de León’s bills would have pre-empted a ballot initiative that Newsom supported.

I’m not sure what I was expecting, but the middle school-esque drama was less dignified than I imagined state officials’ interactions.

Caucuses fuel intra-party conflict

Party leaders aren’t the only ones who find themselves divided— the Legislatures in both states have caucuses that deviate from the mainstream party agendas.

Even though California is dominated by Democrats, a powerful caucus of moderates, dubbed the “Mods,” wields significant influence over some of the Legislature’s more liberal ventures. For example, the summer I worked there, the Legislature was considering banning the “pink tax,” or different pricing on identical goods marketed toward men and women. However, the bill, which would have imposed additional regulations on businesses, died before coming to a vote in the Assembly.

A caucus in Texas, the ultra-conservative Freedom Caucus, is more outright about opposing party leadership and priorities. Their anger boiled over into influential political action at the end of the 2016 regular legislative session; the caucus indiscriminately killed more than 100 largely non-controversial bills in a maneuver dubbed the “Mother’s Day Massacre” as they protested what they saw as unresponsive, overly moderate House leadership.

The Freedom Caucus then revolted at the end of the Legislature’s regular session, holding a bill hostage to give Patrick just enough leverage to force a special session to address other conservative priorities.

Even within parties, resentment, disagreements, and legislative maneuvers can divide parties and lead to policy stalemates. The Legislatures weren’t just divided by blue and red; they fractured into highly visible, powerful groups within their own parties.

Polarization runs deeper than red the and blue divide

My experiences in these two polar political opposite capitols challenged the overarching narrative of party politics that I previously held. I expected plenty to get accomplished in both California and Texas. When each state essentially enjoys one-party reign, what’s stopping legislators from creating liberal or conservative utopias?

The obstacle: Polarization and intra-party factions are much more complex and deep than I expected.

Whether the stalemates are a symptom of a fractured political news media, the echo chambers of our social media feeds, or of the structure of the legislative process, single-party domination doesn’t solve the challenges of policymaking. Even single-party majority states face gridlock, accusatory rhetoric and, in Texas’ case, legislative rebellion.

As a journalist, these summers reminded me to resist the easy narrative of framing political conflict in stark red-blue terms. It’s not just one side against the other. Each policy priority within parties involves a delicate dance of coalition-building.

I now challenge myself to search out and acknowledge the nuance of all the shades of red, blue and purple that compose the complex American political landscape.

Categories: Opinion.

Rachel is the Interactives Editor at USC Annenberg Media. She is a senior journalism major with a law and public policy minor, and is interested in politics and policy reporting.