AUSTIN, Texas — Country music legend Willie Nelson led more than a thousand spectators in singing “vote them out” Saturday from the steps of the Texas Capitol during a rally wrapping up a four-day march in support of Democratic state legislators who bolted for Washington two weeks ago to block GOP-backed voting restrictions.
Families with lawn chairs spread out across the sprawling Capitol greens in Austin. Clergy, politicians, constituents and musicians all spoke out about the proposals to impose voter ID requirements, limit ballot drop boxes and mail voting, and strip local officials of their election authority.
The special session that was halted by the Texas Democrats’ exodus is set to expire next week, but Republican Gov. Greg Abbott has pledged to schedule a new one as soon as the lawmakers return to the state.
“If you don’t like who’s in there, vote them out,” Nelson sang, inviting he crowd to join him in singing lyrics he’d previously written about taking a stand at the ballot box.
“I felt like I needed to be here. It is a history-making event that is so necessary right now,” said Brenda Hanson, 75, of Austin. “I am a descendant of slavery and I am not interested in moving back, I want to see this country go forward. I have lived well over three quarters of a century and I have never seen us go backwards like this before.”
Hanson said she is disabled but otherwise would have participated in the nearly 30-mile walk. Instead, she hoped to make a statement with her presence as she sat chanting in support on a bench under a tree.
The march began Wednesday and ended Saturday when participants walked up to the doors of the Texas Capitol building. It was led, in part, by Beto O’Rourke, the former Democratic congressman and presidential candidate who has not ruled out a run for Texas governor in 2022. Earlier this week, O’Rourke and marchers shut down the frontage road of Interstate 35 during the morning rush hour, funneled between restaurants and cut a path from Republican-controlled statehouse districts to Democratic ones.
Marchers compared what the GOP says are measures meant to protect against fraud and restore confidence in American elections to Jim Crow-style restrictions. There has been no evidence of widespread fraud in the 2020 election.
“I ask you to think about every man and every woman who had the courage in their convictions and did what they needed to do in their own moment of truth in this country’s history,” O’Rourke told the crowd.
More than a dozen people in favor of the voting legislation proposed in Texas gathered at the Capitol building’s front gate behind the rally, waving signs in support of the proposed changes. Republican state Sen. Bryan Hughes, author of the Senate’s version of the voting bill, told The Associated Press that when he heard about the rally, he decided to visit with people around the Capitol grounds to listen to their views and encourage them to read his piece of legislation.
“The right to vote is fundamental and so it has to be accessible and secure, both are important,” Hughes said. “This is America. This free speech— we love this. Whether folks agree with me or disagree with me, I am glad to be here.”
Hughes said “many people have heard generalizations,” and his goal is to discuss with constituents the specifics of the bill’s language.
Caught in the political crossfire are nearly 2,000 legislative workers who risk losing their paychecks after Abbott slashed funding for their salaries from the state budget in a punitive line item veto after Democratic lawmakers walked out in May. Lawmakers could restore the funding during the ongoing special session, if it weren’t at a standstill with more than 50 Democratic House members in D.C.
A lawsuit filed by Democrats on behalf of the legislative staffers is pending before the Texas Supreme Court. It’s not clear when the court might make a decision.
Renee Conley, 52, said she attended the rally with her daughter, for whom she is fighting against the Texas voting bill. When she goes to vote, Conley said she brings her daughter to the polls so she can learn the process in anticipation of the day she can cast her own ballot. Now, Conley said she fears by the time her daughter goes to college, she won’t be allowed to vote if she has only a university identification card.
“I am here for her rights,” Conley said. “There is no reason she should ever have any threat of not being able to vote.”
Minnesota wildfire doubles in size, creates its own weather
A wildfire in northeastern Minnesota more than doubled in size Tuesday, growing to more than 19,000 acres, after it produced pyrocumulous clouds that generated lightning and even raindrops, fire officials said.
The Greenwood Fire’s growth, most of which happened Monday afternoon, prompted firefighters to leave McDougal Lake, about 80 miles south-southwest of Duluth, officials said. Authorities fear that structures might have been destroyed or damaged.
“We had crews embedded, and as this fire took off, it was quite an effort to communicate with forces on the ground so they could get out,” said federal fire incident spokesman Clark McCreedy.
The pullout was a success, and no injuries were reported. However, downed trees and necessary cleanup mean crews have been unable to assess damage around the lake, McCreedy said.
In addition to the firefighter pullout, 159 dwellings were evacuated Monday, according to an update from the National Wildfire Coordinating Group. Cabins, homes and recreational sites remain under threat, the group said.
Patrick Prochaska, a Minneapolis resident who built a cabin near McDougal Lake in 2012, told NBC affiliate KARE that he watched via security camera as flames mostly bypassed his property Monday, causing minor damage.
“I was feeling very scared,” he said. “At the same time, I could see that it was not doing anything to the house, and it was kind of reassuring.”
The fire in and north of Superior National Forest has mostly performed according to the weather, fire officials said. On Monday, with dry fuel on the ground and temperatures in the high 80s, it was an expanding inferno punctuated by strobes of lightning.
“The winds were drawn into the fire from all directions,” the incident’s fire behavior analyst, Michael Locke, said in a video update Tuesday. “It created what we call pyrocumulous clouds. And really high in the atmosphere … you’d see a thunderstorm, and in fact they went high enough to produce a few sprinkles of rain and even some lightning.”
Temperatures dipped into the mid-70s Tuesday, and the blaze mellowed. “The real story was cloud cover and cooler temperatures,” McCreedy said.
More of the same, and possibly rain, was in the forecast, giving officials hope that they might be able to close the book on an unusually active and dry fire season in Minnesota.
Experts have said climate change has set the stage for extreme weather, including an increase in the frequency and intensity of wildfires in the Northern Hemisphere.
Firefighters — 426 were assigned to the Greenwood event — have been confronted with “prolonged, severe drought,” making parts of Minnesota look like the fire-prone West this summer, McCreedy said.
The Greenwood Fire, which was detected Aug. 15, is believed to have been sparked by lightning.
So far, firefighters have scored no containment, and areas including McDougal Lake, Sand Lake and the Highway 2 corridor have been under mandatory evacuation orders. The federal Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness was closed Saturday “due to active and increasing fire activity, extreme drought, limited resources,” the National Forest Service said in a notice.
Officials set a goal of Sept. 1 for full containment.
“We’re probably going to get more of that moderating weather for the rest of the week,” McCreedy said. “That opens the door for fire crews to make progress on the ground.”
Hiker survives grizzly bear attack at Denali National Park
A tourist from Indiana was attacked and injured by a grizzly bear at Denali National Park and Preserve in Alaska on Monday night, park officials said.
The 55-year-old tourist, whose name was not released, was hiking alone in dense fog in the Thoroughfare Pass area when a mother bear and multiple cubs charged him from nearby bushes, the National Park Service said in a statement Tuesday.
He had puncture wounds to a calf, his left ribs and his left shoulder, the agency said.
The victim used bear spray that might have cut the attack short, the park service indicated. He walked 1.5 miles to a visitor’s center where “medical personnel” vacationing at Denali treated him as a park bus driver called 911, it said.
The hiker was taken to a medical center near the park before he was transferred to Fairbanks Memorial Hospital, about 120 miles away, park officials said. He was stabilized at the Fairbanks hospital, they said.
“Due to the apparent defensive nature of this attack, there are no plans to locate the bear involved,” the park service said. “Female bears with cubs are naturally defensive of their young, especially when surprised. There is no indication that this bear is unusually dangerous.”
Grizzly bears are federally protected as a threatened species in the lower 48 states. According to the National Wildlife Federation, fewer than 1,500 grizzlies are left in the lower 48, but they thrive, comparatively, in Alaska, where they have a population of about 31,000.
The backcountry area of the attack is closed for one week as a precaution, the park service said.
House passes John Lewis voting rights bill, sends measure to Senate for tougher fight
House Democrats on Tuesday passed a sweeping voting rights bill named after Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga., the late civil rights icon.
The John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act was approved 219-212. All Republicans voted against the legislation.
The bill is part of congressional Democrats’ broader campaign to strengthen voting laws at the federal level to fight restrictive voting laws passed in Republican-led states, such as Texas and Georgia. However, it faces steep opposition in the Senate, where Democrats hold a wafer-thin majority.
The House returned from its recess this week to take up the bipartisan infrastructure bill and a resolution for Democrats’ $3.5 trillion budget package, which includes funding for much of President Joe Biden’s legislative agenda. The procedural motion used to pass the multitrillion-dollar resolution paved the way for the House to vote on the voting rights bill, which was re-introduced last week by Rep. Terri Sewell, D-Ala.
The legislation would require states with recent histories of discrimination to get federal “preclearance” to change their voting laws, which directly addresses the Supreme Court’s 2013 ruling in Shelby County v. Holder. The ruling gutted the preclearance system in the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which civil rights advocates argue was successful in blocking proposed voting restrictions in states and localities with histories of racial discrimination.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., said in a statement last week that Congress had “not only an ironclad Constitutional mandate, but a moral responsibility” to pass the bill.
Shortly before its passage, Pelosi said on the House floor that the bill would honor Lewis’ legacy.
“We should have the right to vote and shouldn’t be diminished by anyone. It is unpatriotic to undermine the ability of people who have a right to vote, who have access to the polls,” she said. “As John knew, this precious pillar of our democracy is under attack from one of the worst voter suppression campaigns since Jim Crow.”
It isn’t the first time House Democrats have tackled election law. In March, House Democrats passed the For the People Act, a sweeping bill that seeks to change campaign finance, voting and ethics laws.
The bill would expand access to the ballot box by creating automatic voter registration across the country by registering eligible voters whenever they interact with government agencies, restoring the voting rights of the formerly incarcerated, expanding early voting and modernizing the country’s voting systems.
However, Senate Republicans filibustered the voting rights legislation in June, and the vote to advance an amended version of the For the People Act split along party lines 50-50, short of the 60 votes needed. All Democratic-aligned senators voted to begin debate, and Republicans unanimously voted to block the bill.
Passage of the voting measure was the final vote of the week for the House, whose members are leaving Washington and won’t return until Sept. 20.
Haley Talbot contributed.
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