During the legislative session that just wrapped up, the Texas House of Representatives passed a controversial bill known as SB4. The bill bans so-called sanctuary cities in Texas and allows police officers to ask about the immigration status of anyone they detain for any reason, while granting the state the authority to criminally charge sheriffs and police chiefs who fail to comply with Immigration and Customs Enforcement. It passed along party lines—94-53, Republicans-Democrats.
One of the co-sponsors of the bill is State Representative Sarah Davis, a 40-year-old defense lawyer and Republican from West University who has held her position in District 134, one of the wealthiest and highest-educated in Texas—spanning the cities of West U, Bellaire and Southside Place, along with River Oaks and the Texas Medical Center—since 2010.
Since the bill’s passing, Davis and others have taken heat for breaking up a longstanding but delicate truce that had counted on pro-business members, moderates and Democrats to vote together against harsh legislation directed toward immigrants.
“I don’t believe we have the personal freedom to ignore the law,” Davis says when asked how the bill squares with her political philosophy—which prizes personal freedom above all else—adding that the bill specifically targets criminals who are here illegally, something that opponents like HPD Chief Art Acevedo say isn’t true, according to the bill’s own text.
In immigrant- and Latino-heavy Houston, Acevedo believes the ability to question people about their immigration status, when they haven’t been arrested, will lead to victims failing to report crimes to police. “The perception we’re going to create by having this legislation is going to have a tremendously chilling effect on the immigrant community,” the dismayed police chief said at a press conference following the bill’s passage.
Despite taking a hard line on immigration, in Texas, Davis is considered a “moderate Republican.” It’s something that is hard to fathom until you realize that she takes a surprisingly progressive view on a number of other hot-button social issues—especially for this moment in Texas politics. At a time of increasing polarization along party lines, Davis, who self-identifies as a “rational Republican,” is difficult to pigeon-hole: Some might call her anti-immigrant, but she’s also pro-choice, in favor of gay marriage, and against the latest session’s bathroom bill, which she calls “a solution in search of a problem.”
Davis has been reelected twice since she was the lone Republican in the state to vote against HB2, the 2013 bill that placed stringent regulations upon abortion until the Supreme Court ruled it unconstitutional last year. She maintains that her position on abortion is “a pretty traditionally Republican stance, because to me being a Republican means personal freedom, individual responsibility, and limited government,” she says. “So to me that means you are to make your own healthcare decisions—you know, keep the government out of our doctor’s office, out of our bedroom, and out of our wallet.”
Her constituents, she believes, by and large share her worldview. “My district is very fiscally conservative, believes in good government, you know, pays our taxes and wants our tax dollars spent wisely, not wasted…,” she says, “but then, generally, wants to be left alone.”
Public health, including women’s access to basic healthcare like pap smears and cancer screenings, is a core issue for Davis. In fact, in a way, it’s the reason she got into politics. At 32, she put herself through law school at UH and was working long hours at Wilson Elser when she found out she had breast cancer. “I was diagnosed in December of 2008, and so I spent all of 2009 in two surgeries, six months of chemo, and six weeks of radiation,” she remembers. “When you have cancer at a young age like that, it really kind of shakes what you think about life.”
Davis decided to run as a Republican for her home district’s state representative seat. In November of 2010, she narrowly unseated incumbent Ellen Cohen, by a 701-vote margin. She’s been serving her district, and cancer-free, ever since.
And she is proof that in Texas, a lawmaker can co-sponsor an anti–sanctuary cities bill considered by its opponents to be lacking in compassion, xenophobic, even racist, one day, and on another, be taken to task by a state rep in a Trump-red “Make America Texas” hat.
In January, Rep. Jonathan Stickland, a Republican from Bedford, highlighted a bill she filed this year, which would allow children 14 and older to consent to the HPV vaccine themselves, naming it his “Bad Bill of the Week” on a Facebook Live chat broadcast to his more than 16,000 followers. In the video, Stickland uses air quotes when describing Davis as a “Republican from Houston” and, lifting a sign with her number on it, urges his followers to call her office and tell her to kill the bill.
“Our office was shut down for two days because the phone calls were just constant,” she says, adding that none of them came from her district. “I did not know vaccines were controversial until I got in the legislature.”
Did the tactic change Davis’s mind? “No, no, I fully believe in the science behind vaccines,” she says. “I don’t think, should I file this vaccine bill, will that help or hurt me getting reelected? I think, I represent the world’s largest medical complex, the Texas Medical Center, and I represent more physicians than any other state rep, so should I be a leader on this issue? Yes, that makes sense.”
Davis says that although the headlines were dominated by hyper-partisan bills as the legislature met this year, much of what our state reps do is work together on nuts-and-bolts legislation. “We actually get along as Republicans and Democrats much better in Texas than they do in D.C.,” she swears, although she admits that partisanship “is bleeding down on the state level.”
“But there’s enough of us that will not embrace that kind of behavior,” she says. “I’m not going to vote against a bill because the author of that bill is a Democrat. And there are some Republicans that will do that. I would never do that.”