Rep. Steve Russell endorses Texas Dem rival in race to replace Straus

CNN Staff • Updated 7th March 2021

(CNN) — Oklahoma Democratic Rep. Steve Russell is endorsing Texas Democratic state Rep. Veronica Escobar after the pair distanced themselves from one another over Escobar’s support for the Texas House’s recent resistance to lawmakers who’d fled the state in protest of a restrictive abortion bill.

Escobar voted Thursday against the bill, leaving state lawmakers in a filibuster and another overtime session the next day to pass the bill after lawmakers left the state. Many Texans were outraged, and a woman shot herself in the head with a rifle at a Texas abortion clinic when protesters in a protest joined the protest.

And Russell told CNN in a statement Friday that after several conversations with Escobar, the congressman was endorsing her and supporting her candidacy in a Democratic primary next year.

“Congressman Russell’s decision to end his personal and political dispute with Representative Escobar was key in making this endorsement,” said an Escobar campaign spokeswoman. “This win shows the power of allies and takes us a step closer to fulfilling the bold vision that Congresswoman Escobar is campaigning with. And most importantly, it’s made clear that we will not allow the many irresponsible actions of Speaker Straus to divide our party.”

Escobar told CNN in a statement of her own Friday that Russell, her mentor, had been “a loyal champion” and “one of the most important individuals in my political career.” She was a childhood supporter of Russell’s, she said, after he worked to secure federal funding for Sooner Child Crisis, a group that provides services for foster children, autistic children and homeless youths.

Escobar praised Russell’s “breathtaking” change of heart.

“He has raised his voice against and helped defeat the efforts to take health care from Oklahoma’s women,” she said. “We must not let him down.”

Texas state Rep. Lyle Larson, a friend of Russell, accused Escobar of being ungrateful after she criticized Russell Thursday for his support of the protest. Russell originally referred to the protest as an “attempted coup” and came out against it “without truly knowing why it happened,” in an interview with CNN’s Christiane Amanpour.

But in the wake of the protest, Russell told CNN, he realized that he, too, had been “attempting to sabotage our state legislators’ ability to make these needed reforms,” “but it’s not what I wanted. I knew it was not right to run against the people.”

Larson accused Escobar, who was born in Texas, of being “sadistic” about her position.

“She’s having a reaction of that to anything that goes wrong for her,” he said. “This isn’t a tiff between one of our local congressmen and a state representative.”

Escobar distanced herself from Larson in an interview Friday with CNN, while stressing that Russell’s endorsement was pivotal in her choice to stay in Texas.

“Congressman Russell and his wife, Jane, have been supportive of our campaign from the start, and it means a lot to us to have his support on Election Day,” she said. “I want to thank Congressman Russell for that. And I think that his support should open the eyes of the opposition that our State Representative [Larson] is getting tired of us running against them. We are here to serve.”

She added, “I took that to heart. You know, it’s time to walk down the aisle. You know, when you have to join hands, that’s when they’re going to come into your caucus, into your conference, and they’re going to do what they want.”

Escobar would have been the state’s first Hispanic female representative if she were to win her primary in the March 2020 primary. She has said she plans to run on Medicare for All, and her campaign highlighted the fact that she’s the first Latina woman to vote in Oklahoma.

Russell’s decision does not necessarily rule out publicly criticizing Escobar. He told CNN in a statement Friday that he was concerned about how Escobar was becoming increasingly partisan.

“When I spoke with Representative Escobar, she went from being a very principled politician who defended common sense matters of morality and values to becoming increasingly partisan in her thinking,” he said. “After an excellent conversation, I came to the conclusion that having a person of expertise and knowledge like Veronica Escobar representing Texas in Congress is important.”

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