The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

They came to Texas for the big houses and barbecue. They also got new laws on abortion, guns and voting.

(Tiffany Dang for The Washington Post)
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There was a lot to like in Austin when Kevin Longley moved there a month and a half ago from Maryland’s Montgomery County. His wife had gotten a promotion at her tech company, and their new city already had a solid reputation as a less expensive, more chill Silicon Valley. They bought a 3,000-square foot, five-bedroom house, far bigger than what they could afford outside of D.C. There were breakfast tacos, and amazing barbecue, and weekend day trips to nearby lakes with their 5-year-old daughter.

And then. In July, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott issued an executive order banning government entities, including public schools, from requiring masks or vaccination (the Texas Supreme Court denied his request last month), despite the state's rising death toll: More than 6,000 Texans have died of covid-19 in the past month. On Sept. 1, legislation allowing Texans to carry a handgun in public without a permit or the background check and training the state previously required went into effect. The same day, the U.S. Supreme Court declined to block a Texas law that banned abortions beginning at six weeks of pregnancy, one of the most restrictive abortion laws in the country. (The Justice Department has sued Texas to challenge the law.) On Sept. 7, Abbott signed into law a bill that creates strict new voting rules in the state.

For newly minted Texans who had emigrated from bluer pastures, even just one of these laws would be a lot to take. And now, all of them, within two months?

“It’s hard to believe that some of these laws actually exist,” says Longley. “And then you look around and you’re like, ‘Oh. Wait. That’s our state. That’s where we live.’ ”

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From the depths of the pandemic Texas beckoned, with its spacious, affordable four-bedroom homes with yards and swimming pools, big-city amenities, quirky charm and excellent food scene. The 2021 Texas Relocation Report from Texas Realtors found that more than half a million people relocated to Texas from other states in 2019, the latest year for which data was available. Many Texans have noticed an influx from California in particular — some are even commuting between the two states — and William Fulton, the director of the Kinder Institute for Urban Research at Rice University, broke it down further in a blog post: In 2018 and 2019, a little over 80,000 Californians became Texans.

Many of them followed their tech jobs. Apple, Facebook and Google have satellite offices in Austin. Oracle announced in December that it was moving to Austin, too (though founder Larry Ellison would not: He moved to Hawaii). Hewlett Packard Enterprise announced last year that it would move its headquarters from San Jose to Spring, Tex., a suburb of Houston. Tesla and its chief executive, Elon Musk, moved to Austin last year, and Abbott told CNBC that he talks “frequently” with the tech billionaire.

“Elon consistently tells me that he likes the social policies in the state of Texas,” said Abbott.

“In general, I believe government should rarely impose its will upon the people, and, when doing so, should aspire to maximize their cumulative happiness. That said, I would prefer to stay out of politics,” Musk tweeted in response. (A representative for SpaceX, one of Musk’s companies, did not respond to an inquiry about which social policies in Texas Musk does or does not support.)

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The celebrities have come too, in droves, mostly to Austin: “Westworld” star James Marsden, “Girl, Wash Your Face” author and motivational speaker Rachel Hollis, controversy-courting podcaster Joe Rogan, who recently fell ill with covid-19. “Dawson’s Creek” star James Van Der Beek, his wife, and five children posed for a spread in Austin Life magazine on their new ranch (“I felt an energy to Austin,” the star said). Actresses Haylie Duff, Becca Tobin and Jamie-Lynn Sigler, who had formed a pandemic pod together, moved their families to Austin as a unit. (“You don’t pay for parking anywhere,” Tobin marveled to the New York Times.) “Queer Eye” star Jonathan Van Ness was filming a season of his show in Austin, and liked it so much that he and his husband decided to stay. (“I had my four cats and was on this lake at an Airbnb, and I was like, Do I love Austin? Is this a liberal bastion in Texas? And it kind of is,” he told Self Magazine.)

Really, the state solved problems for expats from both political poles. For conservatives, it was a place where they could put their kids back in schools without mask mandates, and own guns and not have to pay state income taxes. For liberals, it — well, Austin, specifically — was a city of abundant tech jobs, relief from the Bay Area housing market and brimming with like-minded voters. The blueberry in a cherry pie, as a Texas adage goes.

“The pandemic lockdown put a lot into perspective for me,” says Lexx Miller, 27, who moved from Brooklyn to Austin. “I was getting older and wanted a change in scenery, people and quality of life, but I still wanted to feel like I was in a major city.”

For Brian Harden, 47, it was the taxes that made him consider leaving his home outside Seattle for Texas. “They don’t have a state income tax,” he noted. Besides, “My wife and I are both gun owners, and we’re big Second Amendment advocates.”

But everything's bigger in Texas, including the regrets. They set in immediately for Tanny Martin, 66, a retired nurse who moved from Massachusetts to Austin last year to be closer to her son and enjoy a lower cost of living. A self-described "blue-state person," and "aging hippie," she had rationalized it by reminding herself that she would be moving to a liberal city.

It’s “the part of the state where people have purple hair, and that’s comforting,” she says. “But there’s also Three Percenters here and, you know, secessionists, and I mean, it’s still Texas.”

The new gun law is the most terrifying part of her new home to her. Between that and the threat of covid, “I’m not going out very much because I don’t really feel safe,” she says.

That makes it hard for newcomers to make friends, too.

“It definitely feels very isolating when you just move here. You want to go see all the sights and meet new people and nobody’s going anywhere,” says Kyle Miller, 27, who moved to Austin from the Dayton, Ohio, area (and isn’t related to Lexx Miller). Seeing all the maskless people out and about, he says, was “very weird.”

And yet the state exerts a powerful lure, packed with its own outsize mythology, swaggering style and the promise that life will be a little different there.

That’s what Bill Ross, 63, loves about it. When Ross moved from California, “I got 9-millimeters for each member of the family,” he says. “I went out and bought an AR-15, and I think it’s a very healthy thing.”

Guns weren’t the primary reason for his move. He took his family to Boerne, Tex. — pronounced “Bernie,” it’s one of the Hill Country’s towns with German heritage — after he became dissatisfied with his son’s middle school in his Los Gatos, Calif., community, as well as the state’s fiscal and political trajectory. His one regret in leaving California, he says, was that he would not be able to vote to recall Gov. Gavin Newsom. He says Abbott is doing a fine job. He supports the state’s new voting laws.

“I don’t think they’re extreme. I think they make a lot of sense,” he says. “I think that if you can’t control voting, you can’t control the protection of the Constitution.”

The abortion law gives him pause, though: “I don’t know if six weeks is the right thing,” he says. “I’m pro-choice. I’m not happy with how abortion is used as a method of birth control.”

But Ross is thrilled with his new life in Texas. He no longer has to worry about California wildfires. He sold his house for well over its asking price over the summer and was able to buy one outside of San Antonio nearly three times its size, at about a third of the cost. Plus, it has a pool. He loves his neighbors, who have been “very welcoming.”

“Whenever people would ask, ‘Well, where are you from?’ we’d cower and say, ‘California,’ ” he says, “And then immediately say, ‘But you picked up conservative voters!’ ”

The liberal-leaning new Texans have felt welcomed by their new neighbors, too. It’s the people they left behind that have been giving them guff.

“I chose just the worst possible time to move down here,” says Kyle Miller. In the wake of the abortion law, his friends have been posting anti-Texas memes.

“My friend took it down already, it seems, but there was one [meme] which was like, an outline of Texas, and it was just labeled ‘Dumbassistan,’ ” says Kyle Miller. Another, tweeted by @sundae_gurl2 and several others: “The single star on Texas’ flag is actually a review.”

The culture shocks haven’t all been political, though. Miller, who delivers food for DoorDash, had to adjust to the city traffic and the abundance of scooter riders, who can be reckless around cars. Lexx Miller was taken aback the first time she saw employees in stores wearing buttons that said “mask-exempt.” Ross was impressed by how much better the roads were than in California. And Longley was pleasantly surprised that people in Texas talk about things other than politics.

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“When you’re in that D.C. bubble, it seems like just everything’s on high alert in terms of political news all the time,” he says. “It weighs down my psyche.” But maybe not talking about politics enough is part of what got the state to where it is now.

The left-leaning voters see a silver lining to the latest political turmoil: Now that they live here, they can work to correct its course.

“I definitely see myself going out and voting and trying to reverse a lot of these laws that just got passed,” says Kyle Miller. “I don’t know how long that fight is going to be or how successful it’s going to be.”

In Maryland, “Your vote is kind of like a drop in the bucket,” says Longley. “Out here, you know that your vote really matters.”

Still, as much as they might lament their timing, the new Texans are mostly glad they made their moves. Lexx Miller doesn’t see herself as a lifelong Texas resident, but she doesn’t have any regrets: “As a minority, there are few places where I can feel completely safe in America anyway,” says Miller, who is Black. “My quality of life here is better.”

Not for everyone. Abbott’s handling of covid gave Harden, the Seattle gun owner, pause. But he finally abandoned his plans to move to Texas after the abortion law came out and his wife vetoed the move: “That was the nail in the coffin.”

Now, he says, “We’re toying with possibly Tennessee.”

(Correction: An earlier version of this story did not include the full name of Hewlett Packard Enterprise. This story has been corrected.)