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What happens at the Capitol after dark? We stayed up late to find out

 A Texas Department of Public Safety officer patrols the Texas Capitol just before sunset.
Rachel Osier Lindley
The Texas Newsroom
A Texas Department of Public Safety officer patrols the Texas Capitol just before sunset.

With its spiraling rotunda, glistening marble pillars and sprawling green lawn, I think the Texas Capitol is a pretty impressive sight.

All that beauty attracts lots of people. Any given day, you’ll find tourists eying paintings of governors past, groups of first graders on class field trips and a surprising number of teens in ball gowns taking Quinceañera photos. Sometimes, you’ll even find a musician or two tuning up for a set.

And this Spring, the Capitol is even more packed than usual. That’s because the Texas Legislature is in the middle of its 88th session. Lawmakers only gather once every two years for just under six months. That short window means Texas House and Senate members — plus lobbyists, staff and constituents — spend a lot of long days at the Capitol. And long nights.

I’ve been spending those long days and nights alongside them as an intern for The Texas Newsroom, and the experience got me wondering: Sure, the Captiol is open late…but exactly how late?

I decided to stake out the building and find out. My mission was to arrive at the Capitol around sunset and see how long I could last before someone asked me to leave.

Sunset at the statehouse

I entered the building around 7:30 in the evening, right as the sun was setting. Personally, that’s when I think the Capitol looks its best — when the sun’s rosy light makes the pink granite pop.

By that time each day, most people are gone. In theory, Capitol closing time is 8 p.m.

Official hours aside, when the legislature is in session, you’ll usually find a committee meeting, protest, or some late-night lawmaking happening well into the night. For instance, one panel of representatives recently discussed a controversial border bill until 2 a.m.

By the time I arrived for my experiment, most people had left. Almost everyone I saw was either leaving or cleaning up.

The sounds of footsteps and creaking wheels of janitors’ carts carried eerily around corners. The dome of the rotunda made even the smallest sound echo throughout the Capitol.

It almost seemed like I wouldn’t be able to find anyone to talk to. This is, until I met Donna Lee Reeves.

I found Reeves deep down in the Capitol’s extension, an underground wing that holds a maze of lawmakers' offices and venues for committee meetings. I caught her heading out after leaving a comment card for a Senate Committee.

She said the late hours at the Capitol make the political process more accessible for working Texans like herself.

“I learned that a lot of meetings are extending into the night,” she said. “And that I could come after work.”

Reeves said participating in the process has proved helpful in her addiction recovery.

“There are things that I can do,” she realized. “Ultimately, that helps me and helps me learn to be a well-rounded person for my other recovery friends and my children.”

Late Night Lawmaking 

Of course, lawmakers also have a lot to say about the long hours at the Capitol.

Freshman Texas House Representative Lulu Flores is a Democrat from Travis County. She said some of her meetings regularly last until 9 or 10 p.m.

“Otherwise, I try to get home by seven so I can make sure my cat gets fed and I have dinner,” she said. “My husband’s out of town so I have to make sure I'm taking care of my dependents.”

Although she’s a new lawmaker, Flores is no stranger to late nights at the Texas Capitol. Before her own run for office, she served as chief of staff to former Representative Irma Rangel. Flores remembers nights when lawmakers would be on the House Floor until five in the morning — keeping staffers there just as late.

“You literally have to do some cat napping with your phone right next to you,” Flores recalled.

Closing Time

Ok, so we’ve established the Capitol is open late. But just how late?

Chris Currens works at the State Preservation Board, the organization that manages the upkeep of the Texas Capitol. He told me the answer is simple.

“We obviously stay open as long as there is public business to conduct,” he explained.

In more than four decades of working in and around the building, Currens has seen it all.

“I was here all night one time and watched the sunrise,” Currens said. “There was a city water line that had broken and we had to get the building back online because we had session the next morning.”

Currens also told me he thinks the best part of this famously beautiful building is simply seeing people enjoy it.

“You go through the rotunda and it's full of people who want to see the Texas Capitol and think it's worthy of coming all the way downtown, or coming all the way across the state, or even across the world to come to look at it,” he said. “It's very satisfying to think that we have that reputation that it's worth coming to see.”

Unlike Currens, I was able to get out way before sunrise. The last committee wrapped around 10 p.m., so security came to kick me out.

As the officer kindly asked me to leave, he joked about rumors of ghosts haunting the Capitol at night — which, admittedly, made me a little bit more nervous than it should have

Luckily, I didn’t see any specters, ghouls, or ghosts as I packed up to leave — just other people like me who were tired after a long day's work.

For now, we’re all headed home to get some sleep so we can be back at it again tomorrow.

Copyright 2023 KERA. To see more, visit KERA.

Aurora Berry