Fifty-five Texas Democrats went on legislative strike this week, leaving the state for four days to kill a congressional redistricting plan they couldn't kill by staying on the job.
It worked, at least in the narrow sense. Congressional redistricting is dead for the session. Now legislators have to get back in the room and see whether this was just a bad patch or whether the Texas Capitol is starting to work more like big House in Washington, D.C., where stories of dramatic partisan barking are commonplace.
If you're scoring this, you have to give the Democrats the substantive win—they got what they wanted. But the arguments continue on the perception front. Republicans had a line—"come to work"—that seemed to click with the public. And it carried the conversation for a couple of days until it wore out and people started to talk about what made the Democrats leave in the first place.
Democrats had a fuzzier argument and a harder time selling it. Normal people don't care about redistricting unless you attach a weird story to it, and even then, they don't listen long. By the time it was over, most people knew the Democrats were mad about a map, and were calling it a power grab, and had made the Republicans all over the country really, really mad. It wasn't clear that people were taking their side, though.
The Oklahoma Holdout might not be over. By the end of the week, what started as a complicated hostage incident was beginning to disappear under stories of just what the Republicans tried to do to get the Democrats back to Texas. They sent out the state police (who got to Ardmore after the Dallas Morning News had solved the puzzle and had a reporter on the scene), who don't have authority to cross state lines to arrest lawmakers who aren't in Austin to vote. The state police pulled the feds into it, in one case calling folks in a division of the new Department of Homeland Security and jolting them into trying to help find a "missing" plane with state legislators on board. The plane belonged to former House Speaker Pete Laney, and its flight plans were also the trail that led the Dallas reporters to the location of the missing Democrats. That still-developing story line begat inquiries from Democrats in Washington, D.C., to the federal agency and from Democrats in Austin to the governor's office and to the Department of Public Safety. Democrats claimed state police harassed their families even after the cops knew the lawmakers weren't in Texas to be found.
With their mass vamoose, the Democrats put several of their cohort into politically dangerous territory. Democratic Reps. Mark Homer, Paris; Chuck Hopson, Jacksonville; John Mabry, Waco; Alan Ritter, Nederland; and Patrick Rose, Dripping Springs, all have targets painted on them now. But they were in swing districts before they went to Oklahoma, and native son George W. Bush will be at the top of the ballot next time. The Democrats argue that those representatives might not have hurt themselves at all, and might have helped. The PR war is still underway.
Lawmakers have less than three weeks left and things will have to run smoothly to avoid a special session. The major legislation that was pending a week ago is still pending. Craddick is telling reporters he wants no retribution or reprisals in the House, but tempers are high. If lawmakers can't get a lid on the most partisan legislative session (in the House) in modern history, they're in real danger of splitting the House along formal party lines, like those in Congress and in other states. The leaders on both sides say they don't want that to happen, but there are two sides already, and they have leaders, and they're organized.
The House redistricting bill is dead, but if the Texas Senate had an inclination to wade in, they've got the weapons available. Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst gave up a reserved bill number—SB 9—to let Sen. Chris Harris, R-Arlington, try to file a congressional redistricting bill.
To file a bill this late in the game would take a 4/5ths majority of the Senate—that's 25 of those people. That permission is regularly granted, but not on congressional redistricting bills. Republicans, however, could sidestep any Democratic attempt to stop the bill at that point. If Gov. Rick Perry wanted to declare congressional redistricting an emergency, Harris would no longer need the Senate's permission to file his bill. Step one, then, belongs to the GOP.
Democrats there have been saying for two weeks that they've got 12 senators lined up against redrawing congressional lines. That's enough to block consideration of the bill by the full Senate even if Harris could file it. One more thing in favor of the Democrats: the session is growing short and the later you are in a legislative session, the more powerful is the threat of a filibuster that stops the Senate from doing anything.
Dewhurst told reporters that he doesn't think Harris can get 25 votes for permission to file. That puts the issue on the governor's desk, but it's got a stinger or two. For people watching from outside, Perry would have to explain why redistricting is such a red-hot emergency when this or that favorite issue is not. And why he's hitting the gas on that when two other emergency issues called early in the session—insurance and medical malpractice—are still in the legislative pipeline.
For insiders, the risk is simple, and probably preemptive: Pushing the Senate to vote on a partisan issue that just blew up in the House would tear the upper chamber to ribbons. Perry, Dewhurst and Craddick still want to tackle school finance in a special session within a year and need some collegiality to do it. Congressional redistricting isn't dead forever, but it's probably dead for now.
All About Incumbency
The most important difference between the congressional districts now in place and those proposed by the House's Republican leadership isn't in the number of Republican or Democratic districts. It's in the number of incumbent Democrats who are in winnable districts.
The congressional districts now in place—put there by a panel of federal judges after the Legislature failed to do anything two years ago—tilt strongly in the GOP's direction. But the judges also drew the lines so that incumbents could get reelected. Look at the numbers that go along with the maps and you find that voters in 20 of the 32 congressional districts in Texas voted for Republican statewide candidates, on average. In 18 of those, they voted for Republican David Dewhurst for lieutenant governor over Democrat John Sharp—that's instructive since it was the closest major race in last year's elections. (Texas Republicans would have to hold 19 seats to have the same proportion of Republicans to Democrats in the congressional delegation as in the statehouse.)
But while those voters were picking Republicans above and below the congressional races on the ballot—pulling a tab for Republican John Cornyn for U.S. Senate and two clicks down, for Republican Rick Perry for governor—a lot of them voted for Democratic incumbents in the middle of the ballot sandwich. Democratic congressional candidates won in five districts where Republicans were winning the other top-of-the-ballot races last November.
The congressional districts that would be in place under the map that never got to the floor of the House would knock off as many as ten incumbent Democrats even though it would have only two more Republican districts—by the numbers—than the current map. Where the current delegation is 17 Democrats and 15 Republicans, the new map includes 22 Republican districts and 10 for Democrats.
The Turning Point
Republicans and Democrats alike were watching on Monday morning, when the management could have ended the standoff by pulling down the redistricting bill. That seems to be the point when things could have gone either way: to a quick resolution or to the full standoff that actually occurred.
Republicans wanted House Speaker Tom Craddick to hold firm, not letting extortion become the rule of the House. But they also didn't want to make the Democrats famous for walking out. Democrats were hoping he'd cave in, but were also puffed up about actually pulling off their plan to deny Craddick a quorum for a vote on redistricting.
In the end, Craddick ended up with some the same result he'd have gotten by folding his hand: the Democrats walked out and killed the redistricting bill for the time being. But he and others didn't want to reward what they thought was bad behavior. And they didn't want the Democrats to get the idea that the House Republicans would respond to pressure.
In retrospect, it would have saved Craddick a week of terrifically bad press (particularly on the editorial pages of the state's big newspapers). Democrats wouldn't have had a week to talk about their newly found power (and likely would have had trouble getting 51 together for another stunt in the future). And Craddick and the other Republicans in management in the Pink Building could have cooked up another way to do redistricting later on this year in a special session alone, or with school finance, or whatever. Just as they will be forced to do now.
• The Democrats were nervous to the end that they would get tricked into returning in time to get congressional redistricting in front of the House. After a press conference where he said he wouldn't try to reawaken redistricting this session, Craddick adjourned the House on Thursday afternoon, technically ending the day and killing the bills that would have lived until midnight had the House remained in session. But the nomads wouldn't leave Oklahoma until after the actual time on the clock said the day was over. This was happening at our deadline, but their plan was to come back to Austin, hold an early morning rally at the Capitol, and be in the House in time for the Friday session. That decision cost them in the PR battle, for whatever that's worth. Craddick's timing left open the opportunity for a return coinciding with the 10 o'clock news, but some of the Democrats were afraid the speaker had a trick up his sleeve.
• At one point early in the week, Republicans discussed adjourning until after the weekend, ending any reason for the Democrats to stay in Oklahoma without waiting until the Thursday deadline. That idea was scotched after others in the GOP caucus said it would put the bill-killing weapon in their hands instead of the Democrats.
• Rep. Richard Raymond, D-Laredo, filed a federal lawsuit on redistricting, replacing the formal complaint he had already made to federal officials. His grievance: That Republican attempts to get a congressional redistricting plan out of the Texas legislature violated the Voting Rights Act. The reason for the suit? He cites reports that U.S. Rep. Tom DeLay, R-Sugar Land, tried to influence the outcome of his original complaint at the U.S. Department of Justice.
While Others Dream of Dancing Sugar Plums
When House Democrats were in Ardmore, weird ideas flourished. Here's a corker: Would it be legal to call a special session of the Legislature during a regular session of the Legislature? Wouldn't concurrent sessions let lawmakers revive bills that, because of the end-of-session rules, were dying in the regular session? It turns out that it is not prohibited, but the parliamentary wizards think it's a terrible idea. It's done in other states—like California, for example—but the Texans think it would be a huge pain in the neck and say they would strongly recommend against it. That said, it would allow lawmakers to resuscitate dead but crucial bills. They could be introduced in the special session, passed, and then relied upon in bills—like the state budget, to name a prominent one—still working through the regular session. Also, it wouldn't cost as much as a standalone special session, since lawmakers and their employees are already in Austin working on things.
Really, Really Sick, but not Dead
Gov. Rick Perry, Speaker Tom Craddick and Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst held a press conference in the middle of the week to urge the Democrats back to work and to show what was happening while the House was out. They said, among other things, that $650 million would be lost to budgeteers if the bills on the House calendar were allowed to die. But by the end of the day, big chunks of that money were coming off the intensive care list. Dewhurst aides pulled together a list of "vehicles" to save the imperiled House measures, including the big one. The essential pieces of HB2, which had the biggest positive fiscal impact of any of the dead House bills, could be carried back into action with a number of measures that haven't died yet. He was off message, as they say, but a save is a save.
Not all bills can be saved, especially if they involve taxes and haven't already passed the House. One, a "fix" to the state's franchise tax on corporations, is in trouble because nobody's figured out a way to get the taxes out of certain companies tax without also hitting companies—read that to say partnerships—they don't want to tax. That could leave budgeteers short almost $300 million.
Another way of repairing damage has apparently been ruled out. The House can vote to break its own deadlines if it wants. But management doesn't like the idea. It would break precedent and it would take the pressure off of members, who would learn that a deadline is not always a deadline and start pushing for favors. The method: A vote of two-thirds of the members present and voting allows the House to bust deadline. There are 88 Republicans and with all hands on deck, they would have to have some help from Democrats to open the calendar. But aides to Craddick point to the Memorial Day Massacre in 1997, when Rep. Arlene Wohlgemuth, R-Burleson, killed 52 bills on a point of order. They didn't bust open the deadlines then and don't appear to be willing to do it now.
• Agriculture Commissioner Susan Combs, a former House member, got a big laugh from a Republican women's group on the first day of the standoff when she suggested an excess of testosterone might be the problem. "Maybe we should let the girls run this," she told the group.
• A group called SaveTexasReps.com has popped up in defense of the current Texas maps—and the current Democratic incumbents. They have a television commercial that calls the holdouts heroes and is designed to offset some of the Republican ads attacking the legislators who spent the week in Oklahoma. As you can tell by their name, they've got a website, and you can see the ad there.
• Republicans had a radio ad campaign aimed at Democrats in swing districts, imploring listeners to stop and help look for their state rep, who had gone missing. "Texas State troopers have been ordered to find [the local rep] and arrest him," the announcer said.
• The Texas Republican Party complained that the Oklahoma Holdout could be a violation of the Open Meetings Act and sent a letter to Travis County prosecutors asking for an investigation. District Attorney Ronnie Earle, a Democrat, had an assistant respond with a letter saying an earlier complaint about the law directed toward Republicans had generated letters, from Republicans, questioning the applicability of that law to members of the Texas Legislature. The DA isn't following up on either complaint and notes "the House of Representatives appears to have exempted itself from the Open Meetings Act."
Gov. Rick Perry set the special election in the West Texas congressional race to June 3—the day after the end of the regular legislative session. Randy Neugebauer of Lubbock faces Michael Conaway of Midland in that runoff. The winner will replace U.S. Rep. Larry Combest, R-Lubbock, who quit. Early voting starts Monday and runs through the 30th. There's a sideshow: Todd Olsen is one of Neugebauer's consultants. Ted Delisi is one of Conaway's consultants. Olsen and Delisi (along with Heather Shuvalov) bought out Karl Rove's political consulting firm when Rove narrowed his attentions to just one client. They split the sheets after the November elections, and this is apparently their first race on opposite sides. Most handicappers we've talked with favor the Lubbock candidate; there are more voters on his end of the district.
Other Matters. Really.
Within the next week, Comptroller Carole Keeton Strayhorn will show her final numbers to the state's anxious budgeteers. Early guesses, from people who watch this kind of thing all the time: Sales tax numbers aren't that bad, insurance tax receipts are higher than expected (a continuing boon from the high rates consumers and voters have been complaining about) and Strayhorn probably doesn't have a lot of reason to put a serious dent in her earlier estimates. A very cautionary note: These people are good, but they're guessing. Actual mileage may vary, etc. The budget is stuck. House and Senate conferees were still at odds over the two biggest chunks of the budget: Education, and health and human services. How will they pay for it? How much money is available? Wait for the comptroller.
• Texas county officials have been braying loudly against budget cuts that will force services into their also-strapped budgets. Now they're pushing a constitutional amendment that would prevent the state from shoving unfunded mandates down their throats. They're worried in particular about health and human services and prison cuts they fear could increase the loads on their own programs, and with no state money coming along to help pay for it. Their hopes were on a House measure, however, and it died for lack of a quorum.
• The attorney general's office upgraded its email system for people interested in the official legal opinions of AG Greg Abbott. Go to their website—www.oag.state.tx.us—to sign up for the system, which emails a link to every opinion within a couple of days after it's issued. It's free.
Political People and Their Moves
The easiest way to list the holdouts is to list the Democrats who weren't in Oklahoma this week. Seven Democrats were in Austin by the second day, including some who never left to begin with: Harold Dutton, Al Edwards, Sylvester Turner and Ron Wilson, all from Houston; Helen Giddings, Dallas; Roberto Gutierrez, McAllen; and Vilma Luna, Corpus Christi. Four went missing without listing their coordinates: Norma Chavez, El Paso; Kino Flores, Mission; Glenn Lewis, Fort Worth; and Rene Oliveira, Brownsville. The other 51 were at the Holiday Inn in Ardmore, Oklahoma.
Sworn in: Juan Escobar, D-Kingsville, as the newest member of the Texas House. Escobar won the special election that followed the death of Rep. Irma Rangel, D-Kingsville, earlier this year. He'll serve the remainder of her term, which ends in 2005. His initiation? Leaving the Capitol he'd just entered when House Democrats walked out in protest of a congressional redistricting bill.
Appointed: Stephen Rosales, chief of staff to Sen. Eddie Lucio, D-Brownsville, and a longtime aide to the late Bob Bullock, will be on the state's Board of Pardons and Paroles if the Senate goes along. Rosales, who also worked for former AG John Cornyn, was appointed to a six-year term to the board; unlike most boards and commissions, pardons and paroles is a full-time job with a state salary... Another El Pasoan, Brian Hatley, is the governor's choice for a spot on the Private Sector Prison Industries Oversight Authority, which watches over inmate-staffed private programs in the adult and youth prisons in Texas. Perry named three to the Texas Department of Licensing and Regulation: pharmacy consultant Bill Pittman of Austin, investment company owner Frank Denton of Conroe, and businessman Fred Moses of Plano. And the governor named two to the Municipal Retirement Systems board of trustees: H. Frank Simpson, city manager of Webster, and Kathryn Usrey, who works for the city of Carrollton...
Gone off on his own: Joe B. Allen, the well-known lawyer/lobster at Vinson & Elkins in Houston, is leaving that firm to start his own law practice. He and three others at V&E—Jim Boone, Lynne Humphries and Stephen Robinson—will open their own doors later this year.
Deaths: Searcy Bracewell, a 12-year Texas legislator who, with his father and brother and others, founded the Bracewell and Patterson law firm. He was 85... Malcolm McGregor, a former House member from El Paso and one-time candidate for both the U.S. House and, later, for the Texas Senate, of cancer. He was 74... Pete Tijerina, an attorney who founded MALDEF, the Mexican-American Legal Defense and Education Fund, in San Antonio 35 years ago.
Quotes of the Week
Speaker Tom Craddick, asked whether the walkout splits the historically bipartisan House into hard party lines: "I think the Democrats did a great job of dividing the House."
Craddick, on demands from the Democrats: "I'm not interested in negotiating with them."
Gov. Rick Perry: "They have found an arcane procedure to stop the work of the people of the state of Texas. I don't think it's right."
Craddick, on how the Democrats' action is different from a well-used Senate stalling tactic: "When you filibuster, you're there representing your constituency. It's not not showing up and hiding somewhere."
Perry, with what became the standard GOP line on the holdouts: "I don't think the people of the state of Texas appreciate the work stoppage, the walking away from the important issues of the day."
Rep. Frank Corte, R-San Antonio, on the walkouts: "They're cowards. They should stay and fight for what they believe."
Craddick, asked in a roomful of reporters what would happen to the walkouts as a result of their action: "I think y'all are the penalty."
New Mexico Attorney General Patricia Madrid, a Democrat, saying her state doesn't have authority to arrest runaway Texas lawmakers, who at that point hadn't been located: "Nevertheless, I have put out an all-points bulletin for law enforcement to be on the lookout for politicians in favor of health care for the needy and against tax cuts for the wealthy."
Craddick, asked on the first day where the walkouts might be holed up: "There's been rumors of everything about everything."
Rep. J.E. "Pete" Laney, D-Hale Center, in a Fort Worth Star-Telegram story on efforts by federal and state officials to track his plane after House Democrats left the state: "I think we could have saved them a lot of money if they'd just pick up the phone and call me. I'd be glad to tell them. I don't really want a federal agency just following me for the fun of it. I wouldn't think that's their role."
Texas singer Willie Nelson, in a note that he sent to the holdouts, along a supply of whiskey, bandanas and t-shirts: "Way to go... stand your ground."
Craddick spokesman Bob Richter, quoted in the Austin American-Statesman: "Tell them to stay in Ardmore. They're getting the hell beat out of them. They're making fools of themselves."
State Rep. David Swinford, R-Dumas, whose government reorganization bill was endangered by the Democratic walkout over congressional maps, quoted in the Fort Worth Star-Telegram: "I didn't ask to run this stupid redistricting bill up—that's above my pay grade. I could care less about a lot of these type deals, but I do care about the budget being certified... That redistricting bill is not important to me—but I guess it's important to somebody."
Sen. Rodney Ellis, D-Houston, asked whether he's worried about bills killed by the walkout: "I'm equally concerned about some of the pending legislation that is about to move forward."
Gov. Perry, responding to a question about the overwhelming negative editorials and editorial cartoons directed at him and other Republicans over redistricting and the House Democrats' walkout: "It's not the first time I have disagreed with the editorial board writers in the state of Texas."
Rep. Craig Eiland, D-Galveston, complaining, in the San Antonio Express-News, that police had paid a visit to the neonatal unit where his premature newborn twins are being cared for, after they knew he was in Ardmore: "I told them I'm not in town. My wife's not in town. DPS knows where I am so leave my babies alone.
Rep. Senfronia Thompson, D-Houston, quoted in the Houston Chronicle: "Honey, they went all through my office, my desk and my file cabinets. Now why would they look for me there? You know I can't get into my file cabinets, as big as I am."
The visitor's bureau slogan in a town in Oklahoma: "See more. Do more. Live more. Ardmore."
Texas Weekly, Volume 19, Issue 45, 19 May 2003. Ross Ramsey, Editor. George Phenix, Publisher. Copyright 2003 by Printing Production Systems, Inc. All Rights Reserved. Reproduction in whole or in part without written permission from the publisher is prohibited. One-year online subscription: $250. For information about your subscription, call (800) 611-4980 or email biz@ texasweekly.com. For news, email ramsey@ texasweekly.com, or call (512) 288-6598.