You have to wonder how Texas legislators would act if average people were actually paying close attention, or if those voters really, truly, deeply cared about congressional redistricting. The summer battle over new maps has held the state media's attention. It's still common to see seven to nine television cameras at press conferences and stakeouts and group gropes at the Capitol. And the public is certainly aware that Democrats left the state over a political fight. But the issue hasn't even held a dominant spot on talk radio shows, much less in the regular conversations of Texas civilians. The vegetables are right there on the plate, but the diners aren't biting.
The insiders in both parties care, however, and care deeply enough to keep kicking and squealing, and that's why this thing smells like the sort of quarrel that can end a marriage.
Democrats didn't walk out over a state budget they didn't like, or over cuts to programs they have held dear this year and before. They didn't leave town over any number of party-line votes in the House during the regular session. They waited until it was time to rewrite some Texas Democrats in the congressional delegation out of their jobs to bust the quorum by leaving the state.
The Democratic House walkout during the regular session forced Republicans to pull their maps out of consideration. There was other business that had to be done and the clocks were ticking. The case for doing other business now is thinner, and Republicans have been unwilling to put any other issue ahead of redistricting. They didn't back down, for instance, for their "top priority" of school finance. Instead of folding this time, GOP leaders are trying to force Democrats to return for a vote the Democrats say would hurt their voters.
Neither bunch is protecting the Legislature's rapidly fading reputation for bipartisan government. Curiously, that old label was a boon to the same guy who'd gain most from new maps.
It is not stretching things to say that, at the beginning of the year, many Texas legislators couldn't have picked the state's congressional envoys out of a Saturday night police lineup. When the U.S. representatives started making visits to the Pink Building, members would tap reporters or anyone else nearby to ask the identities of these strange people who apparently have rare floor rights.
The fall guy in all this has been House Majority Leader Tom DeLay. We can't find anyone willing to write an excuse slip for the Sugar Land Republican, but allow this observation: He doesn't have the political clout — as powerful as he is in Washington, D.C. — to make Republican lawmakers in Austin, Texas, spill this much blood over new congressional maps.
The only reason to spill the blood is because it benefits the state's most popular politician: President George W. Bush. And until and unless the White House tells them to cool it, they'll keep going.
Most of them would be happy with a map that would elect 19 or 20 Republicans to Congress. The current map does that on paper, but in real life, the Texas congressional delegation has 15 Republicans and 17 Democrats in it. Republicans want to whack some incumbents, thus putting themselves in control of the delegation. Texas would lose some valuable congressional seniority, but a change could add to the GOP's majority in the U.S. House. That would benefit the president, and that's why his aides brought out the pooper-scoopers when the Albuquerque Democrats asked Bush to call off the hounds.
Bush isn't weighing in on a matter best solved by the Texas Legislature, aides tell reporters. That's the same, in this context, as giving congressional redistricting a thumbs-up.
Down at the Courthouse
A funny thing happened after the Texas Supreme Court tossed out the lawsuit from the state's top Republicans. Gov. Rick Perry and Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst, represented by Attorney General Greg Abbott, asked the court to order the Senate Democrats to come back to the Pink Building.
The court, without comment, turned the case away. They didn't say whether they did it on jurisdictional grounds, on constitutional grounds, or because they had upset stomachs.
Three-and-a-half hours later, the court issued an amended opinion. The change? Three justices — Nathan Hecht, Priscilla Owen and Stephen Smith — said they agreed that the thing should be turned down, but with this addition: "The Court denies the petition for writ of mandamus without regard to the merits of the constitutional arguments." The other six justices left their names off, leaving lawyers and lower court judges to wonder what they were thinking.
The arguments not heard in the highest court could well be heard in lower courts. You'll remember that the Democrats filed suit in district court, saying the governor didn't have the right to call a special session since there's no pressing emergency to get redistricting maps revised, and that even if the session is legal, the officials still in Texas have no legal right to haul them back.
The Republicans responded to those arguments by saying they flatly disagree with the first one. As to the second, they want the lower courts to rule (because the Supremes didn't) that the senators had no legal right to boogie and that the Senate does have the legal right to bring them back.
No judge has been named for that and no trial date has been set. The original suit filed with the Supremes argued that timing is urgent — the session will be over in less than two weeks — and Abbott asked the Democrats if they would agree to a quick hearing in district court to speed things. But only the Republicans are in a hurry, and the Democrats turned them down.
A federal lawsuit filed in Laredo says, in essence, that the Republicans changed the process for putting a new congressional redistricting plan in place when they dropped the Senate's two-thirds rule and when they decided to take up redistricting in a year when it's not legally required. Any change in the election process in a Voting Rights-covered state like Texas, they argue, has to be approved by the U.S. Department of Justice or the district courts in the nation's capitol. In order to proceed, the Democrats argue, the state first has to get federal approval for those kinds of changes in "standard, practice or procedure," and they ask the court, if it decides the state can go ahead, to reinstate the rule.
The Death of the Bipartisan Senate?
For several hours on the third Tuesday of the second special session, Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst and all but 13 state senators (absent were the 11 Democrats in New Mexico, and Republicans John Carona of Dallas and Chris Harris of Arlington) met privately in the Great Room behind the Senate chamber to talk about what measures to take to try to force their colleagues to come back and vote.
It was a weird scene. The hall between that room and the chamber was packed with reporters and cameras and Senate staffers trying to keep things in order. The private debate over public business (requests for admission were turned down) ended after more than three hours, and they came to the floor. There, with no debate and only a minor interruption for clarification, they approved a motion by Sen. Jane Nelson, R-Flower Mound, to penalize their colleagues with up to $57,000 in fines. The penalties don't have the force of a Senate rule — you can't make rules without a quorum — but Nelson included a provision saying the people in the room planned to add the fines as part of the Senate rules when the quorum returned. (Presumably, the senators still in Austin can pass other resolutions with the same provision, voting, for instance, on a redistricting map or a piece of legislation). Democrats questioned the legality of the penalties, denounced them as racially tinged, and said the increasing penalties will serve as a disincentive to return to work before the end of the session.
Attorney General Greg Abbott, in a letter to Dewhurst, said the senators who walked out "have no constitutional right to break a quorum," and said the constitution gives the Senate the power to compel their attendance. That's the legal underpinning for the fines.
Live and in Living Color
The Democrats in New Mexico are like the second space crew that went to the moon. The fear of the unknown is gone, but so is the thrill of the new: Several of the media outlets that initially followed them to Albuquerque have packed up and gone home.
But they've got their base voters in Texas and elsewhere excited, and the feedback cycle is making the Texas Democrats sound more and more partisan. In response, or maybe in tandem, the remarks from Republicans are getting more and more partisan. When the language is partisan and the debate is about redistricting in Texas, race will become a topic. And so it has.
Republicans were already complaining about the play given to Democratic comments about the rights of minority voters, and their argument that almost any change in congressional maps in Texas would be retrogressive — would lower the ability of Blacks and Hispanics to elect the candidates they choose. Those arguments are pointed right at the provisions of the federal Voting Rights Act. Texas is one of the states covered by that law and if you can prove a map is "retrogressive," either in court or before the U.S. Department of Justice, you can kill that map.
Democrats accused GOP mapmakers of creating "political ghettoes" in order to put more Republicans in office. The racial undertow was in place, and now it has grabbed the Senate.
If there was a triggering event, it was when Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst's lead spokesman, David Beckwith, was quoted in the Corpus Christi Caller-Times popping off about a civil rights icon in a comment about the walkouts. "After they got (to New Mexico) thinking they were going to stay a few days and then declare victory or whatever they thought they were going to do, they got captured by the Democratic National Committee blowing smoke up their rears and telling them what great Americans they were," he told that paper. "So now they've gone from making a statement to 'doing the right thing.' They think they are Rosa Parks II."
Two Houston Black Democrats, Sen. Rodney Ellis and Rep. Garnet Coleman, responded quickly. Ellis said Dewhurst should look first to his aide if he had sanctions on his mind. Both he and Coleman, who heads the Legislative Black Caucus, said Beckwith ought to apologize for the remarks. Dewhurst said later he had chided Beckwith, and Beckwith sent a written apology to the New Mexico gang.
Digress for a second and look at the echoes from last year's U.S. Senate race. Beckwith, then working for Republican John Cornyn, was blasted for saying the Ron Kirk-Tony Sanchez "dream team" was "cynical" and "based on a racial quota system." Cornyn disowned that one. In a different context after the Republican state convention last year, he said the issue is perilous for Republicans: "The press and the Democrats want to talk about race [but] we cannot talk about it. If we talk about it, then the forces of political correctness will come down on us like a ton of bricks."
Off to the Races
That's your backdrop: political ghettos, last year's U.S. Senate race, and Rosa Parks. Then the Republicans got fed up with the Democrats remaining in New Mexico from here to eternity. Looking for a way to coax, force, or bribe them back, somebody mentioned fining the Democrats until they return to Austin to allow a quorum that will then allow a vote on congressional redistricting. The Democrats responded by calling the fines a "poll tax." Republicans said their sole aim was to break the impasse and get enough of the Senate back in Austin to do business.
But the Democrats kept up and stepped up that rhetoric the next day. Ellis issued a statement saying the Republicans had acted on the 38th anniversary of the signing of the Voting Rights Act, and quoting from the speech Lyndon B. Johnson gave when he signed it.
The leader of the Senate Democratic Caucus, Sen. Leticia Van de Putte, D-San Antonio, called the fines "a shameful and illegal poll tax on every minority member of the Texas Senate" (nine of the 11 in New Mexico are minorities). And she called the penalties approved by the Republicans a "return to the days of the Jim Crow laws designed to prevent the electoral participation of minorities in the South." Expect to see that riff repeated in court papers as this plays out.
Or Else What?
Hey, maybe the math teachers were right about needing that stuff when you grow up. The Texas Senate, looking for ways to punish Democrats who walked out, originally talked about penalties for the New Mexico holdouts that would start at $1,000 and then double each day. Sounds okay, until you put a pencil to it. With no cap on that doubling penalty, the fines would balance every government budget in sight: If such a penalty ran for each day of a 30-day special session, the tab for each senator would reach $1.073 trillion. Once they'd worked that out, Republican senators decided to double the fine each day until the daily penalty reached $5,000. It would continue to accumulate at that daily rate.
A 30-day holdout would cost each senator $142,000. The penalties in this case — if they're legal — start on August 14. If the Democrats remain in Albuquerque until the end of the current special session on August 26, each would end up owing $57,000, or a total of $627,000 for all 11 of them. Any money thus collected, according to Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst, would go into the state's general fund.
Autopsy of an Investigation
Republicans from Texas asked the U.S. Department of Justice to dive into the hunt for lamming Democrats last May, but they were denied assistance in all but one instance. That one breach, according to a fresh DOJ report, came when a Corpus Christi FBI agent got on the phone and asked a former associate, Rep. Juan Escobar, D-Kingsville, where he and the other Democrats were hiding. Escobar, a former Border Patrol agent, apparently verified reports that the Democrats were in Ardmore, Oklahoma; the FBI man sent that info back up the food chain and that was that.
The most famous call to the feds — from a staffer to U.S. House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, R-Sugar Land — didn't result in any action. One official at DOJ referred to the call for help finding the Texans as "wacko." That was one of nine contacts Texas officials made to the feds.
Jay Kimbrough, a deputy Texas attorney general who headed criminal justice divisions under Govs. George W. Bush and Rick Perry, called the Oklahoma FBI office and asked if they could help. He faxed a copy of the House warrants used to haul members back into the Capitol, but after checking, the FBI said they didn't have jurisdiction. Kimbrough, according to the report, told the FBI later that he called "at the direction of Texas House Speaker Tom Craddick, who told him that a game warden in Oklahoma said he knew an FBI agent who had said he could help in returning the legislators because they had crossed state lines." Craddick handed over a number that turned out to be for the FBI agent in Ardmore.
Barry McBee, the first assistant to Attorney General Greg Abbott, called U.S. Attorney Johnny Sutton (they had worked together on Gov. Perry's staff) and asked if the feds could get involved. Sutton checked and called back later to say the runaways weren't within federal reach.
A Texas Ranger, according to the report, called a couple of FBI agents in South Texas and asked them how to tap a telephone line. They were told wiretapping requires a court order. Another Texas Ranger called U.S. marshal Jack Dean, himself a former Ranger, to ask how they'd handled a similar situation when the Killer Bees walked out on the Texas Senate.
An FBI agent in Sherman got a call from an unidentified local Republican who asked if the feds could play. The agent said they needed an arrest warrant to cross state lines.
And the U.S. attorney's office also got a call from Rep. Jack Stick, R-Austin, a former assistant in that office, who wanted to know whether the feds could help. He also got a "no."
The investigators concluded that everybody in their shop did everything they were supposed to do, with the exception of the agent who called Escobar. As for him, they concluded he should have stayed out of it, but didn't break any laws or violate any rules. The full 36-page report is available right here.
Flotsam & Jetsam
Insurance cuts promised in the gubernatorial race a year ago are underway, but it's only underway — many of the companies ordered to lower their rates on homeowner policies are going to court instead. Instead of ordering cuts, state lawmakers gave the Texas Department of Insurance power to do it, and TDI unwrapped its rate orders to loud cries of "foul" from insurance companies.
The regulators ordered cuts of up to 31 percent (and as low as zero percent), going on a company-by-company basis. Consumer groups say the average cut should have been 35 percent and say regulators didn't go as far as they should have.
Even if consumers have started to see some cuts, it's not hard to squint and see the issue unleashed anew in the next election cycle. Most lawmakers are up for reelection next year, and voters who didn't get the property tax or insurance relief they were after might be susceptible to new blood.
• State Republican Party officials are asking federal officials — the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency, to be precise — to investigate whether a bank's airplane was illegally used to shuttle the Senate Democrats to New Mexico. The Democrats say they asked whether the plane could be used by their caucus — not by their campaigns — and got a favorable opinion from the Texas Ethics Commission about the use of corporate planes. Republicans want to know whether the plane owned by the First National Bank of Edinburg falls in a different category. The laws governing banks in politics differ some from laws governing other corporate contributions.
• The slogan on a fundraising flyer sent to Democrats wanting to help defray hotel and meal costs of the Albuquerque holdouts: "I'm good for a night."
• After announcing plans to cut $300,000 in funding for the American G.I. Forum a couple of weeks ago, Gov. Rick Perry gave the money back, distributing a federal grant used by that group for a jobs program. The group claimed the initial cuts were political payback for its opposition to redistricting, a charge denied by the governor's aides.
• President George W. Bush's reelection fundraising is underway, and so are some of the people who tracked what he was doing to get and to spend all that money the first time around. Texans for Public Justice is tracking donations, donors, and the occupations and business interests of donors, on their website. The group is also partnering with Public Citizen on another website, the name of which will tell you a little something about how much they like Bush: www.whitehouseforsale.org. Public Citizen was founded by Ralph Nader, one of Bush's 2000 campaign opponents. According to that site, the Bush campaign has already raised $47.9 million.
• The rumblings of the next political season are beginning. Rep. Aaron Peña, D-Edinburg, hired consultant Jeff Montgomery to run his reelection race next year. He'll have an opponent: Eddie Saenz, also an Edinburg Democrat, has been talking to people about a challenge.
• The idea of an independent commission to handle congressional redistricting — and to take it out of grubby legislative hands — is getting some traction in Texas. Now there's a bipartisan group backing the proposal, which has been pushed for several years by Sen. Jeff Wentworth, R-San Antonio. Rep. Scott Hochberg, D-Houston, filed the bill on the House side and has lined up several Republicans and Democrats as co-sponsors. The bipartisan commission would consist of non-officeholders appointed by legislators, equal numbers of Republicans and Democrats, and would draw the lines out of the reach of lawmakers who might have a bit too much interest in the outcome.
• Texas Agriculture Commissioner Susan Combs is attacking Mexican officials over Border water, saying satellite imagery shows green crops growing on the Mexican side of the border, right where Chihuahuan Gov. Patricio Martinez has said there is no water to share with the U.S. This is not a subtle fight, as you can see by the way she's talking: "What universe is he living in?... It's time to stop relating science fiction and start reporting science fact." Combs says the satellites show Mexico is getting more water than it did last year. Martinez says Mexico is honoring a 1944 treaty that spells out how the two countries should share water.
Political People and Their Moves
Texas Tech University, looking for a new president, narrowed its list of finalists to one: Jon Whitmore, provost at the University of Iowa. He's a former dean of Fine Arts at the University of Texas at Austin before moving north in 1996...
The Freedom of Information Foundation of Texas is giving its top award this year to assistant Texas Attorney General Missy Cary, who heads that agency's open records division, and to Vanessa Curry, a journalism teacher and advisor to the student paper at UT Tyler...
Another one bites the dust: Adam Mendelsohn, who migrated from California to Austin seven months ago to work in PR for comptroller Carole Keeton Strayhorn, is leaving that job for a consulting gig in Washington, D.C. Mendelsohn, Strayhorn's third communications director in under a year, is actually leaving on good terms. He'll return to DCI, a lobbying and grassroots firm where he used to work. Strayhorn hasn't named a replacement...
The Southern Legislative Conference, one of four regional groups of lawmakers in the U.S., capped its meeting in Fort Worth by electing former Texas House Speaker Pete Laney, D-Hale Center, as its chairman. That's a one-year term... Corbin Casteel, finance director of the Republican Party of Texas, is getting a boost: He'll stay in Austin, but as the regional finance director for the Republican National Committee, overseeing 15 states...
Married: Rick Crawford, former legislator and former director of the State Preservation Board, to J.R. Wilson, in a ceremony in Santa Fe... Howard Graves, chancellor at the Texas A&M University System, told system employees in an email that his cancer treatments are ending and that doctors believe he might have only a short time to live. He's 63, and has been battling lung cancer.
Quotes of the Week
Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst, stating his position on fines and other potential sanctions: "This is not an escalation in any form or shape... We're not going to be held hostage by any 11 members, be they Republicans, be they Democrats."
Dewhurst, asked what would happen to Democrats who returned but refused to pay fines for leaving the state: "Prior to them coming back and voting, we expect them to pay the fine."
Sen. Juan "Chuy" Hinojosa, D-McAllen, quoted by the Houston Chronicle: "I will not pay a penny of this poll tax being imposed by the Anglo senators on Hispanics and Blacks."
Sen. Judith Zaffirini, D-Laredo, goading George W. Bush in the Dallas Morning News: "Will he be man enough to do the right thing? Will he be man enough to call off the political attack dogs? Will he be man enough to say to Karl Rove, his brain, 'Back off, you are wrong?'"
White House spokesman Scott McClellan, on whether George W. Bush wants to get in the redistricting wars here: "We'll leave it to the state of Texas to address that."
Gov. Rick Perry, in a June 2001 letter to legislative leaders explaining his decision not to call a special session then on congressional redistricting: "Although I expect Texans will be disappointed with the inability to accomplish this task, I believe Texans would be even more disappointed if we expend considerable sums of taxpayer money to call the Legislature into a special session that has no promise of yielding a redistricting plan for Congress."
Texas Land Commissioner Jerry Patterson, in a Houston Chronicle story on beach erosion efforts and fights between homeowners and open-beach advocates: "I'm accused by both sides in this issue of being in the pocket of the other side. I'm exactly where I need to be. I've got everybody mad at me."
Al Gore, talking to a New York audience and quoted in the Wall Street Journal: "I was the first one laid off, and you never forget something like that."
California political scientist Tony Quinn, quoted in the Austin American-Statesman on the wacky gubernatorial mess in that state: "What you're going to see now is a reason for the 20-year-old grease monkey who thinks politicians are all a bunch of crooks anyway to come out and vote for the guy whose movies he's seen three times."
Texas Weekly: Volume 20, Issue 10, 18 August 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.