Sen. John Whitmire, who's been in the Senate longer than anyone else and in the Legislature longer than all but four others, returned to Houston after 37 days in the Land of Enchantment, providing relief to Republicans and anguish to Democrats.
Whitmire, one of 11 Democrats who left the state at the end of July to deny the Senate the quorum required to consider a Republican congressional redistricting bill, said he came back because the standoff had no end in sight. They considered some plans, like coming back and refusing to vote, or coming back to get arrested, but never agreed on what to do. Since the Democrats couldn't agree on an end game, Whitmire created one of his own.
"The real danger in staying in New Mexico or relocating to Washington — there's a real possibility that we would lose the two-thirds rule altogether," he said, after returning to Texas. That's the rule that 21 of the 31 senators have to approve before a bill can be brought up for consideration. Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst said before the Democrats left the state that the rule wouldn't be in place in a second called special session. As the first session ended and the second one began at the end of July, the Democrats left for Albuquerque to stop consideration of congressional redistricting.
"If there's one thing that I could point to, it is to protect the two-thirds rule for future matters. If sixteen senators can pass bills, a lot of progressive groups are in trouble," Whitmire said. "Redistricting is real important, but a lot of other issues are important, too, like higher education, and school finance, and criminal justice."
Whitmire said he hopes Gov. Rick Perry won't call another special session on redistricting, but left, in part, because he believed Perry would keep calling sessions until the senators who left the state at the end of July finally ran out of fight. Ten other Democrats who left in July remained in Albuquerque, angry at Whitmire but with too few holdouts to keep the Senate from meeting.
And he apparently tired of what he was seeing on the other end: A holdout with no resolution in sight, and increasing attention to national issues in what started as a Texas fight.
"I'm not interested in a national campaign," he said. "That's not what my constituents sent me to Austin to do. Every day we're out there, it's more a national effort... to attack the Administration. There's no question it's a national effort. I think they clash. If the effort was to impact legislation on the state Senate floor... it's hard to have that attached to a national effort. You're either doing press conferences in Washington, D.C., or you're working with your colleagues on the Senate floor."
Several senators left Albuquerque Thursday for a press conference in Washington with MoveOn.org, a liberal group that used the Texas senators' situation to help raise $1 million for a radio and newspaper ad campaign attacking the Bush Administration.
Whitmire said he didn't make any deals and didn't succumb to pressure from outside or inside. He repeated what he said on the first day, that his constituents don't like redistricting but want the fight to take place on the Senate floor. "My concern was for my district and for the Senate. The most important matter is to save the Senate. Every day we're out there (in New Mexico), it's getting worse."
Whitmire, who's nickname is "Boogie" (thus the headline), went home for the long Labor Day weekend before returning to Albuquerque to tell the other Democrats he was pulling out. He says he's not sure how his actions will play in Houston: "I'm not really worried about it. I am familiar with efforts by Democratic activists to paint me in a negative light... I'm prepared to be judged by my actions."
A Long Feedback Loop
That judgment, whatever it is, could be a long way off. Whitmire isn't in immediate electoral danger — he drew a four-year term at the beginning of the year and won't be up for reelection until 2006. Six of the Democrats who went to Albuquerque will be on the ballot next year, and none is in a district that would punish them for antagonizing Republicans. The list includes Mario Gallegos of Houston, Juan "Chuy" Hinojosa of McAllen, Eddie Lucio of Brownsville, Leticia Van de Putte of San Antonio, Royce West of Dallas and Judith Zaffirini of Laredo.
On the Republican side of the aisle, only two members who've been in the middle of the redistricting fight are on the ballot next year. One, Chris Harris of Arlington, dramatically extracted himself by announcing in a public hearing earlier this summer that he was quitting his job as author of the bill. The other is Sen. Robert Duncan of Lubbock. He's the chairman of the committee handling the issue, and he's half of a deadlock — the other half is House Speaker Tom Craddick — over how the lines in West Texas should be drawn.
Duncan's district is solidly Republican, and he's popular at home, but a misstep on redistricting could light up his primary. Lubbock and Midland are currently in the same congressional district, and lots of people in Lubbock want that left alone.
Midland, Craddick's home, wants its own seat, and some in Lubbock fear they will lose influence if the lines are redrawn. Their concerns are two-fold. In some maps freshman U.S. Rep. Randy Neugebauer, R-Lubbock, would be paired in a district with Charlie Stenholm, D-Abilene. If Stenholm won, Lubbock wouldn't have a resident in Congress. If Neugebauer won, Texas would lose a ranking member of the House Agriculture Committee, a panel especially important in the economy of Lubbock and the towns around it.
Still No Plan
Republican lawmakers knew when the votes were counted last November that they'd won, and won big, in the Texas Legislature. And the partisans among them knew that created an opportunity to redraw congressional redistricting maps more favorable to their party. But they dragged their feet during the regular session and brought up a map late in the game. With deadlines close at hand, House Democrats left the state and forced Republicans to put mapmaking aside.
No problem. The governor called a special session, said it would begin at the end of June, and gave everybody two weeks to get ready.
But the mapmakers didn't have their lines in place when that session started. That kept them from moving quickly, gave the Democrats more time, and led to the sudden end of the second special session and the sudden beginning of the third special session. The state of the map at that point? That's the day the Senate Democrats left for New Mexico, and the full Legislature hasn't convened since. The House was here for that second session, and voted for the second time in favor of a redistricting plan that can't win a majority of the votes in the Senate's GOP Caucus, much less the whole Senate.
The Senate hasn't agreed internally on a map. On the day after Houston Democrat John Whitmire ended the quorum break in New Mexico, Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst and Senate Republicans were meeting privately to work out the details of a congressional map. They invited Sen. Ken Armbrister, D-Victoria, to the closed-door meeting in the Senate reception room, and said they wouldn't make any work public until the beginning of an as-yet-uncalled third special session (two days later, Dewhurst was set to talk at a Freedom of Information forum sponsored by some of the state's media).
Still on the table: What to do about fines and penalties imposed against the walkouts and the people who work for them. Sen. Todd Staples of Palestine, who heads the Senate Republican Caucus, implied that some punishment will remain in place. "Actions have consequences," he said.
For the last month, the conversation has been about the lack of a quorum in the Senate. That's cloaked the lack of a consensus on redistricting. Sen. Bill Ratliff, R-Mt. Pleasant, referred to it a couple of weeks ago when he called the fight over two-thirds rules and quorums and state borders unnecessary because of West Texas. That's the shorthand for the standoff between Sen. Robert Duncan, R-Lubbock, and House Speaker Tom Craddick, R-Midland.
The House map that's now passed twice takes Craddick's side in the fight, but forfeits support from Duncan, and from other senators with other problems: Troy Fraser, R-Horseshoe Bay, wants Abilene and Big Spring taken care of, and the House map gives both cities indigestion; Kip Averitt, R-Waco, doesn't want a map that splits his home county; rural senators in East Texas don't want their rural areas fighting with Dallas and Houston voters (and suburban voters) for attention.
But Craddick and his allies don't want Midland stuck in with Lubbock, and Duncan is the chairman of the Senate Jurisprudence Committee that will vote on a map. Without his support, the Senate plan is sunk. When the senators broke up their meeting on maps, they still didn't have a deal. Sen. Todd Staples, R-Palestine, said he'll keep working on the map, and said he'll follow Duncan's lead — "He's my chairman" — when it comes to West Texas. But privately, he and others were trying to get a deal worked out so Senate Republicans wouldn't split over regional differences.
Aides to House Speaker Tom Craddick — responding to a widespread and apparently false rumor — tell us that their boss is healthy and went to Minnesota for nothing more than a fly-fishing trip with his wife and some friends.
House members have been rattling the phones with a rumor that the boss was being tested and/or treated for Parkinson's Disease. Another rumor, concurrent with that one, had Rep. Mike Krusee, R-Round Rock, asking members of the House for "seconds" — commitments to support Krusee for Speaker if Craddick, for some reason, dropped out.
Craddick's aides say he's not sick. Krusee, who has said this repeatedly this year to try to spike recurring gossip, says he's not collecting votes for a speaker race.
The illness rumor stems, apparently, from Craddick's slurring and mumbling — something he does in everyday conversation and that is particularly noticeable when he's presiding in the House and is dealing with something tense or stressful, like, say, a point of order aimed at a pet bill. While they anonymously acknowledge that speech impediment, associates say that's all there is to it — the boss is just another healthy angler in Minnesota. In the interest of fairness, we should point out that speaking English is not one of the job requirements for sitting in the high chair: Craddick's three immediate predecessors — Bill Clayton, Gib Lewis and Pete Laney — were (and are) professionals when it came to mumbling, misspeaking, gibbering, twanging, and otherwise abusing the English language. According to our History Department, the last true orator in the job was Price Daniel Jr.
The rumors kicked up after Craddick spokesman Bob Richter was quoted in the Austin American-Statesman, saying his boss was out of town: "The speaker's gone all week. As of now, the speaker's probably dropping his first fly on a fish's head in northern Minnesota." The context of the story was redistricting, and whether and when there will be a third special session. But within a few hours, the grapevine had turned the fishing trip into a visit to the Mayo Clinic.
That sort of gossip goes with the Capitol like wet goes with water. What pushed this into print were the actions spawned by the gossip. The Krusee rumor — which has been around in some form since the middle of the regular session — was reanimated. Rep. Edmund Kuempel, R-Seguin, ran against Craddick last year in the speaker race and says he didn't lift a finger to restart things. But he says he got a call from some Democrats who said they could bring 50+ votes to him if he could gather enough Republicans to join him in a speaker's race. He's not aware of a job opening, he says: "Tom won (last time) and won big, and he's my speaker."
Size Matters, But So Does Performance
Blacks and Hispanics could move into the majority much sooner than the GOP expects, if they would vote. But Anglos are more likely to vote than either group, and without a change, that tendency will keep them in the political minority for some time after they obtain a numerical majority in the population, which should — according to state demographers — happen in a matter of months.
Statewide candidates would notice a change in the voting patterns first (legislative and congressional maps always lag behind population changes). Statewide office seekers would have to start going to El Paso, or to the other side of Houston, or to other enclaves of minorities, to campaign and to win. But that's not the way politics is moving in Texas — voting trends aren’t as favorable to minorities as demographic trends that get more attention — and Republicans, generally, are the beneficiaries of that difference.
An example: After the population sizes of the districts were equalized by the three judges who drew the state’s current congressional lines, there were 651,619 people in each of the state's 32 congressional districts (some had an extra voter to settle the fractions).
In CD-21, the most politically active, based on turnout and voter registration, 221,825 people voted in a Central Texas election won by U.S. Rep. Lamar Smith, R-San Antonio, who got 73 percent of the vote. It’s difficult to argue that they showed up because of the competitive nature of that race, but 46 percent of the voting age Texans in that district went to the polls. (We're using numbers to show involvement by eligible adults. Most turnout numbers you see are based on the number of registered voters who showed up at the elections. In this case, 54 percent of registered voters turned out.)
The smallest turnout in a race featuring candidates from both of the major parties was nearby, in CD-28: With the same overall population, only 100,414 people showed up to give U.S. Rep. Ciro Rodriguez, D-San Antonio, 71 percent of their votes for his reelection bid. The total turnout in the Rodriguez district, including Election Day and early voting, was less than half the early voting turnout in the Smith district, and more people voted in Smith’s district on Election Day than voted early.
Rodriguez has a smaller voting age population in his district — another way to put it is that there are more kids there — but politics didn't win attention like it did in Smith's district. Only 24 percent of those adults voted last November. (If you look at regular old turnout numbers, 34 percent of registered voters turned out, but the district lags Smith's not only at the polls, but also in the percentage of adults registered to vote.)
The voting age population in Smith's CD-21 is 83 percent Anglo. Overall turnout in that district in last year’s general election: 54 percent. In Rodriguez' CD-28, the voting age population is 66 percent Hispanic and 8 percent Black. Overall turnout last year? 34 percent. Put it this way: If adults in Rodriguez' district participated at the levels seen in Smith's district, election officials would have had another 110,860 votes to count. Take it to the extreme to make the point: Voters there favored Democrats two-to-one, roughly, over Republicans. In a close statewide election, that's a lot of votes, and if you could multiply the effect throughout minority congressional districts, it would be a decisive and important vote. Statewide officials would take notice and when new legislative and congressional districts were drawn, so would contenders for those spots.
A Republican read: GOP candidates for Congress in Texas collected more votes than Democratic candidates, on average, last year, and only because of gerrymandered districts did Democrats continue to control a majority of the seats in the Texas delegation. Republican voters turned out in greater numbers but were packed into districts like Smith's.
A Democratic read: Democrats won 17 of the 32 seats in congress last November, but 13 of those districts had turnouts (as a percentage of adults) below the state average. Republicans correctly claim that GOP members of Congress collected more votes than Democrats, on average, but that's a function of lower turnouts in Democratic districts and not on the popularity of Democrats in those districts. Districts, they argue, should be based on population and not on voter turnout.
The Map War's Second Front
The three-judge federal panel set up to hear the pre-redistricting lawsuit filed by Texas Senate Democrats will meet next Thursday in Laredo and could start handing out rulings on the spot.
The Democrats want the court to tell the state that it can't arrest senators who are in Texas but not in the Senate chamber during a legislative session. And they want the court to require pre-clearance of two changes in the process of getting a new congressional redistricting map for Texas before those changes can be legally made.
First, they argue the change in the Senate's two-thirds rule is significant enough to merit consideration under the federal Voting Rights Act. And they say the same is true of mid-decade consideration of redistricting. There's already a legal map in place reflecting current census numbers, and it's already been approved by a three-judge federal panel. The Democrats contend that redrawing the maps now, when it's not required, also merits pre-clearance by either the courts or the U.S. Department of Justice. State officials already won DOJ permission to junk the two-thirds rule.
Secretary of State Geoff Connor asked for pre-clearance in a letter that also argued it's unnecessary. DOJ officials wrote back and agreed that it wasn't necessary, but judges still haven't vetted the issue. The panel includes two U.S. district judges — George Kazen of Laredo and Lee Rosenthal of Houston — and Patrick Higginbotham of the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. Kazen was critical of the Democrats' legal position in an earlier hearing, but chose to leave the decisions to a three-judge panel rather than make them himself. The federal voting law requires a panel to determine certain kinds of issues.
Flotsam & Jetsam
The tort reformers are closing their campaign in favor of Proposition 12 with attacks on trial lawyers, pulling back the curtains to try to get voters to look at the money behind the campaigns. The other side, through the group Save the Courts (yup, a mess of its money comes from the lawyers), is closing with arguments that the constitutional amendment — designed to protect doctors from lawsuits — would benefit insurance companies and limit lawsuits from people with other legitimate injuries and damages. Election Day is a week from Saturday, and some prognosticators think voter turnout will be under 7 percent.
• Gov. Rick Perry and House Speaker Tom Craddick will both make appearances at an upcoming fundraiser for Rep. Dianne White Delisi, R-Temple. This might have helped: Her daughter-in-law, Deirdre, is the Guv's deputy chief of staff and her son Ted is an advisor to both Perry and Craddick.
• And this is a hat trick, too: Rep. Patrick Rose, D-Dripping Springs, is having a fundraiser this month that also features Speaker Craddick as a special guest. Not only is Rose a Democrat, he's a freshman, he went to Ardmore, and he's in a swing district that he won by fewer than 400 votes.
• Some other potential candidates have been rattling around, including Dr. John Gill, a political newcomer. But Sen. John Carona, R-Dallas, is holding his annual fundraiser and lists as supporters many of the same big names that have backed him in the past. Missing from the invitation: Louis Beecherl, a political financier whose past support of Carona has kept challengers away. Another frequently mentioned potential candidate in that district is Rep. Dan Branch, R-Dallas. Carona's invitation asks for support, but doesn't say anything at all about next year's election.
• Rep. Ray Allen, R-Grand Prairie, announced his reelection campaign, in case you were wondering whether his heart problems earlier this year slowed him down. He's been in the House since 1993, and wants to stay. Apropos, maybe: Some legislative pension benefits kick in after 12 years of service.
• Comptroller Carole Keeton Strayhorn says the state's budget numbers for the fiscal year that just ended were tight, but positive. The state brought in $89.3 million more in general funds than her estimators estimated. That's a lot of money to us, but it's almost a rounding error in state finance. She took a small whack at legislators who'd questioned the agency's past numbers, saying "once again, the experts... were right on target."
Political People and Their Moves
After advising Comptroller Carole Keeton Strayhorn from outside for a couple of months, Mark Sanders is back on the state payroll and back at the comptroller's office. Sanders, a longtime Republican political consultant, jumped the fence last year to work for Democrat gubernatorial candidate Tony Sanchez Jr. after leaving Strayhorn's employ. That campaign against Republican Gov. Rick Perry came up well short, but Sanders sunk some darts and Perry and his aides weren't keen on people giving the dart-thrower consulting gigs. Why hire an enemy of the Guv? But Strayhorn and Perry have been spitting at each other for months, and this one is no surprise. He's signed on for about $120,000 a year, and Strayhorn also brought in Mark Heckmann, who's been working at the attorney general's office, to help with communications. He'll make around $114,000 annually...
Patti Everett joined the Austin office of the Children's Defense Fund, leaving her job at the Dell Foundation. CDF has been involved in the Children's Health Insurance Program and other issues at the Capitol. The Austin office had been run by DeAnn Friedholm, who left earlier this year for South Africa. She's helping that country set up a health care system...
Appointments: Gov. Rick Perry named Leon Leach of Houston to the Mental Health and Mental Retardation board. He's an executive at the University of Texas M.D. Anderson Cancer Center in Houston... Perry named Edward Adams of Austin, owner of a PR company, to the Texas Workforce Investment Council...
Josh Taylor, the communications guy for Rep. Garnet Coleman, D-Houston, is leaving Austin to become spokesman for U.S. Rep. Chet Edwards, D-Waco, in Washington, D.C...
The Texas Workforce Commission has a new director: Larry Temple, who's been the number two guy there and who worked in the private sector in Mississippi for 20 years, will take over...
Recovering, from triple-bypass surgery: Rep. Burt Solomons, R-Denton. No serious complications.
Quotes of the Week
Sen. John Whitmire, D-Houston, after leaving the New Mexico holdouts behind and coming back to Texas: "I met my commitment, and that was to stay out for 30 days."
Whitmire, quoted in the Houston Chronicle on staying in Albuquerque for more than a month: "You're talking to a guy who flunked the first grade because he couldn't stay in his chair. Now put me in a hotel for 30 days."
And still more Whitmire: "There was no serious consideration of an exit plan... not with some individuals talking about staying until Christmas. There were several exit plans — come back and vote present, not voting, come back and get arrested, go to the federal court in Laredo and get arrested. But some of them like it up there (in Albuquerque)... I had at least four senators come up and congratulate me and say they were going to toast me in the bar that night."
Sen. Rodney Ellis, D-Houston, when Whitmire left: "I am disappointed to see him surrendering so easily. All eleven of us have made true sacrifices to be here in Albuquerque. I have a newborn baby at home that doesn't even know what I look like. We have Senators with serious health problems, new grandchildren, and suffering businesses with us. I hope that Senator Whitmire feels as we all do, that no personal sacrifice is so great as to outweigh the constitutional issues at stake."
Sen. Juan Hinojosa, D-McAllen: "I'm very disappointed in Sen. Whitmire's decision. He gave us no notice. He just dropped us in the grease."
Texas Democratic Party Chairwoman Molly Beth Malcolm: "By going it alone without a consensus among his Democratic colleagues, Sen. Whitmire may believe he can forge a compromise himself, but he does not represent his Democratic colleagues."
Southlake City Manager and former Police Chief Billy Campbell, quoted by the Fort Worth Star-Telegram on a new law allowing concealed handguns at Town Hall: "I can return fire."
A letter to the Lubbock Avalanche-Journal from one Robert Smithee: "I recently read where scientists have determined that our sun will burn out in approximately four billion years. That's too bad; the highway construction workers for the Marsha Sharp Freeway will have to finish the job in the dark."
Texas Weekly: Volume 20, Issue 13, 8 September 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.