When Nederland's Allan Ritter — the last of a band of conservative, rural Anglo Democrats in the Texas House, switches parties today — he'll give the Republicans a supermajority that lets them do anything they want.
That's literally true, even if it's not always practical. With a two-thirds majority, the Republicans will have the votes to suspend the rules that govern and restrict House business and the numbers to keep working even if the Democrats take a walk.
That would have been handy a couple of times in the last decade. At the end of the 2009 legislative session, for instance, the Democrats in the minority slowed House business to a near standstill by using the rules to drag out consideration of a long list of bills. That particular trick is known as "chubbing," and it has an effect similar to a Senate filibuster. The legislation they were working to block moved way back. Hundreds of other measures never got considered because of the chubbers. Had the Republicans been in possession of 100 votes, they could have suspended the rules that made that possible and hurried along their way to voter ID — the bill that got the chub-a-thon going.
In May 2003, House Democrats left the state to block a redistricting vote they thought was unfair. They had sufficient numbers to deny the House a quorum, defined in the Constitution as 100 members. Should they become nostalgic for Ardmore, Okla., the Democrats will travel knowing that House business will continue without them. They no longer have the 51 folks it takes to stop House business.
"You can find all kinds of stuff," says former House Parliamentarian and state Rep. Terry Keel, R-Austin, who now heads the Texas Facilities Commission. Keel points to quorums, rule suspensions and a rule that lets members amend legislation on its final reading — but only with a two-thirds vote. "That assumes, of course, that having 100 Republicans means you also have 100 votes," he says.
Democrats, on the other hand, have to find new ways to battle back. Republicans have been split internally — for evidence of that, look at the speaker's race between the current occupant of the job, Joe Straus, R-San Antonio, who's well ahead, and state Rep. Ken Paxton, R-McKinney, and state Rep. Warren Chisum, R-Pampa, who both say he isn't conservative enough. Democrats might find toeholds there, joining Republicans on particular issues on which the GOP is split. (A side note: Ritter adds another Straus vote to the GOP caucus, if the vote for speaker takes place there before the full House votes.)
On a more practical level, the now-bigger numbers give Republicans a huge buffer on votes that just require a majority of the 150-member House. "It means we can lose 24 votes and still win," says state Rep. Larry Taylor, R-Friendswood, the chairman of the House Republican Caucus.
Last session, Republicans had a two-vote majority. Many issues aren't decided on partisan grounds — members put home folk in front of party folk — and a big majority gives the GOP leeway to let some people vote local instead of sticking with the party. For Taylor, the big majority is more important than hitting the two-thirds mark. "Ninety-nine is huge. 100 is nice. 101 is nice," he says.
Speaking of 101: More could follow Ritter. State Rep. Aaron Peña, D-Edinburg, has been publicly considering a switch from a Democratic Party he says has become uncomfortable for conservatives. But he's also expressed some reservations about some of the GOP's positions — thus his indecision. Then there's Dan Neil, a former UT football star and current Austin radio host who lost his race against state Rep. Donna Howard, D-Austin, by just 12 votes. He's raising money for a challenge to that result and will probably announce his intentions sometime this week. Finding those dollars — somewhere in the $50,000 range — isn't as easy now that the magical 100-vote mark has been reached. But a consultant for Neil says that it's going "pretty well" and that the money won't be a factor in the candidate's decision.
Texas Democratic Party Chairman Boyd Richie responded to news of Ritter's flip by calling for his resignation. "He should show the voters enough respect to immediately resign and seek election as a Republican," he said in a statement that put Peña, among other wobblies, on notice: "I will make the same call to any other Democratic lawmaker who considers switching parties now, because switching parties immediately after being elected is a disingenuous slap in the face of the voters who put that legislator in office."
Ritter's defection does indeed come just weeks after his re-election as a Democrat in a district marked both by strong union ties and East Texas conservatism. For several election cycles, he and the other WD-40s — shorthand for rural white Democrats over 40 — survived politically in House districts designed to elect 85 or more Republicans.
"I've watched my district change from a Democratic district to a Republican district," Ritter says. "I try to be what my district is."
"Three years ago, I never thought I would have to do this," he says. Ritter says he began seriously thinking about a switch "a month or two before the election," and made his decision late last Friday.
He says the response has been "overwhelmingly positive."
HD-21, which Ritter has represented since 1999, is — or was, until today — the most conservative legislative district represented by a Democrat, based on statewide voting results in 2006 and 2008 (the 2010 election hasn't yet been broken down by district). The seat ranks 73rd in a ranking of most Republican to most Democratic; before November's general election, only four Democrats held more conservative turf, but one retired and three got beat.
A fellow Democrat-turned-Republican, state Rep. Chuck Hopson of Jacksonville, switched parties a year ago, survived a GOP primary and won re-election. "Mine was a little more Republican than his," Hopson says of his district. "I think his has pretty much caught up now." He expects Ritter to find smooth sailing. "The people who liked me in the past still like me, and the people who didn't like me in the past really don't like me now," he says.
Taylor says he's not ready to welcome every House Democrat into the Republican Party, but he says the new guy's voting record is a good fit with other House Republicans. "You're talking about people like Allan Ritter. People aren't going to be uncomfortable at all," he says. "It's not like it's a stretch."