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The year was 2003, and the cramped Speaker’s Committee Room next to the Texas House floor was overflowing with reporters and spectators.
It was hot and crowded on that Monday morning, a day after Mother’s Day, and the hastily-called press conference would mark the apex of the most contentious and partisan legislative session the state had seen in recent memory.
Tamara Bell, chief of staff for then-House Democratic Caucus Chair Jim Dunnam, stood at the podium, blinking at the TV lights a few feet from her eyes, and broke the news that 51 House Democrats were about to ask the House clerk to lock their voting machines.
“Are they coming in?” someone asked.
“They’re gone,” Bell replied. “I have no idea where they went.”
In fact, the state representatives, dubbed “The Killer D’s” by supporters and “Chicken D’s” by critics, had already crossed the Red River and holed up in the Holiday Inn in tiny Ardmore, Oklahoma, out of reach of Texas state troopers who were under orders to bring them back to the Capitol, in handcuffs if needed, the moment they stepped foot back in Texas.
Their quorum-breaking departure, which captured attention around the world, was staged to deter a redrawing of congressional district lines — a maneuver designed by the nation’s most powerful Republicans to wipe out most of Texas’ Democratic power in Washington, D.C.
The lines were eventually redrawn anyway by the first Republican-dominated Texas Legislature in 130 years, who handed the GOP a historic majority in Texas’ congressional delegation.
This week, 18 years after that dramatic walkout, at least 51 of the 67 Democratic members of the Texas House have staged their own quorum-breaking maneuver — this time a very public trip to Washington, D.C. during this month’s special session of the Legislature — to delay a slate of voting restrictions that state GOP leaders have promised to pass, eventually, no matter how many special sessions it takes.
Democrats in Texas and in Washington argue that the restrictions — which ban 24-hour voting rules, drive-thru voting and target mail balloting, among other measures — are aimed at making it harder for people of color, and others who typically vote Democrat, to cast ballots.
This time, as in 2003, Democrats say their main motivator is protecting the voices of Texas voters, who they said then were being diluted by gerrymandered congressional districts and, now, by restrictions on voting access.
“It was the same thing driving us then as what’s driving us now,” said Texas state Sen. Royce West, D-Dallas, who left the state in 2003 with other Texas Senate Democrats who broke the quorum, and who joined fellow Democrats again this week in D.C. “The decision to leave was based on us recognizing that we had to represent the interests of our constituency. … We used every tool that we had available then, and we're using every tool that we have available now.”
Busting the quorum to halt a legislative session isn’t unheard of — in fact, it had happened at least two other times in Texas political history before 2003. But it is considered a nuclear option, a last resort when the debate has shut down and one side believes it’s being railroaded.
“You only take this extreme step in extreme cases,” Dunnam said.
In both 2003 and this year’s walkouts, the Texas Democrats saw themselves as gatekeepers to stem a national wave.
In 2003, the congressional redistricting was part of a multi-state plan by then-Texas Congressman and U.S. House Republican Majority Leader Tom DeLay, who had spent much of that legislative session roaming the back halls of the state Capitol in Austin, pressuring House members and party leaders to cement the GOP’s reign for decades.
“We felt like we needed to make a stand in part because of what DeLay had claimed, that congressional redistricting was going to be a national effort, similar to what’s going on now,” said Dunnam, who spearheaded the walkout in 2003. “And I think we did cause those [other] states to say, ‘Yeah, we’re not going to do this.’”
The move enraged Texas Republicans, who demanded that the Democrats return to work and mocked them publicly. “It’s not a disgrace to stand and fight, but it is a disgrace to run and hide,” then-Speaker Tom Craddick said at the time, dubbing the group “The Chicken D’s” as he engaged the U.S. Department of Homeland Security to track down some of the lawmakers.
On Wednesday, he reiterated his stance in an emailed statement to the Tribune, saying he supported this week’s decision to compel Democrats to come back under threat of arrest, which was also done in 2003 — the Texas Constitution allows such a move while the Legislature is in session if the absent members weren’t given permission to leave by the chamber.
“Texans elected every member of the Texas House of Representatives and Texas Senate to come to Austin and debate the issues. Leaving the state does not help any Texan and most certainly is not the servant leadership expected of elected officials,” he said. “Just as in 2003, I support all necessary measures to obtain a quorum in the Texas House and return to the people's business."
This time, GOP leaders are attempting to pass new laws in Republican-dominated statehouses throughout the country as they falsely claim fraud in the aftermath of Donald Trump’s loss to Democrat Joe Biden in the 2020 presidential election.
The effort drew a sharp rebuke from Biden, who said this week that Republicans have “no shame,” while Vice President Kamala Harris and Capitol Hill senators met with the Texas Democrats in D.C. to ask Congress to back their efforts to keep voting restrictions at bay.
The state legislation currently under consideration in Texas resembles the GOP voting bill from the regular legislative session that first prompted Democrats to walk out and break quorum in late May. Republicans’ bills would ban drive-thru and 24-hour voting options, enhance access for partisan poll watchers and prohibit local election officials from proactively distributing applications to request mail-in ballots. They also include language to further restrict the state’s vote-by-mail rules, including new ID requirements for absentee voters.
The 2003 walkout was unable to stop redistricting, and the result was a political map that gave the GOP an advantage that it has retained for nearly two decades.
State Sen. Eddie Lucio Jr., D-Brownsville, was one of 11 Senate Democrats who left the state in 2003 to stop debate on the redistricting bill. This time, he said he decided to stay in Austin to make sure someone was recording his opposition to the voting bill, and to shepherd an abortion bill he authored.
Lucio said he respected his colleagues who left the state, but his past experience weighed heavily in his decision to stay behind.
“Unfortunately history has shown us that that has not worked,” he said.
But other Democrats from that session said they scored a few wins. The dramatic gesture to break quorum break seemed to energize Texas Democrats, who have gained seats in the House steadily since then — a testament, one former House leader said, to the support they had from their constituents.
“It wasn’t necessarily Democratic politics as much as what redistricting was doing to their districts, and to their constituents,'' said Pete Laney, the former House Speaker who went to Ardmore with his colleagues in 2003 after losing his speakership when the House turned over to the GOP. “All politics is local.”
Bell, who is now a lecturer at the University of Texas at Austin and founder of Two Bells Media, a public relations training company, said their efforts in 2003 brought clarity to the otherwise esoteric issue of redistricting, and that the stand they took was worth fighting what ultimately was a lost battle.
Today’s fight, she said, feels a lot like that.
“It’s a losing battle, but so was the Alamo,” Bell said. “Sometimes you have to take a moral stand and even if you lose, you can hold your head up high and say, ‘We did what we could, and at least we tried.’”
Democratic members of the Texas House and Texas Senate gathered for a joint press conference at Washington Plaza Hotel in Washington, D.C., on Wednesday.
Shuran Huang for The Texas Tribune
Bill Miller, an Austin political consultant who was a member of Craddick’s transition team in 2003 when he assumed the speakership, said he’s not ready to predict whether this generation of Democrats will have any more success by leaving Texas to stop legislation they oppose — but added the stakes seem to be even higher this time around.
“I’m not going to read a crystal ball for you, but I’ll tell you this,” said Miller, who has worked with members on both sides of the aisle. “The principal difference between then and now, in my opinion, is that even though it was serious back then, there was still a sense of gamesmanship and a light touch, if you will. And I don’t find any of that in this instance. It feels deadly serious, and it feels to-the-death strong.”
James Barragán contributed to this article.
Disclosure: University of Texas at Austin has been a financial supporter of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune's journalism. Find a complete list of them here.
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