The Austin Chronicle

What Would Dunnam Do?

By Richard Whittaker, February 23, 2011, 12:26pm, Newsdesk

First Wisconsin lawmakers, and now Democrats in Indiana are using quorum-busting targets to break the GOP's anti-worker strategies. But Texas knows a thing or two about quorum busting, as ex-state rep (and the man behind 2003's flight to Ardmore) Jim Dunnam knows.

So what was his advice to the Wisconsin and Indiana Democrats? "You need to be able to indicate very clearly and concisely what it is that is requiring you to use this procedural move," Dunnam said. "Make sure that you don't play the opposition's games, in terms of what is at stake. Make sure you communicate clearly and repeatedly what you're really fighting for."

What makes Dunnam such an expert on this kind of fight? A quick reminder, for anyone too young to remember: Last time the Texas GOP leadership tried to shove a gerrymandered redistricting map down their throats, 51 House Democrats went to Ardmore, Okla., breaking the quorum and putting the national spotlight on that session's big voter suppression bill.

Dunnam pointed to a long and honorable tradition of quorum busting, going back to "Abraham Lincoln jumping out of a court house window in Springfield when he was in the legislature." He added, "When we had a similar situation in Texas, they talked about we were afraid to go to work and we needed to go to work, and they tried to misdirect. I think, in our case, at the end of the day we were able to hold the message very well.

Dunnam accused Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker of creating an artificial crisis. He said, "The governor is playing bait and switch on the benefits issue. He's just trying to bust the union by eliminating collective bargaining." If Walker gets his way, Wisconsin would become more like Texas with its euphemistically-named 'Right to Work' (ie right to get fired) employment laws. Dunnam said, "The right to collective bargain and those kind of things are pretty fundamental. They allowed the middle class to build in the country, and it's something worth standing up for."

So it will all come down to the dreaded mantra of message discipline. Dunnam conceded that the Wisconsin GOP is "doing a pretty good job of misdirection, saying it's because of the budget, but it's patently clear that this is taking on the unions for political purposes." However, the legislative Democrats officed in their state capitol and the workers campaigning outside seem to be doing an even better job of explaining the issues. Dunnam said, "I saw a poll today that came out of Wisconsin that shows pretty strong support for the Democrats and opposed what the governor is doing. But the Republicans in the past have shown a total disregard for public opinion once they get in power."

There's a coda to all this, and possibly a stark warning for Walker. Back in 2003, everyone said that the Texas Democrats would get pulverized in the elections because they ran away. In fact, it was the turning point for the declining Democrats, and it was the pursuers who took the flack. The Federal Aviation Administration was the subject of an embarrassing internal report on their involvement, and there were also serious questions raised about the involvement of the Bush White House. With hindsight, Dunnam said, "We were proved right, and Tom DeLay's heading to jail."

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