The House Adjourns to Oklahoma

In a session with little to celebrate, the Ardmore Texpatriates deserve at least three cheers

The House Adjourns to Oklahoma
Illustration By Doug Potter

The good news is that for at least three days -- as of press time Wednesday -- the Texas House of Representatives has committed no new outrages against the public welfare. The bad news is that the way things look, the 2003 Legislative Circus will not conclude as scheduled on June 2.

Instead, there will likely be many more weeks of hue and cry, fear and loathing, chaos and abomination -- that is, a special legislative session or two or three -- before once again it will be safe for Austinites to visit the Capitol in daylight.

If you haven't heard by now, you're reading the wrong section: More than 50 House Democrats quietly went on the lam Sunday night, most of them landing at a Holiday Inn in Ardmore, Okla. There they vow to stay until the state and national Republican leadership agrees to desist in its aggressive determination to redraw the state's congressional districts to the liking of U.S. House Majority Leader Tom DeLay. The practical deadline appears to be tonight (Thursday) at midnight -- after that time, House rules decree that any bill not already brought to the House floor for debate is effectively dead for this session. The particular bill targeted by the Democrats is the Redistricting Committee Substitute for House Bill 3398 (set on the Monday calendar), via which DeLay and his staff try to do by "tommymandering" what the Republican Party couldn't do in last fall's elections: win a majority of the seats in the Texas congressional delegation.

Under DeLay's exterminating logic, since most Texans are currently voting for Republicans in presidential and statewide elections, it follows that a majority of congressional seats must be held by Republicans. But in six of the state's 32 congressional districts (currently split 17-15 for the Democrats), a majority of the same astute voters who voted for George W. Bush foolishly also voted for their incumbent Democratic congressmen. As Chronicle City Editor Mike Clark-Madison described last week ("Charting the Maps"), DeLay has at least eight special targets: Chet Edwards of Waco, Max Sandlin of Marshall, Charles Stenholm of Abilene, Jim Turner of Crockett, Ralph Hall of Rockwall, and Nick Lampson of Beaumont, the aforementioned incumbents who won in GOP districts, along with DeLay's special personal enemies: Dallas' Martin Frost and Austin's Lloyd Doggett. (Doggett is the only Texas congressman whose district is both majority-Anglo and majority-Democrat.) As DeLay's map (formally submitted by Rep. Phil King, R-Weatherford) is currently drawn, the GOP could well gain a 22-10 majority (with all 10 Dems being black or Hispanic) by separating incumbents from their constituents -- and not coincidentally cementing DeLay's personal and ideological stranglehold on the U.S. House.

The Hammer is nothing if not frank in intention: "I'm the majority leader," he told reporters, "and we want more seats."

The Hive Swarms

"I guess it took Tom DeLay," joked Waco Rep. Jim Dunnam, "to organize the Democrats." Dunnam is chair of the House Democratic Caucus and apparently the central organizer of the Dem exodus to Oklahoma and parts unknown, rumored about a week before it finally happened. Under the Texas Constitution and House rules, 100 House members constitute a quorum sufficient for any legislative action. There are 62 Democrats in the 150-member House, and somehow, some way, 51 of them (the group currently holed up in Ardmore) came to the immovable agreement that they would "bust the quorum" -- not only leave town but leave Texas, beyond the jurisdictional reach of the Dept. of Public Safety troopers dispatched by Speaker Tom Craddick to arrest and bring them home. (Taylor Republican Mike Krusee told the Capitol press corps that the Dems' departure was "an abdication of their responsibility," just before he made Monday's formal motion on the House floor to send out the posse.)

The Ardmore 51 are just barely enough for the job, but in fact the Dems have a little wiggle room. Fifty-three members signed letters to the parliamentarian announcing their absence, but on Monday morning another six Democrats were nowhere to be found. At roll call, the only Dems on the floor were Vilma Luna of Corpus Christi, Roberto Gutierrez of McAllen, and Ron Wilson of Houston. Houstonians Sylvester Turner, Al Edwards, and Harold Dutton (who had indeed signed a letter) turned up Tuesday morning, and a couple of hours later a rather embarrassed Helen Giddings of Dallas ("searching for a middle ground") was brought in by the DPS. But that still left Rene Oliveira (Brownsville) officially absent but not in Ardmore, as well as Kino Flores (Mission), Norma Chavez (El Paso), and Glenn Lewis (Fort Worth) on the limbo list -- for a total of 55 Democrats either defying outright or dodging the long arm of Speaker Craddick.

And of those on the House floor, only the maverick Wilson, resplendent in a blue-jean, Muhammad Ali-postered leisure suit, was noticeably critical of his Democratic fellows. Echoing Craddick and Gov. Perry, he denounced them for leaving the job, "taking their marbles and going home." Wilson, who is on the redistricting committee and voted to approve the new GOP map, pointed out acidly, "I'd be quite comfortable with two African-American congressmen from Houston -- right now we only have one." (It's not at all clear DeLay's map would produce that outcome, but Wilson is nothing if not inscrutable.)

Luna (who also voted to approve the new committee map) and Turner said they decided they couldn't leave crucial work on House-Senate budget conference committees. "My priority is the budget," said Luna, "and it's me and [Burleson Republican] Arlene Wohlgemuth from the House side. I have to provide a little balance." (That deep-rooted political and philosophical battle is far from over; DeLay is attempting to split black and Hispanic Dems from their Anglo colleagues, with thus far small but undeniable success.)

Monday afternoon, the AWOL Democrats (by then nicknamed either the "Killer D's" or -- by Craddick -- the "Chicken D's") issued a manifesto ("Why We Are Here") that defended their unusual strategy.

"We did not choose our path, Tom DeLay did," they wrote. "We are ready to stand on the House floor and work day and night to deal with real issues facing Texas families. At a time when we are told there is no time to deal with school finance, and when we must still resolve issues like the state budget crisis and insurance reform, the fact that an outrageous partisan power grab sits atop the House calendar is unconscionable. ...

"Texas today has more important business than bending to Tom DeLay: like a $10 billion budget shortfall, a school finance [crisis], a troubled economy, insurance abuse, and a looming disaster in health care for children, the elderly, and the disabled. We are ready to work to solve the problems caused by budget cuts in education and health care, not on cutting up the state of Texas to satisfy Tom DeLay's quest for power."

Miracle Bees

In a larger sense, the DeLay redistricting bill was the GOP brick that broke the Democratic camels' backs. Austin Sen. Gonzalo Barrientos recited the cumulative insults: the leadership's refusal to hold field hearings on redistricting; public insults to constituents (e.g. Atascocita Republican Joe Crabb's dismissal of Spanish-speaking Texans as not worth listening to; Tomball Republican Debbie Riddle's description of public health care as an idea from "Moscow, Russia, the pits of hell"); prioritizing funding for "cows over kids" (Gov. Perry's bovine genome project); the overall budget cuts to health and human services and education; and wheelchair protesters arrested by the governor while the press was locked out. "We have been subject to the tyranny of the majority," concluded Barrientos, "and the action of the Democratic House members is a response to that tyranny and a legitimate part of the democratic process."

Sens. Rodney Ellis of Houston, Eliot Shapleigh of El Paso, and Royce West of Dallas returned to those themes at a Monday noon rally, calling their missing colleagues "authentic Texas heroes." "They call us 'obstructionists,'" declared Ellis. "Martin Luther King was called an 'obstructionist' ... and if he's an obstructionist, I damn sure want to be one, too." They were joined by Doggett, whose district will be sliced to ribbons under DeLay's plan, sparking angry opposition from many Austinites facing effective disenfranchisement. Quoting Mark Twain -- "History may not repeat itself, but it sure rhymes a lot" -- Doggett called attention to the mock bee antennae on several heads in the crowd. He recalled the 1979 "Killer Bees," himself among them, who defied Lt. Gov. Bill Hobby and busted a Texas Senate quorum rather than submit to a primary plan designed to benefit turncoat Republican John Connally's presidential bid. "This [the Democratic walkout] is not a prank or a stunt," Doggett declared. "Tom the Knife wants to carve up our state, split and divide our communities, and [the House Dems] will not allow it. ... We need to say to them, 'Thank you for standing up for Texas.'" Citing Robert Heard's book The Miracle of the Killer Bees, Doggett applauded the House Democrats' "rendezvous with destiny" and for insisting that Texans must have a government "truly representative of a population that contains more than good ol' boys."

"Miracles still happen in the state of Texas," concluded Doggett. "And Texans united cannot be divided."

"A Bunch of Schmucks"

Consistently overmatched this session on the House floor, this week the Ardmore Outlaws were certainly winning the public-relations war. Every major Texas daily paper, and most of the minor ones, blamed DeLay, Craddick, and the Republicans for the House shutdown -- only the lonesome Amarillo Globe-News thought the Dems had gone too far. And Craddick looked worse than silly on Monday, when he repeatedly announced to the Republican loyalists that it was a matter of hours before the DPS would have all the wandering Dems returned to the House in irons or that the federal government would soon step in to capture them (now there's a winning Texas platform). Judging from the published reports, the DPS pursuit has been an unsubtle combination of Keystone Kops and imperial task force: Troopers began by demanding of random Mexican-American staff members, "Are you Joe Moreno?" and then were apparently still shadowing members' families long after the fugitives had been located in Ardmore.

Soon Assistant Principal Craddick was reduced to writing "hall passes" to let GOP members circumvent the symbolically locked House doors. Craddick wasn't helped much when Gov. Perry went to the airwaves to declare that the Dems were blocking crucial legislation like "preventing child pornography." (For the record, despite all the GOP fulminations, not a single bill is literally dead this week -- if the House achieves a true consensus to enact something, a two-thirds vote suspends all necessary rules to do so. It's also worth remembering that most of the dying bills, indeed, deserve no better fate.)

Harvey Kronberg's influential (and hardly left-wing) Capitol newsletter the Quorum Report (this week living up literally to its name) described Craddick as the "biggest loser" of the walkout, citing specifically his inability to hold the loyalty or even respect of his Democratic committee chairs and his repeated deference to external political pressure. "Throughout the session, the independence of the House has been surrendered to external agendas," wrote Kronberg. "In HB 4, the independence of the House was surrendered to Texans for Lawsuit Reform. In HB 1 and HB 2, the independence of the House was surrendered to the Governor's office. And in Congressional redistricting, the independence of the House is surrendered to the worst impulses of a Washington political machine."

Indeed, one didn't need to cite either the press or the pundits to come to this conclusion. By Tuesday afternoon, even Republicans were grudgingly acknowledging it. Rural Republicans are privately angry that DeLay's map heavily favors suburban districts at their expense. Craddick loyalist David Swinford, R-Dumas, complained that redistricting wasn't his idea, and he didn't understand why it had suddenly become a priority. The inimitable Pat Haggerty, R-El Paso, told Gary Scharrer of the El Paso Times that the Democrats' walkout strategy is both traditional and explicitly contemplated in the House rules. Haggerty denounced Craddick's knee-jerk lockdown of the House instead of negotiation as "sheer stupidity," adding, "When this goes down in history, [the Democrats] will be heroes, and we'll be a bunch of schmucks."

Way up in Ardmore, the 51 House Heroes reiterated their determination not to return until redistricting is dead, and it looks like they've won at least this singular but significant battle. It promises to be only the opening skirmish in what will be a long, nasty, and uncertain war. Craddick ("Tom DeLay is not my puppetmaster") insists that the triumphalist Republicans' "new agenda" requires congressional redistricting, so the special sessions may become the political equivalent of WWF lockdown cage matches, with the courts inevitably the last resort. On Monday, Laredo Rep. Richard Raymond said he had learned that DeLay was pressuring the U.S. Dept. of Justice to reject Raymond's Voting Rights Act and Civil Rights Act complaint (filed last week), and he announced a formal lawsuit instead. By a long shot, we haven't seen the last of the federal courthouse.

But for the moment, the House Democrats find themselves in the unlikely position of holding the high ground -- from Oklahoma, no less -- and defying those carpet-bagging Washington, D.C., politicians determined to bully their way into the sacred precincts of the Texas Legislature. Meanwhile, House Republicans are receiving "hall passes" from Tom Craddick to take private tours of the Bullock Texas History Museum. Maybe Pat Haggerty can point out to them how many shrines are reserved for heroes and how few for schmucks. end story

For the complete Democratic manifesto, "Why We Are Here," see the sidebar below.

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78th Legislature, Ardmore, Tom DeLay, redistricting, HB 3398, Phil King, Jim Dunnam, Dept. of Public Safety, DPS, Tom Craddick, Mike Krusee, Ron Wilson, Rick Perry, Vilma Luna, Why We Are Here, Gonzalo Barrientos, Rodney Ellis, Lloyd Doggett, Mark Twain, Killer Bees

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