Killer D's Come Home, But the Saga Goes On

The Ardmore walkout reverberates at the Capitol.

Several hundred early-rising Austinites turned out on the south steps of the Capitol last Friday at 7am to greet 51 tired but proud House Democrats, standing arm in arm under a homemade banner reading, 'Welcome Home Texas Heroes.' The 51 had returned by bus from Ardmore, Okla., a couple of hours before, with just enough time to shower, change, and get back to the Capitol before roll call -- and the first House quorum since Saturday, May 10. Among the enthusiastic crowd were several wearing bee antennae and even a few in well preserved (though no longer well-fitting) "Killer Bee" T-shirts, dug out of drawers where they had carefully rested since 1979.

"I went to Ardmore, Okla.," began Waco Rep. Jim Dunnam with a smile, "and all I got was this hat from Denny's."

After the laugh, Dunnam grew serious in describing the Dems' purpose in breaking the House quorum Monday morning and remaining absent until the Thursday midnight deadline passed for considering congressional redistricting. "We took this action to defend the principle that government is by the people, for the people -- and not by and for Tom DeLay." Dunnam described his fellow holdouts as no longer just friends and colleagues, but "family" who had weathered "tornados, troopers, and Denny's" together and had bonded accordingly, and declared, "Democracy won in this event."

Alpine's Pete Gallego and Houston's Garnet Coleman followed in the same vein, both making a point of thanking those whose "outpouring of support ... helped us to keep up our morale." "We believed in what we were doing," said Gallego, "but your support convinced us that we were doing the right thing, without question."

After the brief speeches, the reps moved through the crowd thanking and embracing friends and supporters. Most reiterated the mantra-of-the-day -- "now we can focus on homeowners' insurance, school finance, health care, and balancing the budget" -- and Coleman went on to argue that Republican predictions of dire consequences to pending legislation are exaggerated. "Anything we want to do, we can do," Coleman said. "The budget remains on the table, and if they don't want to fix it, it's their fault."

Gallego did confirm, as Speaker Tom Craddick told reporters the day before, that since the 1993 Pete Laney reform of House rules, after the deadline the speaker has never recognized motions to suspend the rules (via a two-thirds vote) in order to consider dead bills, even those supported by consensus. "The only precedent is the Wohlgemuth incident," said Gallego. (During the 1997 session, Arlene Wohlgemuth, R-Burleson, in retribution for the death of an anti-abortion bill, killed 52 bills with a single point of order.) "But that doesn't mean there aren't other vehicles -- for example, amendments to Senate bills -- that can accomplish the same things."

What those accomplishments might be, in the waning days of the session, remains very much to be seen (see "Capitol Chronicle," p.14). But for a few entertaining days, the House Dems had seized the momentum from the GOP majority (or more precisely, thrown their political bodies in front of the Hammer's steamroller) -- and appear to have derailed redistricting, at least for now. "We accomplished what we set out to do," said Austin Rep. Elliott Naishtat. "We have to remain vigilant, but for the speaker or the governor to try to raise redistricting at this point would likely backfire."

But Tom DeLay's aide Jim Ellis, who drafted the map (in a back room at the Capitol) causing all the uproar, thinks otherwise. "I think there are still some other options [for this session]," Ellis said. "The fact that Democrats would go to this type of offensive is clear that they see it the same way we do ... We have the votes in the House, we have the votes in the Senate, the governor would sign the bill, and we would win in court. ... They may have delayed it for a while, but they haven't stopped it. The majority opinion will prevail."

Whatever happens to the maps, there were additional national reverberations -- especially over the fleeting involvement of federal agents in attempting to track down the fleeing Democrats. DeLay had openly called for the involvement of the FBI and U.S. Marshals, and published reports confirmed that the Texas Dept. of Public Safety called the Air and Marine Interdiction and Coordination Center (now part of the U.S. Homeland Security Dept.) in a futile effort to trace Pete Laney's airplane. Texas congressional Democrats demanded an explanation, and Austin Rep. Lloyd Doggett denounced "J. Edgar DeLay" on the U.S. House floor, thundering, "Americans had thought this [Homeland Security] department was to look for terrorists. Perhaps those who attacked these courageous citizen-legislators would treat them as terrorists. This is how tyranny begins."

During the earlier rhetorical salvos, Dallas Republican Dan Branch had indeed referred to the absent Democrats as "legislative terrorists" -- a term rapidly becoming an all-purpose slur for anybody who disagrees with the Bush administration or its multiplying spawn. The rest of us can take some comfort in knowing that neither the Texas DPS nor the rest of the barrel of federal acronyms had much success in finding their prey.

They might have asked Dallas Morning News reporter Pete Slover, who on Monday had already discovered (without official assistance) that the Dems were in Ardmore while Craddick, the DPS, AIMICC, and apparently DeLay's imperial troopers were still running around in bumbling circles, vainly looking for (as New Mexico's attorney general described the missing Dems) "politicians in favor of health care for the needy and against tax cuts for the wealthy."

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