Capitol Chronicle

'Unalterably Opposed': Sen. Ratliff Plus 10 Throw a Major Monkey Wrench Into the Re-Redistricting Gears

Now things have begun to get interesting.

On Monday morning, the Senate Jurisprudence Committee, charged with congressional redistricting, convened and abruptly adjourned, after Chairman Robert Duncan, R-Lubbock, announced no draft Senate maps would be available until at least later that day. On Monday afternoon, the Senate convened and abruptly adjourned -- just after Duncan had announced that no maps would be available until at least 9am Tuesday morning (they weren't). A couple of hours later, Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst held a press conference, and, in response to reporters' questions, he said he would be meeting a little later with Sen. Bill Ratliff, R-Mount Pleasant, to address Ratliff's "serious concerns" about redistricting.

Ten minutes later, Ratliff held his own press conference and told reporters that Dewhurst's powers of persuasion had been short-circuited. "I have advised Lieutenant Governor David Dewhurst," he announced, "that I am in possession of a statement signed by 10 senators stating their unalterable opposition to any motion to bring redistricting to the Senate floor. I have advised the lieutenant governor that I am adding my name to the statement."

In the Senate, 11 times no means no.

Dewhurst had acknowledged that he had heard of such a letter, although he claimed he hadn't seen it. Perhaps not quite yet, but it was addressed to him, and its substance, as delivered by Ratliff, was brief and to the point. "This is to advise you that the undersigned members of the Texas Senate are unalterably opposed to the Senate's consideration of a congressional redistricting bill during the 78th Legislature. We will oppose any motion to bring such a redistricting bill to the Senate floor for debate."

The letter was signed by 10 Senate Democrats -- all but Frank Madla of San Antonio and Ken Armbrister of Victoria, both of whom have said they remain undecided.

Now they won't have to decide. If Ratliff's rejection holds -- and unlike several of his fellows, Ratliff has always been a man of his word -- the high-speed redistricting train should come to a full stop, right here. In Dewhurst's words, "We may conclude there is no further step involved in this special session," adding that he would still consider "all of our options."

Keeping Texas Weird

So we are not (as of Wednesday afternoon) at endgame just yet. Under the Senate's longstanding "two-thirds rule," 21 of the 31 senators must agree to bring a bill to the floor, so in principle the 11 naysayers had put an end to redistricting. But Ratliff was careful to note that in principle the lieutenant governor himself has the parliamentary ability to overturn the two-thirds rule -- dependent upon on a procedural "blocker bill" for its effectiveness -- or Gov. Perry could call yet another special session with only a single item. But the political risks of such ruthless moves -- in face of statewide, bipartisan, and growing public opposition to redistricting -- are considerable. Speaking only of the potential damage a Dewhurst-forced rule change would do to the Senate, Ratliff warned, "I sincerely hope that he doesn't make that mistake. It would be a serious mistake, maybe the most serious mistake he could make." While the Senate might be divided on the question of redistricting, Ratliff said the "vast majority" would oppose any change in the two-thirds rule and called it "the reason that the Texas Legislature has been known for decades as being a place where the two parties can work together."

Austin Sen. Gonzalo Barrientos said that absent another session a rule change would itself require a two-thirds vote, presuming Perry decides to call another special session solely for redistricting. "But that would mean breaking decades ... of tradition," Barrientos said, "and would be just awful for our state. But this year has been a weird year," he continued. "If that happens, it would surprise me greatly, but it wouldn't shock me."

"What follows depends on how the folks in Washington want to act," concluded Barrientos. "DeLay or Bush, and what style they want to use." Senate Democratic Caucus Chair Sen. Leticia Van de Putte, referring to the governor's threat of another session, said, "I truly hope he doesn't do that, but it means we're considering all our options, too."

Unmentioned but implicit in the 11 senators' refusal to consider any map is their conviction that once the process should move to conference committee, the House Republicans, Gov. Perry, and the carpetbagging minions of Tom DeLay would control the process, ram through another version of the House map, and the Senate would be powerless to stop it. "The maps produced so far," said Ratliff of the efforts of his House colleagues, "have indicated a total lack of concern for the communities of interest in rural Texas."

Hero and Schmucks

Ratliff said he felt obliged, as the senior Republican senator, to take a stand on behalf of colleagues (reportedly, at least five more Republicans) who oppose redistricting but can not afford politically to declare themselves. He objects to all the proposed maps, he said, but also to "the vitriolic battle" that has polarized his colleagues, all for the "marginal prospect" of additional Republican congressional seats.

"I don't believe that even a good product of this process justifies the pain, the blood, the sweat, the tears that are going to be necessary in the Senate to get there," Ratliff continued. "And I think that there are many members of the Senate that will have to fall on a sword in order to do it and will suffer for it from their own constituents. And I don't see any reason to do that because the gain doesn't justify it."

Ratliff is indeed the only Republican senator with sufficient independence from the new Republican steamroller to take such a stand, and it appears there is little they can do to threaten him. He gave up the office Dewhurst now holds because he didn't care to stoop to the money primary that would determine the race for it; and the voters in his far Northeast Texas Dist. 1 would almost certainly continue to elect him even if the GOP leadership turns on him. On the other hand, if they succeed at what they are trying to do to the Senate that he cherishes, he might not care to return.

Ratliff also has no reason to trust assurances from those now running the shop. On the Legislative Redistricting Board in 2001, Dewhurst, Comptroller Carole Keeton Rylander, and Attorney General John Cornyn went out of their way to bust up rural East Texas House districts, directly over Ratliff's objections. He has listened to the Republican leadership repeatedly claim the Democrats sabotaged congressional redistricting in 2001, when everyone there saw then-Sen. David Sibley and the right-wing caucus ramrod the process to the federal courts, where the GOP hoped to get a better deal. What they got wasn't good enough -- so here we are again.

When the House Democrats left for Oklahoma, El Paso Republican Rep. Pat Haggerty grumbled at Speaker Tom Craddick's hamfisted tactics and complained, "When this goes down in history, [the Democrats] will be the heroes, and we'll be a bunch of schmucks." If DeLay, Perry, and Dewhurst force the issue, Texans may well be judging how the Senate should be sorted on those lists. end story

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redistricting, 78th Legislature, Senate Jurisprudence Committee, Robert Duncan, David Dewhurst, Bill Ratliff, Frank Madla, Ken Armbrister, Gonzalo Barrientos, Tom DeLay, Legislative Redistricting Board, Carole Keeton Rylander

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