Albuquerque or Bust!

Senate Democrats settle in for a siege along the Rio Grande

Austin state Sen. Gonzalo Barrientos addresses the media in Albuquerque, backed by his Democratic colleagues.
Austin state Sen. Gonzalo Barrientos addresses the media in Albuquerque, backed by his Democratic colleagues. (Photo By Tim McGivern, Albuquerque Alibi)

The Albuquerque Marriott Pyramid North, with its faux-Anasazi architecture and atrium waterfall, is more upscale than the Ardmore Holiday Inn, and the 11 Texas Senate Democrats in New Mexico generally favor business attire over the casual clothes most of the 51 House Democrats adopted during their May sojourn in Oklahoma. Otherwise, the terms of battle are much the same: The Democrats vow to stay away from the Capitol, and out of Texas if necessary, as long as it takes to kill the Republican plan for congressional redistricting. "It's difficult to be certain," said Laredo Sen. Judith Zaffirini Friday afternoon, "but if I had to speculate right now, I believe we'll be here for the full 30 days."

That's how long it will take (until Aug. 26) to prevent a Senate quorum and completely shut down Gov. Rick Perry's second special legislative session, unless Perry agrees to drop redistricting from the agenda or Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst agrees to restore the Senate rule requiring two-thirds of the senators to agree to bring any bill to the floor. The prospects don't exactly look good: On Monday, Dewhurst told the press corps "there is no such thing" as a two-thirds rule, and that it's merely a Senate "tradition" to be honored or disregarded at the will of the lieutenant governor.

Last week, the Democrats were considering filing a federal lawsuit arguing that both the Republican redistricting plan and the changes to procedure designed to grease its path through the Legislature violate the Voting Rights Act and the First Amendment rights of the senators to fully represent their constituents. At press time, the senators were still hanging fire, and in light of the governor's declared intention to call a third special session if redistricting isn't accomplished during this one, they may well wait until September to haul out that additional legal artillery.

It was the abrupt adjournment of the first special session last week, followed by an immediate attempt to convene a second, that sent the Democratic senators -- now calling themselves the "Texas 11," complete with a logo of Texas superimposed on a New Mexican zia -- scurrying to New Mexico on July 28, a day earlier than anyone had anticipated. "We had been meeting with Gov. Dewhurst," said Zaffirini, "and when he left the meeting all the press followed him -- and that's when we were told of the plan to adjourn sine die and then reconvene immediately." (Other sources say that the initial tip-off came from Republican as well as Democratic legislators, which says something about the level of enthusiasm the GOP grunts have for the battle plans of Tom DeLay. Said one source, "The House was leaking like a sieve.")

To avoid being locked in the Senate chamber in order to complete a quorum of 21 senators, the Democrats, led by their caucus Chair Leticia Van de Putte of San Antonio, implemented a contingency plan to rush to the Austin airport and use two private planes to fly to Albuquerque. Until they were in the air, only Van de Putte knew their destination. She says she chose New Mexico because both its Legislature and Gov. Bill Richardson are Democratic, and Albuquerque in particular because of its ready access to health care facilities. Brownsville Sen. Eddie Lucio is recovering from a recent heart attack and was traveling against the advice of his doctor, but told reporters he had made arrangements with Albuquerque physicians to monitor his condition.


Battle of the Airwaves

The first week of the standoff became largely a war of words and dueling press conferences. Although the Democrats left the state because of the threat of literal arrest, the legal situation has been further clouded by the recent ruling of state Dist. Judge Charles Campbell (reaffirmed Monday afternoon) that under Texas law the Dept. of Public Safety (and presumably other peace officers) "lacks legal authority" to enforce legislative rules. The Senate was not a party to the lawsuit, but the decision would likely apply there as well, and the Republican officials are proceeding as though other means would have to be found to return the senators to Texas.

Initially, Dewhurst had referred vaguely to deputizing "off-duty police officers," prompting Richardson to provide New Mexican state troopers as security for the Democrats. The senators -- who are accepting their nominal legislative salaries while out of state ("because we are doing the work of representing our constituents," said Van de Putte) but declining per diem payments -- insisted that any New Mexican government expenses will be reimbursed. "We have been welcomed by the New Mexican officials and the New Mexican people," said Houston Sen. Rodney Ellis, "but we want to make it clear that we don't expect Governor Richardson or the New Mexican government to assume any additional expenses on our behalf."

Later in the week, the fear of arrest had largely been replaced by something less official but potentially more sinister: angry, racist phone calls to some senators' hotel rooms or district offices, denouncing them profanely as "wetbacks" or "niggers" and demanding that they return to Texas. (Zaffirini, who may well set the standard for Most Decorous Legislator, would say only, "They used the 'F' word.") The senators emphasized that the public response to their action has thus far been overwhelmingly positive, but that they had received enough virulent calls or e-mails -- at least some prompted by right-wing radio hosts -- to make them concerned about possible retaliation. "It's not so much the calls themselves that worry you," said a Democratic aide, "but that some nut out there might take it in his head to do something stupid." By the end of the week, the hotel desk was not accepting direct phone calls to the senators' rooms, and police protection was discreetly evident at public events.

At a Friday press conference, a reporter asked about the exhortations from Houston talk-show hosts, and said that at least some of the broadcast callers were referring to the absent senators as "cowards" or "traitors." That question evoked angry responses from several senators, including Austin's Gonzalo Barrientos and McAllen's Juan "Chuy" Hinojosa. Barrientos recalled family members who had fought in the Civil War, World War II, Korea, and Vietnam, "right up to a young cousin who returned a few weeks ago from Baghdad." He concluded, "We are all proud Americans and proud Texans standing here, standing up for what is right." A visibly angry Hinojosa added, "I am very offended at being called a traitor, especially since I fought for my country in Vietnam -- and as a volunteer, not as a draftee."


Child Care and Hostages

The inflammatory rhetoric diminished somewhat on both sides over the course of the week, with Dewhurst backing off arrest threats and the Democrats careful to distinguish the presiding officer of the Senate from his fellow Republicans (Perry, DeLay, and Texas House Speaker Tom Craddick) who are more determined to re-redistrict at whatever cost to the state's political institutions. While the Senate stands officially "at ease," Dewhurst is promulgating what he now calls the "Bullock precedent" (former Lt. Gov. Bob Bullock dropped the Senate two-thirds rule for court-ordered redistricting in 1992). The Democrats respond that the accurate analogy is to 2001, when Waco Republican Sen. David Sibley and his colleagues artfully used the two-thirds rule to kill redistricting precisely because they thought it would get the GOP a better deal. The Lege's own districts were redrawn by an ad hoc board of state officials -- four of them Republican -- and the congressional map was punted to the courts, which ratified Republican-friendly districts that now DeLay and other GOP leaders find unacceptable. The Republicans "are comparing apples and trees," Houston Democrat John Whitmire told Quorum Report.

While Dewhurst was attempting to navigate the high road ("You're not going to see senators brought back in handcuffs as long as I'm lieutenant governor"), Perry gamely played bad cop, accusing the absent Dems of jeopardizing trauma care and Medicaid funding. That's a difficult position for the governor to defend, since in the regular session he had led the assault on such programs; he admits he has no interest now in placing those issues above redistricting on the special session agenda. "That would be like negotiating for hostages," declared Perry, who earlier this year further distinguished his tenure by ejecting the press from the Capitol so that disabled protesters could be arrested away from news cameras. Even Republican Comptroller Carole Strayhorn rejected Perry's plea of financial exigency, saying the governor's office and the Legislative Budget Board already have full authority for any necessary interim spending. Of Perry's sudden commitment to social services, Barrientos pointed to the Democrats' record on those issues and said, "It's just an attempt to deflect the focus from a wasteful power grab. ... For this governor to pretend that he cares about the poor, and we don't, is just outrageous."

Similar salvos were exchanged throughout the week. On Friday, the Democrats sent a formal letter to Dewhurst requesting a return to the two-thirds rule and Senate traditions, and a recognition that "there is nothing 'fair' about a [redistricting] process that has produced plan after plan that disenfranchises more than a million minority voters and discards the choices of Texas voters." On Monday, the lieutenant governor said he hadn't read the letter but his staff had told him about it, "and there's no news there."


New Mexican Days

On the scene in Albuquerque, the senators occupy their days with strategy meetings, long-distance press calls or constituent service, and public occasions designed to highlight their resolve and drum up support locally or back home. Thursday's press conference (11am Albuquerque time, high noon in Texas) was followed by a private lunch with the Albuquerque mayor, a public visit with professors and students at the University of New Mexico Law School, and then another press conference at UNM's nearby political archives.

Friday's press conference featured the letter to Dewhurst, and then a handful of senators drove across town for lunch and an impromptu rally before an enthusiastic meeting of the New Mexican Federation of Labor. Barrientos, Houston's Mario Gallegos, and Ellis took turns exhorting the crowd, but El Paso's Eliot Shapleigh got in the best barb: "During the presidential campaign, George Bush said that if Al Gore was elected, the country would soon be in a war, and the economy would be in the tank. Well, he was right -- Al Gore was elected, we're now in a war, and the economy is in the tank!" The labor activists roared and then followed the senators into the lobby to back-slap and gather photos and autographs from the visiting Democrats. Newly installed Texas AFL-CIO President Emmett Sheppard was on hand, saying he'd brought along some supplies for the Texas senators. "We're happy to help out," said Sheppard, "and this is an occasion to gather some support and also pick up [the senators'] spirits."


Minority Report

Like the Rio Grande through Albuquerque, one major theme runs through every conversation with the Senate Democrats: the threat re-redistricting represents to the rights of minority Texans. "Every map we have seen disenfranchises at least 1.4 million minority citizens," said Zaffirini, referring to the total of those voters in districts now held by targeted incumbent Democrats. Indeed, that number does not begin to account for the millions of minority Texans systematically underrepresented in the Legislature as well as in Congress over many decades; it is hardly a coincidence that every senator, whether Anglo or non-, who represents a majority-minority district has taken refuge in New Mexico. Asked her response to Dewhurst's claim, "That's just Democrat spin," and that all the proposed maps drafted by Palestine Republican Todd Staples increase minority voting strength, Zaffirini responds with a beatific smile. "Who is more likely to know the interests of minority citizens?" she asks. "The lieutenant governor and Todd Staples, or the minority representatives of minority citizens?"

Back in Austin -- where all the remaining senators just happen to be Anglo -- Sen. Troy Fraser, R-Horseshoe Bay, recommended doing away with the two-thirds rule altogether, on every issue. The Democrats were quick to note that such a proposal has arisen at the first historical moment that minority representatives have the votes to determine a quorum. "I sure want to watch Troy Fraser's face in 2010," said Shapleigh, "when he tries to make the motion for a 28-vote rule." Shapleigh noted that Texas will officially become a majority-minority state in 2005 -- just 18 months away -- and described the entire 78th Legislature as mindlessly continuing a long and self-destructive Texas tradition of "disinvestment" in minority communities, especially along the border. "If Texas continues to disinvest [in] minorities," Shapleigh said, "to cut opportunities for a quality education, to eliminate health care for minority children, we will pay for it in the long run." If the current demographic and economic trends continue, he said, "per capita family income will drop over $6,000 annually, due to state disinvestment policies; to me, that is the issue of this and future sessions."

Austin Sen. Barrientos recounted his own "magnificent journey" as a Texan, from the Fifties of "cotton fields and segregated schools and cafes, being paddled for speaking another language in school," to the moment in 1965, after the passage of the Voting Rights Act, when as a young community organizer he could look around and see his countrymen had begun to understand that "everybody mattered."

"Little by little, after Nixon, Reagan, and Bush, I have seen us begin to regress," he continued. "The reason I feel so strongly about these issues that I grew up with ... is because I know that the damage done by [discrimination] can take decades and decades to overcome -- if then -- and that it leaves wounds forever."

"This fight is not about Democrats or Republicans," says Barrientos. "It's about democracy. ... I have been in the House and the Senate for many years, I have seen many changes in my life. ... We have raised our children in Austin, and now our grandchildren are being born. If there is something that I can leave my kids and grandkids, and the people who elected me and all the people of the district, it is to give full battle for what we're fighting for." end story

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KEYWORDS FOR THIS STORY

Albuquerque, Texas 11, Judith Zaffirini, Rick Perry, David Dewhurst, Tom DeLay, Leticia Van de Putte, Bill Richardson, Eddie Lucio, Charles Campbell, Dept. of Public Safety, Rodney Ellis, Gonzalo Barrientos, Juan Hinojosa, Bob Bullock, David Sibley, John Whitmire, Carole Strayhorn, Univ. of New Mexico, New Mexican Federation of Labor

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