On The Lege

The Low Road Taken

State Sen. Jeff Wentworth has emerged as an unlikely redistricting hawk.
State Sen. Jeff Wentworth has emerged as an unlikely redistricting hawk. (Photo By Jana Birchum)

The battle over congressional re-redistricting hit a new level of pettiness and absurdity on Aug. 15, as the rump Senate attempted to tighten the screws on the Albuquerque 11 by adding sanctions to the daily personal fines imposed a few days earlier. This time, on a motion of Jane Nelson, R-Lewisville, 18 of the 19 Republican members endorsed what were described as the absent Democratic senators' "perks" -- cell phones, travel allowances, supply purchases, mail service, subscriptions, staff passes to the Senate floor, and parking spots. The additional penalties appeared to reflect frustration as much as any serious attempt at legislative discipline; several Republican members complained that they had been forced into this awkward position by their absent colleagues. "This is sad," said Bryan's Steve Ogden. "There's not a single person here who wants to do this." Indeed, the 30-minute nonsession of the "at-ease" Senate often sounded like a gathering of disappointed parents complaining to the Democrats' empty chairs, "This hurts us more than it does you."

Actually, as several Republicans also half-acknowledged, the new penalties will hurt the absent Dems' staff and constituents more than the senators themselves. An apparently embarrassed Chris Harris, R-Arlington, asked Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst to clarify whether staffs work for individual senators or the Senate as a whole, and Dewhurst responded that they work for the entire Senate -- but that information had no visible effect on the discussion. Cutting off supplies and limiting mail (senators will be allowed to "purchase" up to $200 in stamps, but the Lege post office will no longer pick up or deliver mail) will make constituent service more difficult, but hardly promises to force the return of the absentees by sine die (Aug. 26) any more than the unenforceable fines, which will mount to $57,000 each by the end of this stillborn second special session. To the fines -- which the Dems have called a "poll tax" imposed on minority senators by their Anglo colleagues -- Democratic Caucus Chair Leticia Van de Putte of San Antonio responded, "Ironically, this is the identical amount that Rick Perry's special sessions on redistricting are costing taxpayers per day. Here's an idea -- call off these redistricting sessions, we'll forget about the fines, and we'll call it even."

The silliest penalty is the removal of Capitol parking privileges, unlikely to have much effect on senators currently resident in an Albuquerque hotel. But the parking ban is also extended to staff members, because -- as San Antonio's Jeff Wentworth sternly pointed out -- the rump Senate doesn't want the sneaky Democrats to be able to return to Austin and use the staff spaces in place of their own. (The senators' exchange on the niceties of designated parking spaces was particularly edifying.) The net effect is to cut staffers' pay by $35 to $40 a week. "It's a sad day for Texas," said Beth Bryant, aide to Sen. Judith Zaffirini of Laredo, "when the Texas Senate attempts to punish staff members for the actions of their senators." In theory, should the senators eventually return to Austin (the Republicans reasoned) the parking spaces can be held hostage against the payment of the fines. That process should make for even more illuminating debate on the Senate floor.

Such was the august business of the Aug. 15 nonsession of the Texas Senate. Still looming is the threat of laying off staffers altogether, ominously suggested by reference to "further penalties" if the prodigal Democrats do not bow their heads and come home. It's not at all clear, of course, that the 19 Republicans, absent a quorum of 21, have the authority to do much of anything at all. And there weren't even really 19; the votes on the floor didn't even amount to an actual majority of 16. Three Republicans thought penalizing absent senators of such importance that they didn't bother to show up -- mailing in their support for the sanctions instead. Bill Ratliff, the mensch of Mount Pleasant, was also not at the meeting, having publicly washed his hands of the whole business earlier in the week when the fines were imposed (like this day, by voice vote, with Victoria Democrat Ken Armbrister voting no). Rumor had it that Ratliff wished to be recorded voting "No" on the sanctions, but the Senate journal clerk said she hadn't been contacted and Ratliff's office issued only a terse statement: "I choose not to be a party to this." Perhaps it had occurred to Ratliff, if to none of his colleagues, that a vote without a quorum is no vote at all.

In his absence, the chamber was thoroughly awash in sanctimony, as several Republicans insisted that the issue is not "redistricting," but health care and public education and transportation and trauma care and asbestos (yes, asbestos) ... and whatever. Particularly adamant was Wentworth, who insisted that the fight is in fact over whether "a minority is going to control the way we do business around here" and fumed that the Republicans are not about to "raise the white flag of surrender" to their Democratic colleagues. He cited previous instances when Democratic lieutenant governors Ben Barnes, Bill Hobby, and Bob Bullock each abandoned the two-thirds rule in special sessions called (under court order) to consider redistricting, though he neglected to note that in each of those cases, there weren't enough dissidents to break a quorum and the two-thirds rule never became an issue.

Significantly, Wentworth acknowledged that the R's are losing the public-relations war. He complained, "Texans believe we are trying to change the rules in the middle of the game." Considering that only two years ago, a GOP minority led by Waco's David Sibley deadlocked the Senate over redistricting by using the two-thirds rule -- and kept their parking privileges -- the conclusion that Wentworth rightly believes has been drawn by most Texans looks fairly close to the mark.

The sudden prominent role of Wentworth in this censure is itself puzzling. Only two weeks ago he was standing alongside Linda Curtis of the nonpartisan Independent Texans, promoting his perennial plan for a bipartisan redistricting commission. A week ago he told the Chronicle that support for that idea is growing because of the current deadlock, and Houston Democratic Rep. Scott Hochberg announced a similar bill (HB 49) last week. (Any bipartisan commission would not take effect before 2011, so at the moment this is all good-government grandstanding.) Yet here was Wentworth, strenuously beating the drums for increased penalties on his Democratic colleagues.

Moreover, following Friday's sanction vote, Dewhurst told reporters that the new penalties would take effect on Tuesday. A couple of hours later, Wentworth personally informed Senate Secretary Patsy Spaw that in fact they would take effect immediately, and reportedly on his orders she began suspending already-paid newspaper subscriptions and the afternoon mail soon languished in the offices of Senate Democrats. Wentworth says that Dewhurst had misunderstood a comment made at the post-session press conference and that in speaking to Spaw he was merely correcting that misunderstanding. "The penalties were always intended to take effect immediately," Wentworth said. "That was Senator Nelson's motion. We told Carleton [Sgt.-at-Arms Carleton Turner] not to tow anybody's car before five o'clock, but the penalties began immediately."

So much for Sen. Bipartisan. Perhaps Wentworth hears the Headless Horseman -- otherwise known as his deep-pocketed primary opponent John Shields -- bearing down on him in the dark from the right. He says, "I don't even run again until 2006, so that's not a factor." Or perhaps he truly believes that the argument is over whether "any 11 members can control the way we do business in this Senate." Alas, that is precisely the state of affairs under standard Senate procedures, when the two-thirds rule remains in place.

In one particularly tone-deaf moment, Sen. Craig Estes of Wichita Falls quoted Abraham Lincoln's second inaugural address, delivered in 1865 when the country was steeped in the blood of the Civil War. "With malice toward none, with charity for all," Estes began, and continued, "with God's help we will heal the wounds of this chamber." Earlier this year the Legislature mandated a "moment of silence" for all Texas schoolchildren. Perhaps in the next real session, it can issue a ban on any quotation of Lincoln employed in the defense of the white suburban vote and the return of the Old Dominion.

To point out the obvious -- that all the minority senators or those who represent majority-minority districts are in New Mexico, that all the Republicans are Anglos, and that at bottom this battle is over the civil rights and voting rights of minority Texans -- is simply to "play the race card," said Greenville's Bob Deuell. From Albuquerque, Zaffirini countered, "It is very clear. All of the Anglos who are representing Anglo districts are in Austin taking unprecedented illegal, immoral actions against all of us who are either minorities or representing minorities."

Choose your own augury -- but it is a cinch that Texas will continue to look very different from the barrios of Laredo than it does from Deuell's District 2 office in Mesquite. Dr. Deuell is apparently a man used to getting his phone calls returned -- Friday he cited U.S. House Majority Leader Tom DeLay's failure to return his calls as de facto evidence that DeLay is not behind the GOP push for redistricting. It did not seem to occur to Sen. Deuell that when the House majority leader has a governor, a speaker of the House, and a lieutenant governor eagerly asking, "How high?" he hardly needs a freshman senator from Greenville to do any jumping.

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