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Sen. Whitmire Surrenders: There's a Word for Crossing a Picket Line, and It Ain't "Solidarity'

By Michael King, September 12, 2003, News

When Houston Democratic Sen. John Whitmire returned to Texas from Albuquerque last week, even longtime labor activists were reluctant to denounce him outright as a "scab" -- a man who abandoned the fight and his colleagues right in the middle of a battle. "Terribly disappointed" was about all his fellow Democrats would allow themselves -- at least at first, when Whitmire initially said he would be "keeping all his options open" should Gov. Rick Perry, as expected, call a third special session of the 78th Legislature to take up congressional re-redistricting. "We're all terribly disappointed," said Austin Sen. Gonzalo Barrientos from Colorado, where he had traveled with El Paso's Eliot Shapleigh for a Denver Democratic rally and fundraiser. "But I haven't given up a month of my life, and that of my family and friends, just to be scuttled by one person. This fight isn't over."

That was before Whitmire held his Capitol press conference last Friday and announced that, should Perry call another session and Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst refuse to reinstate the two-thirds rule, "I intend to fight redistricting on the Senate floor." Since his "fight" would consist of supplying one more warm Democratic body for a foregone Republican conclusion, the senator conceded that the best he could do would be to help establish a legislative record for a subsequent court fight. "I'm not a good Democrat, I'm a great Democrat," Whitmire insisted, "but I can count." Presumably, so can his Republican colleagues, and needing only 16 votes to pass a map, they will hardly find it necessary to placate their Houston turncoat -- let alone the colleagues he left behind -- with concessions.

Whitmire defended his decision for nearly an hour, although he appeared to be trying to convince himself at least as much as his absent colleagues. "The most significant reason for my being here," he argued, "is the two-thirds rule ... that we need for labor issues, the asbestos bill, pro-choice bills, and so many progressive causes." Gov. Perry has admitted that he is lobbying the Senate to abandon the two-thirds rule altogether, to enable a simple Republican majority to rule on every issue.

Whitmire's response to the governor's battle plan? Surrender.

Crossing the Line

"It would be disingenuous to say there is no level of disappointment in Senator Whitmire's decision," was the characteristically diplomatic locution of Alpine Rep. Pete Gallego, who added that the sharpest sting was the unilateral nature of Whitmire's action. "If you're going to act jointly," Gallego said, "you've got to take care of the team." Nor had Whitmire offered a convincing response to the question of why, if he still considers himself one of the "Texas 11," he notified the press of his decision to return to Houston before he'd even talked to his 10 colleagues. "That's a good question," he said. "I told my staff to release it when I got on the plane [to fly to Albuquerque to talk to the others]. ... You've got to understand the psychology of living in a hotel for 30 days. ... You lose the ability to make an independent decision." In other words, he didn't want to give his friends, who had stood together beside him for a month, a chance to change his mind about turning on them.

Among those on hand to hear the senator's explanation were several labor reps, including former Texas AFL-CIO President Joe Gunn, a fellow Houstonian who supported Whitmire from his first campaign for the House, back in 1971. Gunn remained unpersuaded. He said that Whitmire had willfully sacrificed his credibility and would have a very difficult time reclaiming it. Gunn is thoroughly familiar with the ethics of walkouts, and he could not find a diplomatic way to describe what Whitmire had done. "He crossed the picket line is what he did," Gunn said. "His friends were standing there on the line, and he laid his sign down and went back to work. He had a better choice."

Poisoning the Well

All of Whitmire's defenses -- that he's trying to protect the two-thirds rule and Senate civility, that the fight needs to go to the courts, that nationalizing the campaign against Bush is a political mistake -- are at least arguable, but they all collapse before his unilateral refusal to face his fellow exiles and hash his position out directly. He insists that at least four of his colleagues privately supported his action, and after repeated inquiries, he finally told the Houston Chronicle that fellow Houstonian Rodney Ellis is one of the four. Ellis says Whitmire is lying and that "there's a pattern to his lying" -- the presumed implication being that, for whatever reasons, Whitmire has thrown his lot in with the Republicans and that he's intentionally undermining the Democratic cause. Those hardly sound like the words of a secret co-conspirator.

There is no sure way of knowing who's telling the truth, but Whitmire's version strains credulity. He would have us believe that five of the original 11 Democratic exiles now wish to abandon the fight but are effectively being held hostage by six of their colleagues. Must be one hell of a swing voter.

"He's trusting people that have proven they cannot be trusted," said Ardmore veteran and Houston Rep. Garnet Coleman of Whitmire's move toward the Republicans, "and he made that calculated decision purely on his own, and then he played it to the press. ... If I'm going to lose a war, it's not going to be because we inflicted a wound on ourselves or because we took ourselves out the battle. We need to go down fighting."

"He made a unilateral decision," Coleman continued, "and now he's attempting to go out and poison the well. I don't understand [Whitmire's decision], and I hope I'm proven to be stupid. But I reserve the right to be completely disillusioned with him."

Coleman's remarks were in the immediate aftermath of Whitmire's return and shortly before the senator had declared, without additional prompting, that he would return to the floor should the governor summon him. The would-be "fighter" has surrendered all his weapons in advance.

I can't speak for Rep. Coleman, but regarding John Whitmire, there would seem to be precious few illusions remaining. end story

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