Capitol Chronicle

Welcome Home: Senate Democrats return to fines, dead microphones, traffic barrels ... and cheers

Texas Democratic senators (minus Houston's John Whitmire) pray in the Capitol rotunda Monday surrounded by supporters.
Texas Democratic senators (minus Houston's John Whitmire) pray in the Capitol rotunda Monday surrounded by supporters. (Photo By Jana Birchum)

"The rules of the Senate prohibit demonstrations. ..."

Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst, pounding the gavel, repeated that declaration a couple of times, then gave it up, as the packed gallery continued booing for several minutes, then began chanting, "Throw the bums out!" A few moments later, nine Senate Democrats, hand in hand, entered the back door amid a swarm of reporters, and the gallery erupted with deafening cheers that continued for several minutes while the senators stood together, clasped hands raised above their heads. The sergeant at arms had no better luck than the lieutenant governor at clearing the floor of reporters or calming the crowd.

That was the rousing scene in the Senate Monday afternoon, following an extremely abbreviated opening meeting in the third-called special session of the Texas Legislature -- quick-gaveled by Dewhurst in a backfired attempt to foil the Democrats' plan to deliver personal privilege speeches. The Senate met only long enough to refer to committee a handful of proposed bills, including congressional redistricting, and then -- on a motion of John Whitmire, D-Houston -- adjourned for the day. A few minutes earlier, Whitmire had stridden onto the floor alone but to eager greetings from several of his Republican colleagues, who by the look of things did not raise the small matter of his $57,000 in fines past due.

The crowd was not as readily forgiving but stopped yelling "Quitmire, Go Home!" when shushed by San Antonio Democrat Leticia Van de Putte. When they quieted, she began with, "Thank you, Texas!" -- and set off another roar. "It has been six weeks," Van de Putte continued, "since Senate Democrats took a stand based on principle, based on voters rights, based on our belief that only in the rule of law can there be true liberty."

Van de Putte introduced all her colleagues in turn (all but Houston's Rodney Ellis, reportedly delayed out of town), and the returning exiles rang the changes on continuing the fight, defending disenfranchised Texans, battling for liberty, rural Texas, and minorities, the responsibilities of the press, and even gratitude to Tom DeLay and Karl Rove. "They did what we could not do on our own," said Royce West, D-Dallas. "They united this party and these people as we have never been united before!" The citations ran from Oliver Wendell Holmes to Emiliano Zapata, and the crowd poured down approbation on its returning heroes.

Block That Parking Space

The high emotion of the moment, it seemed, was more than even the Democratic Party faithful had anticipated, and it finally moved the annoyed Republican senators still lingering in the lobby to cut off the Democrats' microphone. San Antonio's Frank Madla was in midsentence when the mic went out, and after some confusion (and more denunciations from the gallery), he and Laredo's Judith Zaffirini had to conclude unamplified. Although the immediate evidence was against her -- former Texas 11th Whitmire stood off to one side, simultaneously in and out of the celebration -- Zaffirini declared, "We stand united; we are stronger than before."

All of the Dems insisted that they remain in this fight "to win" -- last week's loss in federal court was just "one more step in the process," said West -- and then marched off to pray in the rotunda. A few moments later, the Republicans held forth in the lieutenant governor's press room, where Dewhurst did his best to make light of the impromptu Democratic fiesta, although insisting that "the Senate floor is not the place to have a political rally." Pressed by reporters, Arlington's Chris Harris (as chair of the committee on administration) finally took responsibility for turning off the microphone, "because [the Democrats] were not following Senate rules."

Harris may well have been covering for San Antonio's Jeff Wentworth, who had stomped off the Senate floor in high dudgeon just a few seconds before the mic went dead and who was lecturing every reporter within earshot about "Senate traditions" blah blah blah and the "Democrats' disrespectful behavior" blah blah blah ... one wag suggested that Wentworth appears to believe that if he's a dutiful enough hall monitor, his Republican colleagues will allow him to clap-clean the erasers on the next series of redistricting maps.

For his part, Dewhurst reported that the GOP caucus had discussed the lingering sanctions against the Dems and he broadly hinted that he expected the Senate to "leave them behind us" -- presumably, they have little choice, since they've already let Whitmire back into the blessed fold without garnishing his bank account. Tuesday morning they had heavy traffic barrels placed in the Democrats' parking spaces; if that doesn't bring them to heel, maybe they can install parking meters on the Dems' chairs.

The Road Map

On a more serious note, a map will presumably escape the Jurisprudence Committee some time this week, with a couple under committee consideration already. Palestine's Todd Staples, without apparent irony, promised a "fair and balanced" map. Dewhurst added that there would be no "blocker bill" (enabling Democratic use of the two-thirds rule) for redistricting or "redistricting-related" bills. Most likely that means moving back the filing deadlines and the March primary, if necessary, to enable the Republicans to accomplish their 2004 reversal of the 2002 election -- the Texas presidential primary be damned.

On the House side, matters moved even more briskly, as the Calendars Committee magically set the House redistricting bill (HB 3, an instant replay of the twice-adopted Phil King map) for House consideration before it had even been referred to the Redistricting Committee itself, moving one reporter to comment, "Now that's efficiency in government." The House Democrats were less amused, noting that three special sessions plus the projected legal fight plus the delayed elections will cost approximately $20 million, or "health insurance for 19,600 children."

Asked if the Dems planned a response, Houston Rep. Rick Noriega said, "There is no silver bullet, and this is a day by day process. ... We will do whatever it takes, and we will continue to prevail." end story

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David Dewhurst, 78th Legislature, John Whitmire, Leticia Van de Putte, Royce West, Frank Madla, Judith Zaffirini, Chris Harris, Rick Noriega

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