Capitol Chronicle

Don't go away mad ... the curtain falls on the Lege that wouldn't leave

My father was a carpenter, and he liked to refer to his hammer as the "Persuader." When a couple of recalcitrant pieces of wood refused to fit as intended, the Persuader would be called into action and the wood would do as it was told.

So it was at the Capitol last week; when push came inevitably to shove, the Republicans called in their own Persuader in the person of U.S. House Majority Leader Tom DeLay. After a week's hammering by the Bug Man, that handful of Republicans who were allowed to have even a small say in the shape of the state's congressional districts finally capitulated, and a deal was done. Reportedly, Sen. Robert Duncan, R-Lubbock, who had stubbornly defended his home District 19 for weeks from the encroachment of House Speaker Tom Craddick, R-Midland, was told he had better accept the best deal he could get -- pairing GOP freshman Randy Neugebauer with veteran Dem Charles Stenholm in a new District 19 drawn in wan hope of defeating the latter. And that was that.

Welcome to Texas citizenship, Sen. Duncan. Join the crowd.

Significantly, Duncan did not appear at the press conference called by Gov. Rick Perry, Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst, and Craddick to announce the joyous occasion. He was certainly welcome, said Perry: "It's an open press conference." Dewhurst assured reporters that "Sen. Duncan supports the new map." Craddick, the Midland cat who swallowed the Lubbock canary, didn't mention the dispute at all.

Perhaps Duncan was still dressing his own wounds and understandably didn't care to join in the general merriment. The Legislature was instead represented by Palestine Sen. Todd Staples and Weatherford Rep. Phil King, who have distinguished themselves this year primarily by their willingness to follow orders.

Nor, of course, was Tom DeLay anywhere in visible evidence, although Dewhurst thanked him for bringing the parties together. No one doubts that the Hammer is a good persuader.

The Napoleon of Crime

Like T.S. Eliot's Macavity, DeLay is a mystery cat: "You may meet him in a bystreet, you may see him in the square,/But when a crime's discovered then Macavity's not there!" DeLay's stealth politics were assisted considerably by the complete secrecy of the conference committee deliberations -- if they had to submit their handiwork to public view, at least the PR nightmare might give them pause. As we contemplate the wreckage surrounding the last 10 months of Texas politics -- the devastation wreaked upon the congressional districts is only the most visible result -- it's useful to recall how we came to this pass.

DeLay began demanding re-redistricting before the regular session began, but with a $10 billion official deficit, the state GOP leadership was initially reluctant to blow up the Lege over DeLay's partisan D.C. project. Dewhurst explicitly rejected redistricting as akin to "contagious flu," and even Craddick thought so little of the idea that he warehoused Atascocita's Joe Crabb as chair of the House Redistricting Committee, on the evident presumption that the querulous Crabb would never have to negotiate that partisan minefield.

But Tom DeLay is not to be deterred by small matters like his home state's legislative priorities, and late in the session it became clear to the Lege, as it has been to the U.S. House, that what DeLay wants, DeLay gets. It's also worth remembering that 2 dozen new House members and a handful of incumbents effectively owe their seats to DeLay's political action committee, Texans for a Republican Majority; the shadows of TRM and the Texas Association of Business loom like a pair of vampires over every vote.

Only a session ago, B.C. (Before Craddick), crucial debates on the House floor held an undeniable drama, since the outcome was often uncertain. No more. So it was on redistricting -- it was common knowledge that enough Republicans objected to threaten the entire project, but only a handful dared defy the speaker of the Texas House, let alone the man who would be speaker of the U.S. House.

The Future's So Bright --

It was a listless bunch of Republicans who claimed victory last week, having finally, after 10 months, dragged the rotting corpse of re-redistricting over the finish line. On Sunday, at what could have been their celebratory moment, the Senate GOP Caucus was reduced to private wrestling over whether to lift the "probation" imposed earlier on the misbehaving Democrats. Reportedly over the objections of Dewhurst, hotter heads prevailed, and the Democrats will wear their scarlet "P" until 2005.

But Dewhurst himself had set the tone, refusing to even bring redistricting to its final vote until Craddick's House had proved itself "trustworthy" by passing the oft-delayed government reorganization plan (now HB 7). The Senate had rewritten HB 7 with the purely political intention of punishing maverick Republican Comptroller Carole Keeton Strayhorn by stripping her office of much of its power. Dewhurst needn't have worried -- despite strenuous floor speeches, even from a couple of Republicans, when the House gavel came down on HB 7 the troops voted as directed: 79 to 35, after most of the opposition had long since departed in disgust. Dewhurst had his scalp, and Strayhorn's staffers -- now to be delivered as hostages to the Legislative Budget Board -- should begin looking over their shoulders forthwith.

It was an ignominious close to a dispiriting session; about the best that can be said is that they'll all go home for a few weeks and leave us alone. House Republicans were anticipating a spring school-finance session -- "when we can fix anything we got wrong in government reorg" -- although in the absence of any serious consensus for new money, another special session would be worse than foolhardy.

But that was said repeatedly, alas, about re-redistricting as well, and not only in this space -- with no visible effect on those now in charge of the state, the country, and our fortunes. end story

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Redistricting, Tom DeLay, congressional redistricting, Robert Duncan, Randy Neugebauer, Charles Stenholm, Rick Perry, David Dewhurst, Tom Craddick, Todd Staples, Phil King, Joe Crabb, Texans for a Republican Majority, Carole Keeton Strayhorn

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