Matt's Blog
...religion, politics, and other things you should never discuss at bars (but probably do anyways).
Tuesday, May 13, 2003

Perhaps my favorite political story of the year... "Don't mess with Texas (congressional districts)."

GOP Plan Prompts A Texas Exodus

AUSTIN, May 12 -- Moving with exceptional stealth and tactical coordination, more than 50 Democratic state lawmakers in Texas packed their bags and quietly slipped out of the state under cover of darkness late Sunday and early today.

Republican Gov. Rick Perry immediately dispatched police to track down the missing legislators, arrest them and bring them back to do the state's business -- even asking neighboring New Mexico if the Texas Rangers were empowered to make arrests there. (New Mexico's attorney general -- a Democrat -- said no.) But all signs were that the legislators were on the lam -- some, perhaps, fleeing to Mexico -- putting them beyond the reach of Lone Star justice and of GOP ambitions.

The walkout deprived the 150-seat Texas House of a quorum and effectively shut down its legislative work just as lawmakers were preparing to vote on a contentious Republican plan orchestrated by U.S. House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (Tex.) designed to add five to seven seats to the 15 the GOP controls in the state's 32-member congressional delegation.

Even as they abruptly doomed dozens of major bills pending in the Republican-led legislature, the Democrats defended the absences as a principled move forced on them by a tyrannical new Republican majority.

The Republican redistricting plan is "a power grab by Tom DeLay, pure and simple," 53 of the 59 missing Democrats said in a statement released this morning, as news of their absence consumed the Capitol and spread through the state. "We won't be present today -- or any day -- that the House plans to consider this outrageous partisan action."

The missing Democrats requested of the House parliamentarian, "Please lock my voting machine until I physically return to the House floor."

Republicans publicly derided their foes for running away from a fight -- a very serious accusation in Texas. The "Democrats' actions are by no means heroic; they are the very definition of cowardice," Susan Weddington, the state's Republican Party chairman, said in a statement. "There is nothing principled about deserting your post and betraying the people of Texas."

No group of Texas lawmakers had attempted anything so audacious in 24 years, and even in the raucous political climate of the nation's second most populous state, the walkout by 59 of the 62 House Democrats caught almost everyone by surprise.

This morning, a wildly partisan atmosphere seized the state Capitol -- a handsome domed building, topped by a statue of the Goddess of Liberty, that stands slightly taller than the U.S. Capitol. Aides to Democratic legislators said they suspected their phones had been tapped to track down their bosses, on orders of the Republican leadership. Meanwhile, state troopers in broad-brimmed hats roamed the halls, quizzing press officers and legislative assistants as to the lawmakers' whereabouts.

Although the immediate cause for the Democratic protest was the redistricting plan, the walkout was the culmination of what has been an extraordinarily venomous session of the Texas legislature -- and a milestone in a tectonic political shift in the state.

Republicans, who in January took control of both houses of the state legislature for the first time in 130 years, have used their new majority to push through a conservative legislative agenda using tactics Democrats regard as heavy-handed to the point of brutishness. On tort reform, school financing, home insurance and other issues, the GOP has pursued its agenda aggressively, refusing Democratic input in a state that has been run with a certain degree of bipartisanship in recent years.

A target of the Democrats' discontent has been new Republican House Speaker Tom Craddick. The longtime lawmaker has pushed for items on the GOP agenda with little regard for the Democrats' sensitivities. Congressional redistricting was the most contentious of those issues, and the final straw for many Democrats. "I'm not concerned if [redistricting] splits the House up," Craddick told the El Paso Times last week. "To be blunt, on the Republican side, the leadership has changed and so has the agenda."

He added that the redistricting bill would go to the floor, where "the fight will be loud, and the Republicans will win." The bill would carve up a number of congressional districts held by Democrats, in some cases creating bizarrely shaped boundaries connecting seemingly unrelated parts of the sprawling state, and slicing up neighborhoods. For instance, in Austin, a city of 678,000 and one of a dwindling number of Democratic enclaves in the state, a single downtown street would be divided into four congressional districts, one of them tortuously connected with the Mexican border about 300 miles away.

Legal scholars say it's unclear how the courts would rule on the GOP redistricting effort should it pass. Redistricting usually is only done immediately after a census each decade and Texas's latest plan was completed two years ago.

The Democrats' walkout was timed to derail what they viewed as the Republican juggernaut. Democrats said they would be gone through Thursday, the deadline for passing bills and sending them to the Senate.

The legislative session is scheduled to last three more weeks. Republicans suggested today that they might call a special session for the summer to revive redistricting and other critical legislation undone by the walkout. Defiant Democrats said that if that happened, they would simply slip away again.

Today Craddick ordered that the House chamber be locked down so that no members could leave, although arriving members could enter. Only three of the 62 House Democrats had showed up by midday, and on the House floor more than half the desks were unoccupied. The mostly Republican lawmakers on the floor milled about aimlessly.

Rumors of a possible Democratic walkout began to circulate around the Capitol late Friday. According to the San Antonio Express-News, which first caught wind of the walkout, the Democrats initially planned to hide out near Austin, but then feared they would be caught. The revised plan called for members to be picked up by a "team leader" at various locations around the state. Some would then leave the state by airplane and others by bus, heading for Oklahoma and New Mexico.

Today, New Mexico Attorney General Patricia Madrid said lawyers for Perry asked her if Texas Rangers might be allowed to make arrests in New Mexico. Madrid, a Democrat, said no. "Nonetheless," she added in a statement, "I have put out an all-points bulletin for law enforcement to be on the lookout for politicians in favor of health care for the needy and against tax cuts for the wealthy."

God writes a lot of comedy...
the trouble is,
he's stuck with so
many bad actors
who don't know how
to play funny.

-Garrison Keillor


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