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Call It the Loon Star State

August 24, 2003|Ruben Navarrette Jr. | Ruben Navarrette Jr. is a member of the Dallas Morning News editorial board, a regular commentator on National Public Radio and a nationally syndicated columnist with the Washington Post Writers Group.

DALLAS — The California recall election threatens to give Texans something of an inferiority complex. Compared with what is happening on the West Coast, democracy as practiced in the Lone Star State now seems downright boring.

That's no small accomplishment. A few months ago, Texas took the prize for wacky political stunts and eccentric politicians. It started when Republicans in the state Legislature sought to reopen the redistricting process with the aim of increasing the party's presence in the Texas congressional delegation. It wasn't fair, insisted the lawmakers, that a state in which 60% of the votes cast in congressional elections were Republican should have a delegation with more Democrats (17) than Republicans (15).

House Democrats responded by scurrying off to a Holiday Inn in Ardmore, Okla. Despite Republican taunts of "running from a fight," the tactic worked. The Legislature lacked a quorum, so the GOP's maneuvering came to a halt.

Now the Republicans are back at it in a special session called by Republican Gov. Rick Perry. This time, it is Senate Democrats who are seeking refuge in another state. Since July 28, 11 Democratic senators have holed up in a hotel in Albuquerque.

The seemingly bizarre happenings in Texas and California have gotten the attention of former President Clinton, who, according to one of his aides, has been "connecting the dots." The events may be related, said the aide, and Clinton thinks they represent a GOP-led movement to override the democratic process. California Gov. Gray Davis picked up the theme in an address last week. "What's happening [in California]," he said, "is part of an ongoing national effort to steal elections that Republicans cannot win."

I'll give the conspiracy theorists this much. In Texas, there seems to be something sinister coming from the direction of House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Texas), whose fingerprints are all over the GOP power grab here. According to a recently released report from the Justice Department's Office of the Inspector General, DeLay's office was much more involved in efforts to track down the runaway House Democrats than previously known or acknowledged. According to the report, at the height of the initial standoff, DeLay's office pressed the Justice Department to determine whether federal officials had the authority to join the search for the Democrats.

Thankfully, at least one senior department official had the good sense to dismiss the idea of federal intervention in a state-based political issue as "wacko." Too bad that good sense is sometimes in short supply in politics. The inspector general uncovered nine different instances in which Justice Department officials, including FBI agents, were asked by aides in DeLay's office for information or other assistance in locating the missing legislators. In one case, the report said, an FBI agent stationed in Texas assisted state officials in determining the whereabouts of two legislators. That showed poor judgment on the part of the agent, investigators said.

None of this was widely known at the time, and had it been, the Texas walkout would have been an even bigger story -- not that it wasn't big already. For the first few days of the standoff, the national media couldn't seem to get enough. Everyone from late-night talk-show hosts to Sunday morning talk-show pundits poked fun at the Texas politicos. Street vendors in Austin did a steady business in souvenirs. One popular item was a deck of cards modeled on the one that the Defense Department distributed to U.S. soldiers searching for officials of Saddam Hussein's regime. The Texas deck bore the images of the 51 wayward Democrats.

In addition to DeLay's apparent meddling, Perry couldn't help but involve himself as well. In doing so, he produced what was perhaps the most unseemly episode in the whole spectacle.

It started when House Speaker Tom Craddick ordered the Texas Rangers to track down the Democrats and bring them back to Austin. In a civil deposition taken after the standoff ended, the head of the state troopers testified that Perry instructed him to dispatch the Rangers to a Galveston hospital, where, a month earlier, the wife of a Democratic lawmaker had given birth to premature twins. Once at the hospital, the Rangers found the twins but not the lawmaker.

The governor's office denies that Perry ever gave such an order and considers the matter closed.

Not so the matter of redistricting. A determined Perry promised he would keep calling special sessions, as is his right under Texas law, until the Legislature adopted a new map, one likely to put a majority of the districts under Republican control.

"If there is work to be done, I expect the Legislature to be here doing it," Perry recently told the Austin American-Statesman.

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