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Outgunned, Texas Democrats Vamoose

With rangers on their trail, 53 lawmakers vanish from Austin to derail GOP's agenda.

May 13, 2003|Scott Gold | Times Staff Writer

AUSTIN, Texas — In an act of political subterfuge, at least 53 Democratic legislators packed their bags, disappeared from the Capitol and apparently scattered across the Southwest on Monday as Texas Rangers searched for them, bringing a divisive legislative session to an abrupt halt.

Under state law, Republicans -- who control the governor's mansion, the state Senate and the state House for the first time since the 19th century -- need 100 of 150 legislators on the floor of the House before they can conduct the people's business.

Now they don't have a quorum, and with Thursday the last day legislation can be sent to the Senate, the conservative agenda they've effectively waited 130 years to advance could die.

The Democrats' maneuver came, not coincidentally, as Republicans were preparing to redraw congressional districts, allowing the GOP to take as many as seven congressional seats away from Democrats in the next election cycle. Democrats currently hold a slim majority of the state's congressional seats, and the GOP plan could cement the Republican Party's hold on power in Washington.

Texas House Speaker Tom Craddick, a Republican, was not impressed by the walkout. "Get back to Austin and get back to work," he warned the Democrats.

As his compatriots whistled the Star Spangled Banner on the floor of the House, Craddick ordered the chamber's doors locked. Then, citing an obscure provision in the Texas Constitution allowing members of the House to demand a quorum of their peers, he asked the chamber's sergeant-at-arms to find the Democrats.

Texas Department of Public Safety spokesman Tom Vinger confirmed Monday night that three of his department's law enforcement divisions, including the fabled Texas Rangers, were on the case.

The Democrats had vowed to stay in hiding until the Thursday deadline passed. But according to Associated Press, troopers were sent to a Holiday Inn in Ardmore, Okla., late Monday to tell 40-plus members gathered there to return to Austin.

It was unclear how Republicans learned of the Democrats' whereabouts. The rebel lawmakers were planning a news conference today.

At midnight, legislators in jeans and casual shirts milled about a conference room near the rear of the Oklahoma hotel lobby. Rep. Pete Gallego of Alpine said the lawmakers, whose numbers he wouldn't release, arrived Sunday night. Asked how long they would stay, he said, "That remains to be seen."

According to published reports and interviews with aides and legislative officials, the Democrats not only hatched a secret plan to escape Austin, they leaked false plans to the Republican leadership in recent days to cover their tracks.

According to published reports and interviews with aides and legislative officials, the Democrats not only hatched a secret plan to escape Austin, they leaked false plans to the Republican leadership in recent days to cover their tracks.

Some of the legislators didn't know where they were going until they left, said aides who have since spoken with them by telephone.

And correctly assuming that Craddick would send troopers and rangers to arrest them, they split into groups and headed for several states, including Oklahoma and New Mexico.

Texas Gov. Rick Perry dispatched his attorneys Monday to ask neighboring states whether his troopers and rangers could make arrests there. Though other states were looking into it late Monday, New Mexico's Atty. Gen. Patricia A. Madrid said no.

She said Texas authorities would need to issue warrants for the legislators' arrest. Only then, she said, would New Mexico authorities be able to arrest them -- and even then the two states would need to discuss extradition proceedings.

"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," said Madrid, a Democrat.

Asked in an interview where his bosses are, Dean Rindy, a political advisor to the Democratic House Caucus, said: "I don't know. And I don't want to know."

"They vanished into the night," he said. "Gone with the wind."

Rindy dismissed rumors circulating that the Democrats ditched their cellular phones en masse in case any of them, in a moment of weakness, call home and give away their whereabouts.

"To pry a cell phone from a politician's hand would be unprecedented," he said. "I doubt that."

In a ploy audacious even by the standards of Texas politics, one of the GOP's new congressional districts would be composed of two Republican-leaning areas, one north of Austin and one in the Rio Grande Valley -- 300 miles away. The two areas would be connected by a mile-wide ribbon of land and have been dubbed a "community of interest."

Democrats say U.S. House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, a Republican from Sugar Land, Texas, is behind the push for the new congressional districts.

DeLay could not be reached for comment.

"We did not choose our path. Tom DeLay did," the missing Democrats said in a prepared statement.

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