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Democrats Return to Texas

The state legislators had spent five days holed up in an Oklahoma hotel to foil GOP plans to redraw congressional districts.

May 17, 2003|Scott Gold | Times Staff Writer

HOUSTON — The rebel Democrats of Texas came home Friday, five days after they turned the Legislature into an international curiosity by covertly leaving the state to fight a proposal that would have tightened the Republican Party's hold on power.

The walkout killed, for now, the Republicans' plan to redraw congressional districts, a move to capture as many as five seats from Democrats in 2004. The state House needed to approve the district map plan by Thursday to keep it alive, but the chamber was effectively shut down all week. When the Democrats sneaked out of Texas on Sunday night they left Republican leaders without enough legislators to establish a quorum to conduct business.

The 55 Democratic legislators remained hunkered down all week at a Holiday Inn Express in Ardmore, Okla., just north of the Texas line. They spent their time greeting well-wishers, talking shop and getting skewered by their political foes back in Austin. Music legend Willie Nelson sent the Democrats a case of whiskey and told them to stand their ground.

They did, staying put until late Thursday night. They boarded two buses shortly before midnight and arrived in Austin at 3:30 a.m. Friday. Six hours later, they filed into work at the Capitol, smiling broadly as cheers erupted from the galleries over the House floor. Republicans sat quietly and angrily at their desks.

The "Killer Ds," as they call themselves, declared democracy the victor, but it was immediately clear that a new era of rancorous, partisan politics is underway in a state that prides itself on a tradition of political civility and cooperation.

"I am absolutely certain it was the right thing to do," state Rep. Pete Gallego, a Democrat from Alpine, said in an interview. "It is a small victory in a long line of defeats. But it is a victory nonetheless. It was pretty historic, and we took it very seriously. It certainly wasn't a vacation."

That's how Republican leaders sold it all week, and they weren't about to back off Friday, even as they conceded that their plan to draw new districts was off the table.

"The vast majority of Texans recognized the Democratic walkout for what it was -- a childish abdication of responsibility staged solely for partisan benefit," said Ted Royer, a spokesman for the Republican Party of Texas. Royer said Republicans were merely trying to reflect the wishes of voters when they proposed the new maps -- since 56% of Texas voters cast their ballots for Republicans in 2002, but Republicans hold just 47% of the state's congressional seats.

"Anytime you have a majority of Texans voting one way and getting something else you've got a real problem," he said.

There are, however, states where the majority of voters cast their ballots for Democrats, while Republicans hold a majority of congressional seats. Asked whether similar measures should be taken to address that discrepancy, Royer demurred.

"We'll leave that decision to the individual states," he said.

In Austin, some Republicans hinted that they might use parliamentary maneuvers to get the district map plan back on the agenda before the session ends in 18 days. U.S. House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, a Texas Republican, suggested that the state should take another crack at it.

"I do not believe the Legislature should give up on its constitutional responsibility to draw the congressional lines," DeLay said through a spokesman.

The GOP swept Texas' statewide races in 2002. The party controls the governor's mansion and the state House and Senate for the first time in 130 years.

In Austin, Democrats and Republicans have been bickering throughout the legislative session. Republican attempts to fill a $10-billion budget gap without raising taxes have led to dramatic cuts in social services, and Democrats have accused the GOP of seizing on the budget crisis to advance a far-right-wing agenda. Republicans say they are trying to be responsible fiscal wards of the state.

The district map plan was the last straw, Democrats said. Republican leaders jammed the plan onto the agenda Monday -- at the urging of DeLay and with the support of President Bush. The plan would divide Texas into a jigsaw puzzle of political districts. One provision would divide Austin into four districts, all of them fitting into newly Republican-leaning districts. Another GOP-friendly provision would connect two regions 300 miles apart by a mile-wide ribbon of land.

When Republicans refused to back down, the Democrats walked, going underground and skipping town under cover of darkness.

Using a provision in the state Constitution, Republican leaders sent state troopers and the Texas Rangers to arrest them, a source of considerable amusement on national talk shows. A state police officer even asked the federal Department of Homeland Security for help by falsely suggesting a Democratic legislator's plane may have crashed.

The Democrats evaded capture, most by crossing into Oklahoma -- putting them out of reach of the troopers and rangers, whose jurisdiction ended at the state line.

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