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'Exiled' Senator Back in Texas

The Democrat's return means the chamber now has the quorum to vote on a redistricting plan.

September 04, 2003|Lianne Hart | Times Staff Writer

HOUSTON — A monthlong impasse over a Republican redistricting plan has inched closer to resolution now that a Democratic legislator has returned to Texas from self-imposed exile in New Mexico, leaving behind 10 colleagues.

The return Tuesday night of state Sen. John Whitmire means the Republican-led Senate has the quorum needed for a vote on redistricting. The question now is whether Republican Gov. Rick Perry will call a special session to allow such a vote. Perry spokeswoman Kathy Walt said the governor will convene legislators "at the appropriate time."

"We need to fight this out on the Senate floor, let the courts review it and move on to another issue. I really think that makes the most sense," Whitmire said Wednesday. "The bottom line is, redistricting is real important, but there are other equally important issues to address.

"I have a responsibility to protect the integrity of the Senate," said Whitmire, its longest-serving member. To do nothing to end the standoff would do "irreparable damage to the civility of the Senate," he said, "and that's why I think we need closure."

Whitmire's colleagues in New Mexico -- who called themselves the Texas 11 -- expressed dismay at his return. "We were stunned. We felt betrayed," state Sen. Judith Zaffirini said in a phone interview from Albuquerque. "The Texas 11 has made all major decisions unanimously. It was Whitmire's responsibility to discuss it with us instead of making a unilateral decision that impacted other people."

Zaffirini said that the remaining senators don't know when or under what conditions they will return to Texas, but that they stand united against redistricting. "What the Republicans are doing is taking this agenda state to state. What they will try to do in Texas, they'll try to do in other states," she said.

Texas Democrats have railed against the plan to redraw congressional boundaries since spring, when it was introduced during the regular legislative session. If it passes, Republicans could take as many as seven congressional seats away from the Democrats, who currently hold a slim majority. Supporters of the plan argue that redistricting merely reflects the wishes of voters in a state where Republicans control both the Legislature and the governor's office for the first time in 130 years.

To block a vote on the plan in May, more than 50 Democratic legislators fled to Oklahoma, keeping the GOP majority from establishing a quorum. The following month, Perry called a special session, which ended without resolution on redistricting. On July 28, before a second special session began, the Texas 11 repeated the disappearing act.

The second special session ended Aug. 26, but the wayward Democrats -- wary of returning to Texas and being forced under state law to return to the Capitol in Austin -- remained in New Mexico.

"I have said from the beginning of the redistricting debate that the business of the Texas Senate should be done on the Senate floor, not in the courts and not in New Mexico," Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst said in a prepared statement.

Dewhurst, a Republican, said he hopes Whitmire's return will "result in a plan that leads our Senate colleagues back to Texas and back to work on a number of important issues."

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