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THE NATION

Democrats Return to Austin in a Mood to Do Battle

With shouts of 'Viva Texas!' the lawmakers end their boycott of a Republican effort to pass a redistricting plan favorable to the GOP.

September 16, 2003|Lianne Hart and Janet Hook | Times Staff Writers

AUSTIN, Texas — The Legislature got back to work Monday as Democrats ended their latest boycott by returning to Austin, allowing Republicans to try again to pass a plan that could give their party more favorable congressional districts.

Gov. Rick Perry called Monday's third special session after state Sen. John Whitmire of Houston broke ranks earlier this month with 10 fellow Democrats and returned to Texas.

He and his colleagues had been holed up for weeks in New Mexico. Whitmire's presence gave the Senate the quorum to vote on the redistricting plan.

But less than 10 minutes after the session began, Whitmire received a signal from Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst, a Republican, and moved that the session be adjourned to allow for Senate committee meetings.

About 200 visitors in the gallery, primed for high drama, hissed. Their jeers turned to cheers when the 10 Democratic senators -- who had not been present for the roll call that opened the session -- unexpectedly walked into the chambers. Arms in the air, the Democrats vowed to fight new congressional maps that could increase the number of Republican seats.

"We shall keep fighting for what is right. This is about liberty and democracy," shouted Gonzalo Barrientos, an Austin Democrat. "Viva the U.S.A., Viva Texas!"

In May, 55 Democratic state legislators thwarted the Republicans' first redistricting attempt by fleeing to Oklahoma. The following month, Perry called a special session, which ended without resolution on redistricting. In July, before a second special session began, 11 Democrats vanished to New Mexico.

Under the redistricting plan, Republicans could gain up to six seats in Texas' congressional delegation, tipping the balance of power to the GOP. Texas Democrats now hold a 17-15 edge. Republicans insist the plan merely reflects their popularity in a state where the GOP controls the governorship and the Legislature. "This is all about fairness," Dewhurst said Monday. "Today is the start of the process."

Democrats argue that the redistricting plan violates the Voting Rights Act by diluting the power of minority voters. "We remain firm in our resolve to protect the interest of our constituents. This is not about politics, it's about principles. We will not abandon you," state Sen. Letitia Van de Putte of San Antonio told cheering supporters at Monday's impromptu rally on the Senate floor. "Between liberty and the greed of power, we choose liberty."

For all the day's drama, the political significance of the legislative session extends far beyond Texas. At a time when control of the U.S. House hangs on a wafer-thin margin -- with 229 Republicans, 205 Democrats and one independent -- the prospect of Texas sending four to six new Republicans to Congress is no small matter.

It is especially significant in that few House seats are expected to face serious competition in 2004 or for the rest of the decade. That is because, after the 2000 census, the new districts were generally drawn across the country to favor incumbents, leaving relatively few targets of political opportunity for challengers.

Expanding the Republican majority in the House would also strengthen the hand of House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Texas), who was a driving force behind the effort to redraw his home state's district lines and push it through the Legislature.

National Democratic leaders view the Texas redistricting flap as part of a broader indictment they are leveling against the GOP around the country, including California, where Republicans are forcing the recall election of Gov. Gray Davis. Democrats charge that Republicans -- in the recall and in the Texas redistricting fight, as with their struggle over the 2000 presidential recount in Florida -- are resorting to extraordinary measures to seize or expand power that they have failed to win by conventional means.

"It shows you the extreme lengths that Tom DeLay and Republican leaders are going to maintain their grip on power," said Greg Speed, spokesman for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. "It has elevated partisanship to a new level in terms of redistricting."

Although Texas' fight has gotten the most national attention, another state -- Colorado -- has already gone through a similar mid-decade remap. That state's Legislature, with both chambers newly controlled by the GOP after the 2002 election, redrew its House lines to shore up Republicans -- including freshman Rep. Bob Beauprez, who won his seat by 122 votes.

In the Texas Capitol rotunda Monday after the rally, Van De Putte led fellow Democrats and a roomful of supporters in prayer, then began to sing. "Nobody knows the troubles I've seen," she warbled, as others joined in.

Elsewhere in the Capitol, Dewhurst was all business. "The Senate rules are you can't hold a political rally on the Senate floor," Dewhurst said. "But if our Democratic colleagues feel better about it, then OK."

The Democrats lost the battle to block redistricting, he said, "and it's time for us to move forward." Dewhurst said he expects lawmakers will devise a final redistricting map within a week and a half.

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