Democrats stage a Lone Star revolt

As former Houston bug man Tom DeLay and the Texas Republicans use nasty tricks to consolidate their power, the Democrats are fighting fire with fire.

Published May 15, 2003 7:21PM (EDT)

As U.S. Special Forces scour Iraq for Baath Party poohbahs, Lone Star State Republicans are gunning for their own political outlaws. They've even published a card deck illustrated with the portraits of the evildoers.

Their quarry? Fugitive Democratic legislators, without whom the Republicans can't rule Texas. The Dems are on the lam in order to derail a congressional redistricting plan widely credited to U.S. House Majority Leader Tom "The Hammer" DeLay, the former Houston exterminator who's now one of the most powerful and relentless politicians in Washington.

Hogtied for the moment, and still well short of victory, angry Republican legislators have taken to calling their colleagues the "Chicken D's" for leaving Austin. New GOP Gov. Rick Perry unsuccessfully dispatched state troopers to find the wayward pols, arrest them, and drag them back across the border. DeLay, calling the Democrats "cowards," investigated putting federal agents on their tails. If so, FBI agents would stop hunting al-Qaida and instead try to smoke out security threats hailing from San Antonio, Fort Worth and El Paso, instead.

For Texans, the dramatic political fight has become the equivalent of a summer movie blockbuster -- filled with busy troopers, back-stabbing, stalkings and skullduggery. But the fight holds serious national implications.

In the U.S. House of Representatives, Republicans currently outnumber Democrats 229 to 205, with one independent. But in the 32-member Texas delegation, Democrats outnumber Republicans 17-15. If the Republican redistricting plan passes, strategists say, Democrats could lose from four to seven congressional seats. In a Congress where the balance of power is so close, seven additional Texas Republicans who owe their jobs to DeLay could make it significantly easier for Republican President George W. Bush to give tax breaks to the rich, slash health programs for the poor, undermine environmental safeguards, and push through other central elements of his legislative agenda.

"The stakes are extremely high," says Gary Keith, a lecturer on Texas politics at the University of Texas at Austin. "If you think about it -- each of the last few national elections has been a battle over five to 10 House seats. Now [with the new redistricting plan], boom! [Republicans] could win with just one state."

To prevent what they called a "relentless" effort by "Washington Republican political leaders" -- read: Tom DeLay -- to ram through the redistricting plan, the Texas House Democrats simply took the best and most effective political option available: They left town. The exiles -- discovered last Monday in a Holiday Inn in Oklahoma -- refuse to budge from their hideout until key legislative deadlines expire on Friday.

The GOP won control of the Texas legislature for the first time in 130 years during the 2002 elections. That all but assured they would have the clout to push through a plan that would redraw congressional district boundaries to the advantage of Republicans, allowing the party to solidify its power in Texas and in the U.S. House.

But the drama accelerated last Sunday night. Facing certain defeat over the redistricting plan inspired by DeLay, more than 50 Democratic members of the Texas House of Representatives fled the state capitol in Austin -- sneaking across the state line on two chartered buses to Ardmore, Okla. They vow to remain there -- holed up in the motel off Interstate 35 -- until their GOP colleagues shelve the controversial bill.

With Republicans the majority party in Austin, the bill's outcome was never in doubt. But Texas law mandates that 100, or two-thirds of the house's 150 representatives, be present for a quorum.

The math isn't complicated. The Democrats knew that a well-organized boycott could hamstring the GOP juggernaut, and so they counted heads and decided to make a run for the border. With 51 politicos missing and at large, the Republican redistricting bill will expire on Friday -- effectively derailing the GOP's plan, at least temporarily.

Furious Republicans asked Perry to issue warrants for the Democrats' arrest. They urged him to send "wanted" bulletins to neighboring states. New Mexico state Attorney General Patricia Madrid, a Democrat, replied with a sarcastic promise of cooperation:

"I have put out an all-points-bulletin for law enforcement to be on the lookout for politicians in favor of healthcare for the needy and against tax cuts for the wealthy."

By most accounts, the proposed congressional districts are blatantly political -- designed to ensure the DeLay keeps his job and Dubya's home state is colored red for a generation.

"The districts are drawn by Republicans to the advantage of the Republicans," says Keith, who also points out that Democrats, when they ruled Texas, redrew districts to suit them.

What's new, however, is how blatantly the plan gerrymanders Texas cities and towns.

"This plan takes the white conservative camp in Texas and institutionalizes it," Keith says. "It completely smashes up communities all over [the state]." Keith uses liberal Austin as an example. Currently one congressional district, the city -- under the Republican plan -- would be redrawn and quartered -- chopped up into four pieces. Each portion would be sewn onto a rural, Republican district.

To deflect the partisan nature of the dispute, the Democrats argue their boycott is about local control. There are also other issues caught up in the fight. Now that the Republicans hold the top jobs in Texas government, the Democrats are fighting a conservative assault on the environment and on health and home insurance reform. But the redistricting plan remains the flash point. The Dems insist they will return to Austin only if the GOP kills the bill.

"We will hop on a bus two minutes from now and go home as soon as the Republican leadership agree that other issues are more important than redistricting," says state Rep. Pete Gallego, a Democrat from Alpine who's residing, temporarily, at the Holiday Inn in Ardmore. "We will be back in the capital post haste."

So far the Republicans haven't caved, and the state is gridlocked. "It's a train wreck," Keith says.

It's also thrilling drama -- even if most of the participants resemble actors on the suburban dinner theater circuit and not the buff, nostril-flaring thespians of "Matrix Reloaded."

Depending on one's politics, the spectacle resembles two different movies.

To Democrats, the Republican redistricting effort is a partisan "Frankenstein," with the monster cobbled together by mad Dr. DeLay. House Democrats play the role of the torch-bearing, rake-rattling peasants, united in their efforts to destroy the monster and save the Democratic congressional delegation from destruction.

Republicans are more apt to believe Democrats are playing Glenn Close's scorned yuppie from "Fatal Attraction." As the GOP sees it, the Dems, dumped by voters, are out to avenge their rejection. The redistricting bill is the bunny they've dropped in the stew pot.

DeLay is nobody's boiled rabbit. When the Dems went on the lam, the Republicans went ballistic. This being Texas, they called for the sheriff. State House Speaker Tom Craddick, a Republican, ordered Department of Public Safety troopers to go forth and arrest the missing legislators.

On Monday, staffers at Gallego's offices in the West Texas town of Alpine were treated to the sight of three armed troopers arriving to capture the 74th District's democratically elected representative. To no avail. Gallego was safe -- already in Democrat-ruled Oklahoma, where the Republican troopers have no legal jurisdiction.

DeLay waded into the dust-up on Tuesday. The irritated majority leader ordered staffers to see whether the FBI might be brought in to arrest the absent Democrats.

Calling DeLay's idea "incredible," Keith warned that such tactics could backfire, especially if voters watch popular pols dragged back home to be displayed like Caesar's captured Gauls in chains.

"I can't imagine anything that would blow up in DeLay's face more than having FBI agents arrest the Democrats," he says. "The Republicans can be really hurt by this."

Others have similar opinions. "When this goes down in history they [the Democrats] will be heroes, and we'll be a bunch of schmucks," Republican state Rep. Pat Haggerty of El Paso warned the El Paso Times.

That seems to be the impression in Gallego's Alpine, a conservative town near Big Bend National Park. Voters here expressed a certain dismay upon learning the governor had ordered the Democrats' arrest for, well, being Democrats.

"Does that mean they can come to my door and pick me up whenever they want?" wondered bartender and independent Michael Espinoza.

With the Republicans left hyperventilating in Austin, the Democrats are staying put north of the Red River.

"They're still here," says Shelba, who works in the Denny's that adjoins the now famous Holiday Inn, "and they're eating a little bit of everything, especially the Grand Slam [breakfasts]."

The Democrats-in-exile are eager to show the voters they're not enjoying their time off. For instance, they're not openly quaffing cosmos in the adjoining Gusher Lounge; nor are they enjoying Ardmore's tourist marvels, which include the Gene Autry Oklahoma History Museum, which is "Dedicated to the Singing Cowboys of the B Westerns." Instead, they're holding meetings, scripture readings and working groups while dutifully turning out for the TV crews making the drive north from Dallas.

Republicans, meanwhile, have few options but to heap ridicule on their missing colleagues. Images of the wandering Democrats were pasted on milk cartons. Texas GOP's Web site published a downloadable deck of cards of the "Chicken D's," each one sporting a photograph of a missing Democrat. Gallego, for example, is the 10 of spades.

The results only energized the Democrats. Ardmore was soon lousy with fruit baskets and Texas Democratic loyalists who drove north to Oklahoma to cheer on their heroes.

Such twists and turns might seems absurd to voters in other democracies, but Texas has a soft spot for cussed stubbornness. The cry "Remember the Alamo" is still taken seriously in the state -- which was an independent country for nine years before joining the United States.

"We Texans are schizophrenic," Keith says. "On one hand we want things to work smoothly, but when someone stands up against the odds we admire their chutzpah, to use a non-Texas term. There's a rich history of Texas populism, of people liking it when those without power stand up to those with power."

During the 1971 legislative session, 30 mostly liberal Democrats and even a few conservative Republicans revolted against state House Speaker Gus Mutscher. The legislators, dubbed the "Dirty Thirty," pushed for a vote to investigate a scandal swirling around him. Mutscher retaliated by killing bills and ordering the reformers' state districts redrawn to destroy them politically. The reformers retaliated by barnstorming the state urging Mutscher's overthrow. It worked -- the speaker was later voted out of office and convicted of bribery charges.

In 1979, 12 Democratic state senators called the "Killer Bees" hid out above an Austin garage for five days to stop the state legislature from recasting the presidential primary date to favor a former governor, the Democrat-turned-Republican John B. Connally.

Keith doesn't see the Republicans buckling. The Democrats refuse to return. The redistricting bill will most certainly die. So what happens next?

"I think Tom DeLay wants a congressional redistrict so badly that if the bill expires this week, his supporters will try to resurrect it and attach it to another bill during the session's final weeks," Keith predicts. "At that point, Democrats won't flee again, but probably use a filibuster or other guerrilla tactics to kill it." By making speeches long enough to rival Castro's -- a whole series of them, in fact -- they would block a vote and, in effect, talk the measure to death.

But even if the Democrats win this battle, Texas still needs to be governed. Bills on home insurance, healthcare and the state deficit -- which is running at $9.9 billion -- need to be debated, voted on and passed. What will happen if the entire legislative session collapses like the Hindenberg?

The result, Keith says, could well be an even bigger fight later this summer when the legislature will return for a special session before the fiscal year ends on August 30.

In Oklahoma, Gallego reiterates he and his fellow Democrats will cooperate fully with the majority Republicans -- as long as redistricting's a dead issue.

"The Republican leadership is out of step with folks at home. If you ask anybody in Del Rio, Fort Stockton or Alpine if lowering property taxes is more important than redistricting, they say yes. Is funding for education more important than changing congressmen? They say yes. Redistricting is not the fundamental priority of Texans."

Will Texas stand down? Keith isn't optimistic.

"Who can step in and cool things off?" he asks. "There are no candidates that have arisen yet.

"It's always hot in Austin during the summer, but when the politicians get back here, the tempers are going to be so frayed it will be a very hot summer, indeed."

By Andrew Nelson

Andrew Nelson is a writer in San Francisco.

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Democratic Party George W. Bush Republican Party Rick Perry Texas Tom Delay