They can't go home again

Hunkered down in a New Mexico Marriott with the 11 Texas Democrats whose heroic stand against Tom DeLay's power grab is going into its second month.

Published August 28, 2003 12:09AM (EDT)

The future makeup of the U.S. House of Representatives may depend on 11 Texas Democratic state senators holed up in a New Mexico Marriott. For 30 days, they've been exiled in Albuquerque, denying Republicans the quorum necessary to pass redistricting laws that would eliminate between five and seven Democratic congressional seats. And though the state Legislature's session theoretically ended today, that doesn't end the Democrats' plight: If they set foot in their home state, Republican officials will have them arrested and forcibly brought to the statehouse, where their presence will allow Republicans to prevail.

The political smackdown that is now lurching into its second vicious month is being fought over complex procedural rules governing how the Texas state Senate does business. The stakes, though, couldn't be clearer: Directed by Karl Rove and House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, R-Texas, the Texas state Senate is trying to remake the state's electoral map to guarantee Republicans more congressional seats. Ordinarily, states redraw their electoral maps every decade. Texas last redistricted in 2001, and Republicans defended those maps in a Supreme Court challenge brought by civil rights groups who said the maps broke up Hispanic neighborhoods, dispersing their electoral influence.

In 2002, though, Texas elected 17 Democrats and 15 Republicans to the House. Several of the districts that elected Democratic congressmen otherwise voted strongly Republican, but that didn't assuage DeLay's rage at his party's failure to seize a wider margin in the closely divided House. Since Republicans swept statewide offices in Texas in the same election, DeLay and Rove saw a chance to increase their power. "I'm the majority leader," DeLay told reporters, "and we want more seats."

If Rove and DeLay succeed, not only will the Republicans have an advantage in the 2004 congressional elections, but DeLay, having given the new Republicans their seats, will presumably have their support should he make a bid to become speaker of the House.

Today marked the end of the second special session called by Gov. Rick Perry to work on redistricting. Thanks to a quirk in the state constitution that requires three-quarters of state senators and congressmen to be present in their chambers before business can be done, the Democratic exile has so far stopped Republicans from pushing through their new electoral maps. Democrats say the new maps would decimate minority influence by packing blacks and Hispanics into a few districts while diluting their influence in others -- a strategy that will likely lead to the election of one or two new minority congressmen while assuring that between five and seven current House Democrats lose their seats.

But the so-called Texas 11 can't go home yet. If they do, the moment they're in the air, Perry could call yet another session, and the Democrats wouldn't have time to escape once again. Indeed, though there's lots of activity this week both in Austin and Albuquerque, nothing has really changed.

The Democrats are counting on a court hearing in Laredo, Texas, on Wednesday to begin clearing the way for their return. They've filed a lawsuit arguing that the state Senate, by throwing out a long-standing rule requiring two-thirds of the body to agree to bring measures up for debate, is violating the Voting Rights Act, since it scrapped the rule in order to pass maps that they say would disenfranchise minorities. The senators hope that, at the very least, the judge in Laredo would issue a restraining order prohibiting the state Senate from ramming through redistricting legislation pending a trial. Such an assurance would allow the Texas 11 to return home, at least for the time being.

On Tuesday, John Ashcroft's Department of Justice dealt the senators' case a blow, ruling that the Voting Rights Act has no bearing on the two-thirds rule, which calls into question the federal court's authority in the matter. At a mid-morning press conference, the senators stood before a Texas flag and insisted they were unfazed by the ruling. "The decision by the Justice Department this morning was expected," said Sen. Royce West. "When you have a political party that's in power, they control the Justice Department."

But Sen. Judy Zaffirini, an elegant, silver-haired Ph.D. from South Texas, was nonetheless infuriated. After all, the senators had asked the Department of Justice to at least meet with them before ruling. "It's incredible they would rule without even hearing from the minority, even though we asked them not to rule until they heard us. I call it the Department of Injustice," she said.

Several of the senators are planning on attending the session in Laredo and then returning to New Mexico that evening. It will be their first trip to Texas in a month, and though they risk arrest just by setting foot in the state, Sen. Leticia Van De Putte, the head of the Democratic delegation, says, "I do not believe that the governor would stoop to that level" and have them apprehended at the courthouse. Besides, if he does order their arrest, says Sen. Gonzales Barrientos, the rebel politicians could slip across the border to Mexico.

Still, Texas politics have grown so toxic that some of the senators believe there are no depths to which the governor won't stoop. Zaffirini, for one, insists no final decisions about the Laredo trip have been made, and shook her head disgustedly at the idea of placing any trust in the governor's sense of fair play.

It's not surprising that she's skeptical. During his campaign, George Bush touted the Texas state Legislature's record of bipartisan congeniality, but since he became president, state politics have grown poisonous. In May, when the redistricting fight began in the Texas House, 55 Democratic state congressmen fled to break the quorum. Tom Craddick, Texas speaker of the House, sent state troopers and the Texas Rangers after them, while DeLay commandeered 13 employees from the Federal Aviation Administration to locate the plane one of the Democrats flew out on.

By waiting out the legislative session, the House Democrats killed that redistricting effort. Perry then called a 30-day special session -- but Senate Democrats, joined by Republican Bill Ratliff, used the two-thirds rule to thwart him. A month ago, Perry called a second special session, and this time, Republican Senate leaders decreed, the two-thirds rule wouldn't apply.

Since the refugee senators left the state, things have gotten progressively uglier. Texas Republicans, accusing their Democratic colleagues of childishness, sent them a package of diapers, baby bottles and rattlers. They took away the senators' staffers' parking spaces and revoked their floor passes, and have levied fines on the senators totaling $57,000.

"I'm saddened by what they've done to the Texas Senate," says Barrientos, a debonair 61-year-old with a Texas flag embroidered on his lapel and tiny chili peppers printed on his tie. "I've served in the Texas Senate for over 16 years. There's always been collegiality and a sincere effort and bipartisanship. I think that is gone."

Meanwhile, the Democrats are suffering the strain of being away from their families, their constituents and their jobs. Texas senators only earn $600 a month, and rely on other jobs to support themselves -- jobs they can't go back to as long as this deadlock persists. The liberal fundraising organization has taken up the Texas Democrats' cause, and has already raised over $400,000 in its "Defend Democracy in Texas" campaign. But that money is going toward advertising and politicking, and won't be used to defray the senators' costs, which pile up every day they're away from home.

Still, the senators say, they'll hold out as long as they have to, though they decline to speculate about their next moves if they lose in Laredo. West says only, "We will continue to fight."

For Barrientos, this fight is about more than just Texas politics. "Looking at Florida, California, Texas, it's a little scary," he says. The Republicans, he says, have become "brazen enough to run Arnold Schwarzenegger for governor of a major state. We've gone from Tom DeLay, the exterminator, to the Terminator. Is this a bad dream?"

"Those people don't want to govern," he says. "They want to rule."

This story has been corrected since it was originally published.

By Michelle Goldberg

Michelle Goldberg is a frequent contributor to Salon and the author of "Kingdom Coming: The Rise of Christian Nationalism" (WW Norton).

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