Texas Showdown

Back when George W. Bush lived in the Texas governor’s mansion, his allies painted Austin as a paragon of bipartisanship. No longer. This summer, a Republican plan to redraw the state’s congressional lines has set off a  showdown with Democrats that has played out like a black-and-white Western flick.

There’s the sheriff and his deputy–Rep. Tom DeLay and Gov. Rick Perry, who are pushing strongly for redistricting. Then there are the bandits–11 Democratic state senators who have been holed up in New Mexico since late July, effectively blocking a vote on the matter. Meanwhile, back at the ranch, Bush–who is vacationing in Crawford, Texas, this month–is resisting pleas from both sides to get involved.

The fray has made for good political theater, but many Texans have grown increasingly frustrated that their legislature is in gridlock, with no end in sight. Perry said last week that if the runaway senators don’t return to Austin by Aug. 26, the last day of the current legislative session, he would simply continue calling new 30-day legislative sessions until they came back and a new map was passed. The 11 Democrats, meanwhile, have only dug in their heels. “This [redistricting effort] is a surgical assault on voters, and we won’t allow it,” state Sen. Leticia Van de Putte told NEWSWEEK from the group’s makeshift headquarters in an Albuquerque hotel.

The root of the battle is the state’s congressional-districting map, which was drawn by three federal judges in 2001 and approved on appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court. Under that map, the state elected 17 Democrats and 15 Republicans to the House in 2002. Recently, though, GOP leaders have contended that 15 seats isn’t enough, since Texas, by all measures, is a Republican stronghold. They’ve proposed various maps that would create between five and seven more safe GOP districts for the state.

Democrats retort that the current districts should stay as they are, since they were drawn by an impartial court and approved at the highest judicial level. (If the GOP wants to have more seats, one Democratic leader said, it should run stronger candidates.) “This is nothing more than a partisan power grab orchestrated from Washington,” Rep. Martin Frost, a Democrat whose incumbency is in jeopardy under the Republican plan, told NEWSWEEK. He placed the blame on DeLay, the House majority leader, who has been credited with orchestrating the effort.

The opening salvo in the Lone Star redistricting war came in May, when Republicans in the state House were preparing to put forth a redistricting bill for vote. Outgunned, Democrats had no hope of voting the bill down. Instead, they turned to an obscure but highly effective parliamentary evasive maneuver: walking out. Because the state constitution requires three fourths of members to be present in the House or Senate for the chamber to do business, a handful of lawmakers can shut down the legislative process by simply refusing to show up. So on the night of May 12, just hours before Republicans planned a vote on the redistricting bill, 55 Democratic House members snuck out of Austin by bus, car and plane.

Their defection–and the Republican response–quickly became a political cause celebre nationwide. When Republican representatives realized the next day that their Democratic colleagues had gone AWOL, Perry sent state troopers and the legendary Texas Rangers after them. In Washington, meanwhile, DeLay’s staff called the Federal Aviation Administration and asked employees to locate the plane of one of the missing Democrats, former Texas House speaker Pete Laney. The search lasted for more than eight hours and involved 13 FAA employees, according to a report released in June by the Department of Transportation’s inspector general. DeLay’s office also contacted an assistant attorney general at the U.S. Department of Justice to inquire whether Feds “had any legal authority” to take the Dems back across the state line. (Justice officials–one of whom called the situation a political “hornet’s nest,” according to a departmental report–refused to get involved.)

Nearly all of the runaway Democrats eventually turned up in Ardmore, Okla., where they had taken rooms at a Holiday Inn. (Four went to other locations, including Mexico.) Despite pleas by Perry and other top GOP officials to come home, they stayed there for four days, until the deadline for introducing new legislation in the regular session had passed. The Dems thus killed the redistricting effort, at least for the regular legislative session. But Perry–determined to see a new map passed–called a 30-day special session in late June dedicated solely to the matter. During that session, Democrats in the House were outvoted, and a new map approved. But there was still a problem in the Senate. That chamber has a longstanding rule requiring a three-fourths vote for any bill to be considered. By holding out on that vote, Senate Democrats, with the support of one Republican, kept redistricting off of the agenda. In late July, when it become clear that the chamber was in a stalemate, GOP Senate leaders came up with an emergency plan: they decided to prematurely end the first special session and immediately call a second special session in which the three-fourths rule would not apply.

And that’s how Texas ended up having its second lawmaker walkout in a single summer. After being tipped off about the GOP plan, the 11 Democratic senators fled the state capital on July 28. After setting up camp in New Mexico, the Democrats announced that they would return to Austin only if the Senate reinstated its two-thirds rule for considering legislation, or if Perry stopped calling special sessions. Perry responded by saying that he would continue calling the special sessions until a new map was approved.

As the standoff has raged on, so have the taunts from both sides. In the first week, the Texas Republican Party sent diapers and pacifiers to the Dems, to mock their “childish” behavior. And last week, the Senate voted to start charging the runaway legislators daily fines that will total $57,000 each by the end of the special session. (The Dems, decrying the fines as “poll taxes,” refused to pay them.) The Senate also voted to cut off the runaway’s cell phones, travel allowances, expense accounts and parking spots. Democrats, in response, have hung a Texas Revolution-era flag on the wall of their makeshift headquarters at the Marriott. Its message: “Come and Take It.”

The battle has attracted widespread attention because of its drama, but experts say there are serious policy implications, too. In the past 50 years, no state has redrawn its districts a second time in a decade, unless under court order, according to the Congressional Research Service. Gary Keith, a professor of political science at the University of Texas in Austin, says the power plays in Texas and Colorado–where the state’s Republican-dominated legislature passed a new GOP-favorable map in May–could set the stage for more bloody mid-decade redistricting fights in other states. “If the party in power does this here, why shouldn’t a party in power somewhere else do the same thing?” he told NEWSWEEK. “It’s as if there’s been a breach of the unspoken commitment–to let redistricting lie until it pops up every 10th year.”

For Bush, whose 2000 presidential campaign focused on his bipartisan victories in Texas, the current showdown is threatening to undermine his legacy in his home state. It’s also the second state political battle–along with California’s recall election–that he’s now working to stay out of as he vacations this month at his Crawford ranch. (Some commentators, however, have urged him to intervene. “The president can end this standoff, and he should,” noted a recent editorial in the Washington Post.) Pundits are predicting that this battle could rage on for months, although many leaders are wondering whether the Democratic senators will be willing to camp out in New Mexico during a third 30-day special session. Whatever the case, the fracas has shut down the legislature of the country’s second-most-populous state. John R. Alford, a political scientist at Houston’s Rice University, told NEWSWEEK he’s never seen the legislature so emotionally divided and that the standoff could cause lasting damage. Still, he says, “it’s not in the Texas political lexicon to say, ‘We were wrong.’ Here, you fight to the death.”