May 16, 2003
Dems return, life is back to what passes for normal

All of the missing Democratic legislators have returned from Ardmore and elsewhere, having accomplished their mission of preventing a Tom DeLay-orchestrated Congressional redistricting bill from reaching the House floor. The legislators and their supporters are happy with what they have done and are ready to get back to work:

Government is by the people and for the people, and we had to go to Oklahoma to say government is not for Tom DeLay," said Rep. Jim Dunnam, D-Waco, a leader of the insurgent group, which fled to Ardmore, Okla., on Monday to break and quorum and prevent the House from conducting business.

Most returned to Austin in two chartered buses about 3:30 a.m. today after a midnight deadline for passing the redistricting bill had passed. A few drove or flew back home.

A few hours later, they emerged from the Capitol to be greeted by cheering supporters, waving banners and signs.

Rep. Pete Gallego, D-Alpine, thanked Democrats for their support during the group's self-imposed exile.

"It was that support that every day helped us keep our morale up," he said.

The 51 exiled Democrats congratulated each other for enduring four days away from a Republican-dominated Texas House chamber and avoiding the reach of state troopers who were ordered to round them up for thwarting a quorum.

As the Democrats' two charter buses pulled up to the Capitol, Rep. Pete Gallego said, "Hey, guys -- be proud of yourselves. We really made a difference."

The buses had departed late Thursday from a hotel in Ardmore, 30 miles north of the Texas state line, just before the redistricting bill died in Austin. A midnight deadline passed with no vote -- due to a lack of a House quorum caused by the absent lawmakers.

Legislators' first stop in Austin about 3:30 a.m. CDT today was a hotel where they had first met Sunday night to finalize their plans to leave the state. A number of Democrats were picking up their vehicles at the hotel.

Friends and relatives greeted the returning lawmakers at the hotel.

"It feels good. It's good to be back," said Rep. Garnet Coleman, D-Houston. "We're tired and we slept some. And we should be ready to continue working on the floor today. We have bills on the calendar."

As sleepy lawmakers retrieved their luggage from the buses, some apparently picked up the wrong personal items.

"I'd feel a lot better if my bag wasn't missing," said Rep. Lon Burnam, D- Fort Worth. "Probably, one of my half-asleep colleagues took it."

Though Governor Perry has sent a notice to his supporters to pack the House and wear red in solidarity with the Republicans, public statements have so far mostly been about finishing work on the budget and other bills that had been brought up before the walkout. There are some ways that the dead redistricting bill could be revived this session or be part of the focus of a special session, but early indications are that it won't happen.

The redistricting bill and more than 200 other pieces of legislation officially died at midnight Thursday, the deadline for bills originating in the House to win tentative House approval.

"Redistricting dies with all the other House bills at midnight tonight," Speaker Tom Craddick said Thursday. He adjourned the House -- at least those members who were there -- several hours before the deadline.

Craddick said he wouldn't take any steps to resurrect redistricting before the regular session ends, and he declined to speculate whether it would be on the agenda should lawmakers have to meet later in special session.

Perry would be forced to call a special session this summer if the Legislature failed to complete work on a new state budget because the current budget -- necessary to keep state government operating -- expires Aug. 31.

The governor didn't want to discuss a special session either.

"Looking past June 2 is just not on my radar screen right now," he said.

Rep. Beverly Woolley, R-Houston, chairwoman of the House Calendars Committee, was reluctant to give up on redrawing congressional boundaries.

"Never say never. Sometimes ghosts reappear," Woolley said. "Texas is a Republican state by all voting population, and they (Republicans) deserve to have greater representation in Congress. Sooner or later, we will redistrict. This is not over."

The Burnt Orange Report details how the issue could be brought back up, in case you feel like speculating.

If there's any immediate fallout from this spectacle, it may have to do with reports that the Department of Homeland Security, acting on a request from the Texas Department of Public Safety, was called in to search for Rep. Pete Laney's private plane, which they had been told was in distress. Sen. Joe Lieberman has called this an improper use of federal resources and is calling for an investigation. As Josh Marshall notes (here, here, and here), this could splatter over the two Toms, Craddick and DeLay, who have given contradictory accounts of their own involvement. Andrew Sullivan and Glenn Reynolds also note this.

On a lighter note, Houston Chronicle features writer Ken Hoffman visited Ardmore and gives a nice portrait of the Dems and the town they helped make famous. This is possibly the best thing of all:

Like most of the Texas Democrats, Rep. Garnet Coleman of Houston insists his week in Ardmore was packed with business as much as possible.

"We've been working hard on issues. We've stayed closely connected to work while we're here in the north annex of the Texas capital," Coleman said.

He enjoys that line about Ardmore being the "north annex" of Austin. "Yeah, it's pretty good. I guess you heard me say that a lot."

Coleman said there was one surprising benefit of sleepaway camp in Ardmore.

"I've gotten to know these people much better. I've gotten to see their character and have a better sense of their personalities," he said.

Nothing like a shared experience, that's for sure. Makes me think the Dems ought to plan a retreat every other year or so.

The Chron, which has an unsigned editorial denouncing the use of Homeland Security, has a fitting coda for this long, strange trip:

Also deserving opprobrium is Susan Weddington, state Republican Party chairwoman. When the Democrats' whereabouts became known, Weddington falsely accused the absent members of violating state open meetings laws.

The Travis County district attorney's office, which has jurisdiction, determined no violation had occurred. The district attorney's ethics unit pointed out, with exquisitely poetic justice, that the Republican-controlled House had adopted rules that effectively exempted itself this session from criminal prosecution for breaking the rules on open meetings.

This fact was brought to everyone's attention earlier when Democrats vainly accused a Republican committee chairman of holding a secret committee on tort reform.


Posted by Charles Kuffner on May 16, 2003 to Killer D's | TrackBack

I was reading in New York Newsday this morning where Texas DPS contacted the Bureau of Immigration and Customs Enforcement to locate Pete Laney's private plane. DPS claimed that the plane was missing and possibly crashed.

Of course, Rep. Laney and the plane were found in Ardmore, OK. In light of all of this, Sen. Joseph Lieberman is now asking Tom Ridge to explain "why Homeland Security resources are being used to help settle partisan political scores".

If we've all learned one thing this week, its this: Don't Mess With Texas!

Posted by: William Hughes on May 16, 2003 11:56 AM