September 04, 2003
Whitmire fallout

Back in Houston, Sen. John Whitmire has his say about Albuquerque and his still-boycotting colleagues.

As the hotel walls grew more confining, the options of returning to Texas to deliberately get arrested or persuading 51 House members to take a 30-day out-of-state stint seemed increasingly remote.

Whitmire decided it was time to go home.

"We failed," he said Wednesday. "You've got to know when you've done the best you can."


His presence in the Senate, should Gov. Rick Perry order a third special session, would mean that a redistricting proposal could be considered because the boycotting Democrats would not have enough members to break quorum.

"We need to return the fight to the Senate floor," Whitmire said. But he also stopped short of saying he would voluntarily go to Austin.

Even if Whitmire stays in Houston, he could be arrested and forced to the Capitol once a special session begins.


Whitmire expressed frustration Wednesday that House members, who fled to Ardmore, Okla., for four days last spring, were not signing on for a longer term out of state. Democrats in the House would need 51 members to break quorum.

"They don't have 51 members willing to do it," Whitmire said.

But Rep. Garnet Coleman, a Houston Democrat who helped organize the Ardmore trip, said House members could gather enough people and might still leave the state, if necessary.

"We are taking this day by day, and a third special session has not been called," Coleman said. "We've gotten 51 people on board to do it before."

Whitmire feared that staying in Albuquerque would push Republicans to permanently scrap a Senate rule that gives a third of the Senate the power to block a bill from being considered.

Republican Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst abandoned that rule during the second session, a move that prompted the Democrats to flee.

"Without it, 16 members run the entire Senate," Whitmire said, adding that he does not want that to be the case on other legislative issues. "Redistricting is really important, but so is school finance. So is criminal justice."

Whitmire encouraged his Democratic colleagues to return to Texas and fight redistricting on the floor. He knows they will lose the vote, he said, but they can debate vigorously to "build a record" to defeat the new maps in federal court.


Politics aside, Whitmire found the month in Albuquerque suffocating.

The other Democrats told him not to go in the swimming pool because it "might look wrong." He was forced to watch Senate meetings on the Internet, without the face-to-face interaction with friends and colleagues he thrives on. He had to live by consensus.

"You're talking to a guy who flunked the first grade because he couldn't stay in his chair," Whitmire said. "Now put me in a hotel for 30 days."

I'm neither going to praise nor criticize Whitmire. I can see his point (more on that in a bit), but I think he needed to explain himself more fully to his colleagues before he took his solo flight. (I suppose it's possible that he has, and that this is some kind of gambit that I don't fully grasp. Seems unlikely, but stranger things have happened.)

Not surprisingly, his colleagues were pretty harsh about Whitmire and his departure.

"He does not represent my constituency. He does not represent Rodney Ellis' constituency and, I'm willing to say, he is not representing his constituency," said Sen. Mario Gallegos of Houston. "He broke ranks, he's listening to the Republican Party, that's the only constituency he's representing."

Sen. Judith Zaffirini, D-Laredo, said Whitmire is having lunch with Dewhurst on Friday to discuss an exit strategy for the Democatic senators. But she said Whitmire does not represent the senators in New Mexico and does not have their authority to broker a deal for their return.

"We stand united when we say John Whitmire is not our representative. John Whitmire is not our leader. John Whitmire is not our negotiator, and only we will represent ourselves. We do not need him or anyone else to speak for us," Zaffirini said.

She said the senators called Whitmire on his cell phone Wednesday, but he did not return the call. She said Sen. Gonzalo Barrientos of Austin left a message with Whitmire's district office to inform him that he cannot speak on behalf of the boycotting senators.

I definitely understand the remaining Senators' frustration, but I hope they've gotten their anger at Whitmire out of their system. Public carping is not going to advance their cause.

Oddly enough, while Republican Senators were jubilant about Whitmire's return, they're now realizing that he's put them on the spot. The House has twice passed the same map that Lt. Gov. Dewhurst called "dead in the water", while the full Senate has never actually debated a specific map. There's also a major disagreement between the two chambers about certain Congressional districts.

A major sticking point in the GOP plan is a deadlock between Sen. Robert Duncan, R-Lubbock, and House Speaker Tom Craddick, R-Midland, over how West Texas should be drawn.

Duncan favors a congressional district dominated by Lubbock that includes Midland, while Craddick wants Midland as the population base for a new district.

"Can the Duncan/Craddick standoff be resolved? If it's not, we may have gone through all of this for nothing," said Sen. Bill Ratliff, R-Mount Pleasant.

Duncan said he is unsure whether the issue can be resolved.

"It could happen. It could not," Duncan said. "There are some strong feelings."

Craddick spokesman Bob Richter said he does not see his boss giving in on the issue.

"I don't see him backing down on that one," Richter said.

Speaking from my partisan viewpoint, it would be sweeter than a bowl of Chocolate Frosted Sugar Bombs if redistricting ultimately failed because the GOP couldn't settle on a map that was palatable to enough Senators to pass on a majority vote. The Star-Telegram has more on the Duncan-Craddick tiff:

State Sen. Robert Duncan, the Lubbock Republican who chairs the Senate committee handling redistricting, said the GOP-friendly map that has been adopted by the House remains unacceptable to the upper chamber. Duncan said he cannot support the plan, which is backed by House Speaker Tom Craddick, because his hometown of Lubbock would lose influence to Craddick's hometown of Midland.

Several Senate Republicans and Victoria Democrat Ken Armbrister, who is not participating in the boycott, met behind closed doors for two hours Wednesday to examine redistricting proposals. But no consensus emerged.

"Everybody looked at the different maps that were out there, and we tried to find out what people preferred," Duncan said. "But we still don't have a specific map."

There is, of course, time for the GOP to work out its differences and emerge with a happy-faced consensus. You'd think, though, that with their serene pronunciations that the Democrats would have to come back someday and that redistricting would be Item One whenever they did, that they'd have done a little prep work to be ready for it when it did happen. It's not like they had anything better to do in Austin this past month.

Meanwhile, back in Albuquerque, the remaining Democrats have started to take the fight nationally.

Texas' boycotting senators, down but not out, are trying to draw President Bush into their fight over redrawing the state's congressional boundaries by taking their message to Washington D.C. today.

And a couple of Democratic presidential hopefuls, Howard Dean and Dick Gephardt, are weighing in by appearing today with some of the Democratic senators during a stopover in Albuquerque.


Sens. Leticia Van de Putte of San Antonio, Eliot Shapleigh of El Paso and Rodney Ellis of Houston will appear at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C., this morning. They also are considering traveling to Philadelphia and Florida.

Dean and Gephardt are in Albuquerque tonight for a presidential debate. Both candidates have asked to appear this morning with the seven Democratic senators who stayed at the group's Marriott hotel headquarters.

The senators' message is aimed at Bush.

"President Bush's political advisor Karl Rove, with (U.S. Majority Leader) Tom DeLay's help, started this and the President can end it with one phone call to his governor, Rick Perry," the group's statement read. "We intend to force the President's hand. He may either own up to his behind-the-scenes involvement or he can make the phone call that will stop this sham process."

The president, through his spokesmen, has declined to be drawn into the political fight.

The president is "always concerned about Texas. It's his home. It's a matter for the state of Texas," White House Press Secretary Scott McClellan said in response to a question about the situation.

(Dean and Gephardt, along with the other Democratic candidates, are in ABQ for a televised debate which will be broadcast in both English and Spanish.)

The Senators' message is being heard in DC by Rep. John Conyers, who sent a letter signed by eight other Democrats to Rep. James Sensenbrenner, chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, to ask him to hold hearings on "the potential civil rights implications" of the redistricting effort in Texas.

Finally, MoveOn has released its Defending Democracy ad, which is in today's NY Times. You can see a PDF of it here.


The Chron praises Whitmire and assigns primary blame to the Republicans for causing the "needless mess" in Austin.

The Dallas Morning News praises Whitmire for placing the state's interests above his own and his party's, then suggests that "one good turn deserves another":

We urge Senate Republicans to follow Sen. Whitmire's example and take the high road. Given the rancor surrounding the redistricting debate, we urge Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst to restore the Senate's customary two-thirds majority voting rule. The remaining AWOL Senate Democrats have said they also would return if the Senate's voting rule were restored. Restore the voting rule and hold them to that pledge.

And then vote on a redistricting plan. Up or down. Then move on.

More praise for Whitmire from the Express News.

The Statesman praises Whitmire (I'm detecting a theme here) and gives reasons why the battle isn't over.

Given how badly Perry, Dewhurst and Craddick have handled congressional redistricting so far, there's no telling what might happen once the Legislature comes back into special session.


Posted by Charles Kuffner on September 04, 2003 to Killer D's | TrackBack

(I suppose it's possible that he has, and that this is some kind of gambit that I don't fully grasp. Seems unlikely, but stranger things have happened.)

I heard this comment on the way in this morning, which made me think you might be right about there being more to this return than meets the eye:

"And despite a public reprimand from his Democratic colleagues, Whitmire said several of them privately encouraged him to return to Texas and end the standoff."

Posted by: elizabeth on September 4, 2003 9:37 AM