Resolve sustains remap standoff Democratic senators, GOP officials failed to judge opposition's grit

By Gromer Jeffers Jr.
Published August 18th 2003 in Dallas Morning News

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. -- It wasn't supposed to last this long.

More than three months into the Legislature's unprecedented standoff over congressional redistricting, experts and insiders say it's clear that Republicans and Democrats have misjudged the other party's willingness to fight -- and fight some more.

With 11 quorum-busting Democrats holed up in New Mexico stymieing action on adopting a new, GOP-friendly map, observers see miscalculations on both sides:

Republicans might have underestimated the resolve of their opponents, most of them Hispanic, that stems, in part, from a scrappy brand of South Texas politics that extols the noble fight.

Democrats might have underestimated the GOP's willingness to resort to scorched-earth tactics in a battle closely followed by national leaders.

That leaves the Legislature in a seemingly hopeless political deadlock, with neither side hinting at the possibility of compromise.

The AWOL Democrats spent their 21st day in political exile Sunday. Both sides vow not to surrender.

"I agree that we did underestimate each other," Sen. Florence Shapiro, R-Plano, said last week in Irving. "As time goes on, we're all getting very frustrated, especially with the fact that the Democratic senators left."

Stuart Rothenberg, editor of the Washington-based Rothenberg Political Report, called the Texas standoff "the ultimate fight."

"It's a fight for political power and survival," he said.

Democrats hold a 17-15 edge in the Texas congressional delegation, despite Republican dominance in state politics.

The GOP wants a new map to assure the election of 20 or 21 Republicans at the expense of veteran Democratic representatives, all of them white men.

House Democrats fled to Oklahoma for four days in May to kill action on a new map during the Legislature's regular session.

In a special session called for July, Democrats used Senate rules to bury the issue, and Gov. Rick Perry immediately called another session.

The 11 Senate Democrats lit out for Albuquerque on July 28 because Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst, the Senate's presiding officer, was lifting a key rule to allow a simple GOP majority to muscle through a new map. Previously, it took two-thirds of the chamber before legislation could be considered.

Why Democrats won't quit

Democrats have used the plight of the minority voter as their battle hymn.

Of the 11 Democrats, two are black, two are white and the rest are Hispanic, mostly from South Texas.

Sen. Juan Hinojosa of McAllen says the fight is more about "heart" than politics.

"We take pride in standing up for our rights and for the minorities we represent," he said. "We won't give up."

"They don't understand our resolve, and they don't understand our people," said Sen. Judith Zaffirini of Laredo. "Where we come from, if you get hit, you get up and hit back."

Some speculation in political circles had the AWOL Democrats returning from Albuquerque after one, maybe two weeks of living in their hotel headquarters.

Nearing the end of the third week of the Democrats' boycott, San Antonio's Leticia Van de Putte, chairwoman of the Senate Democratic Caucus, said some Republicans didn't think the Democrats were tough enough.

"For some reason, they thought we came down here for a show," she said. "But we're here because we have to do whatever it takes to stop redistricting."

Jerry Polinard, a political science professor at the University of Texas-Pan American in Edinburg, said the stakes are too high for Democrats to fold.

More Republican congressmen from Texas could lead to a more conservative national agenda that runs contrary to the minority constituents represented by the Texas 11.

"They are aware of the impact," he said. "They know that there are national implications."

During legislative hearings on redistricting around the state, members of various civil rights groups, including the NAACP, testified against a plan that would elect more Republicans to Congress.

"It really would affect services if there is a big change made in Washington," said U.S. Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson, D-Dallas. "It's a distinctive difference between the philosophies of Democrats and Republicans. There is a majority of Republicans there already. If more are added, it can be disastrous."

Charles Elliott, a retired political science professor from Commerce, agreed.

"It's not just a matter of redistricting," he said. "It's a matter of being able to hang on and not be steamrolled."

Some Republicans were surprised that members of the Senate ñ called the Legislature's "upper chamber" ñ used rough-and-tumble, House-like tactics against the Republican majority.

"We're standing up for ourselves," Ms. Van de Putte said. "We will not be deterred from working for the people."

But Mr. Dewhurst still questions the Democrats' toughness, explaining that visiting well-wishers such as country music legend Willie Nelson have given them a morale boost.

"The presence out in Albuquerque has fueled them," he said. "They are rock stars, so they stayed a little longer."

Why Republicans won't quit

Clearly in their political prime, Texas Republicans vow to give no quarter in the fight. They know Washington is watching their performance, because the stakes are high nationally.

"It comes down to who's in charge," said Jim Ellis, head of Republican House Majority Leader Tom DeLay's political action committee.

The latest proposal waiting for Senate consideration would give the GOP up to 22 congressional seats and make it more difficult for Democrats to regain control of the U.S. House.

"If the Republicans get more seats from Texas, there is no way the Democrats will be able to take back the House in 2004," said David Bositis, a senior analyst for the Washington-based Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies. "Democrats know that without Texas, they won't be able to take back the House. They are both fighting for the same thing."

Rep. Phil King, R-Weatherford, a prime legislative sponsor of the redistricting plan, said his immediate goal was to keep the U.S. House under Republican control.

"I want to make sure when President Bush is elected that [California Minority Leader] Nancy Pelosi doesn't become speaker," Mr. King said. "If we send four, five or six more representatives to Congress from Texas, it would make it difficult for Democrats to make up the difference."

Republicans also are motivated by the mushrooming Hispanic population in Texas and the difficulty that could pose for the GOP's ability to hang on to congressional seats through the decade.

"The next six years are important to Texas Republicans," Mr. Bositis said, "although the immediate battle is for 2004."

Federal judges developed the existing map based on the 2000 census, after the 2001 Legislature could not settle on a plan. Barring more unusual moves, redistricting would occur again after the 2010 census.

Republicans say their resolve to prevail should not be questioned.

Mr. Perry has said that he would keep calling legislators back for special sessions, setting up a scenario in which Democrats might have to constantly leave the state to break quorums.

To turn up the heat, Mr. Dewhurst and Senate Republicans have taken the unprecedented step of fining the absent Democrats up to $5,000 a day for each day they are not in session.

Republicans are also taking Democrats' Capitol parking spots and cutting their staff budgets.

"I'm shocked at the actions that our colleagues back in Austin have taken," said Frank Madla, D-San Antonio. "I didn't think I would ever see the state of Texas in this type of a situation."

Mr. Ellis said the GOP was prepared to take other extraordinary steps to ensure new congressional districts. Those include moving filing and primary dates for next year's congressional elections, thwarting any Democratic tactics to stall redistricting until it was too late for 2004 elections.

Viewing the odds of approving a redistricting plan in his favor, Mr. Dewhurst has asked Democrats to return to Austin and negotiate or debate a "fair plan."

"Redistricting is going to happen, whether it's in this session or another," Mr. Dewhurst said. "I urge our colleagues to come back to work and help us work on a fair plan."

Democrats remain defiant.

"I would have thought he'd gotten the message by now," said Sen. Royce West of Dallas. "We're staying here for 30 days."