August 18, 2003
I am writing to you from a hotel room in Albuquerque, New Mexico, where I and 10 of my colleagues in the Texas Senate have been forced to reside for the past 20 days. If we return to our homes, families, friends, and constituents, the Governor of Texas will have us arrested.
I know, it sounds more like a banana republic than the dignified democracy on which we have long prided ourselves. We are effectively exiled from the state due to our unalterable opposition to a Republican effort -- pushed by Tom Delay and Karl Rove, and led by Texas Governor Rick Perry -- that would rewrite the map of Texas Congressional districts in order to elect at least 5 more Republicans to Congress.
You may not have heard much about the current breakdown in Texas politics. The Republican power play in California has obscured the Republican power play in Texas that has forced my colleagues and me to leave the state.
Recognizing that public pressure is the only thing that can break the current stalemate, our friends at MoveOn have offered to support our efforts by sharing this email with you. In it, you will find:
- Background information on how the situation in Texas developed;
- Analysis of what's at stake for Democrats and the democratic process; and
- How you can help by contacting Texas politicians, signing our petition, contributing funds, and forwarding this email!
The Republican redistricting effort shatters the tradition of performing redistricting only once a decade immediately after the Census -- making redistricting a perpetual partisan process. It elevates partisan politics above minority voting rights, in contravention of the federal Voting Rights Act. It intends to decimate the Democratic party in Texas, and lock in a Republican majority in the U.S. House of Representatives. And Republican efforts to force a vote on this issue by changing the rules of legislative procedure threaten to undermine the rule of law in Texas.
We do not take lightly our decision to leave the state. It was the only means left to us under the rules of procedure in Texas to block this injustice. We are fighting for our principles and beliefs, and we can win this fight with your support.
Texas State Senator (Houston)
During the 2001 session of the Texas Legislature, the legislature was unable to pass a Congressional redistricting plan as it is required to do following the decennial Census. A three judge federal panel was forced to draw the plan. Neither Governor Rick Perry or then Attorney General John Cornyn, both Republicans, objected to the plan, which was reviewed and approved by the U.S. Supreme Court.
The 2002 Congressional elections, the first held under the new redistricting plan, resulted in a Congressional delegation from Texas consisting of 17 Democrats and 15 Republicans. However, five of the 17 Democrats prevailed only because they were able to win the support of Republican and independent voters. All statewide Republican candidates carried these five districts. Most experts agree that the current plan has 20 strong or leaning Republican districts and 12 Democratic districts.
Meanwhile, the 2001 redistricting of Texas legislative seats (which was enacted by the Republican-controlled Legislative Redistricting Board, after the legislature again gridlocked in its efforts) resulted in wide Republican majorities in both the Texas House and Texas Senate. Now Tom Delay has made it his priority to force the Republican-controlled Legislature to enact a new redistricting plan to increase the number of Republican-leaning Congressional districts. Republicans believe they can manipulate the districts to elect as many as 22 Republicans out of the 32 member Texas Congressional delegation. They achieve this by packing minority voters into as few districts as possible and breaking apart rural districts so that the impact of independent voters will be reduced and suburban Republican voters will dominate.
During the regular session of the Texas Legislature, Democratic members of the Texas House of Representatives exercised an unprecedented parliamentary move to prevent the House from passing Tom Delay's redistricting plan. While Democrats are in the minority of the House of Representatives, the state constitution requires that at least 2/3 of the House be present for the House to pass a bill. Because it was clear that the Republicans would entertain no debate and brook no compromise in their effort to rewrite the rules by which members of Congress are elected, the Democrats were forced to break the quorum to prevent the bill from passing. Because the Republican Speaker of the House and Governor called on state law enforcement officials to physically compel the Democrats to return, the lawmakers removed themselves to a Holiday Inn in Ardmore, Oklahoma -- outside the reach of state troops(1). In there effort to apprehend the Democrats, Tom Delay officially sought the help of the Department of Homeland Security, the Department of Transportation and the Department of Justice.
The House Democrats (nicknamed the "Killer D's", based on an earlier episode in Texas history in which a group of Democratic state senators called the "Killer Bees" broke the quorum in the Senate over a similarly political stalemate) succeeded in stopping Delay's redistricting plan during the regular session, returning to Texas after the legislative deadline had expired for the House to pass legislation. However, because the Texas Legislature meets in regular session only every two years, the state constitution gives the Governor the power to call a 30-day special legislative session at any time between regular sessions. Despite statewide protests from Texas citizens who oppose Tom Delay's redistricting plan, the Governor has called two special sessions(2) already this summer to attempt to force the legislature to enact a new plan.
The first called session expired in a deadlock, as 12 of 31 Texas Senators(3) opposed the plan. Under Senate rules and tradition, a 2/3 vote is required to consider any bill on the floor of the Senate, giving 11 Senators the power to block a vote(4). The Republican Governor and Lieutenant Governor then determined they would do away with the 2/3 rule, and called another special session, forcing 11 Democratic Senators to break the quorum and leave the state.(5) These Senators have spent the past 22 days in Albuquerque, New Mexico.
The Governor has indicated he will continue calling special sessions until the Republican redistricting plan is enacted, despite the fact that the Republican-controlled Texas Supreme Court recently rejected the Governor's writ of mandamus filing to compel the Senators to return to the Senate. Meanwhile, eleven Democratic state senators are exiled from their state, unable to be with their families, friends, and constituents, for fear of being arrested as part of a partisan power play by Republicans. In the most recent indignity, Republican Senators voted to fine the absent Democrats up to $5,000 per day, and to revoke parking and other privileges for their staffs as long as the Senators are away.
What's at stake
At stake, on the surface, is whether Tom Delay will succeed in exploiting Republican control of the Texas Legislature to add to the Republican majority in the United States Congress. But deeper issues are also at stake.
- If the Republicans succeed in redrawing the Texas Congressional lines to guarantee the election of five to seven more Republicans, it will ensure that Republicans hold the majority in the U.S. House of Representatives for the entire decade and will likely result in Tom Delay becoming Speaker of the House.(6)
- The Republican advantage would be gained by removing many African American and Hispanic voters from their current Congressional districts and "packing" them into a few districts that already have Democratic majorities. The voting power of these minority voters would be dramatically diluted by the Republican plan, in contravention of the federal Voting Rights Act. If the Republicans succeed, over 1.4 million African American and Hispanic voters will be harmed. It would be the largest disenfranchisement of minority voters since the Voting Rights Act was passed.
- Redistricting exists for the purpose of reapportioning voters among political districts to account for population shifts. The purpose of this reapportionment is to ensure a roughly equal number of voters in each district, to preserve the principle of "one man, one vote."(7) For this reason, redistricting has always been conducted immediately following the U.S. Census' decennial population reports. Tom Delay now proposes a new redistricting plan two years after the Census report simply because Republicans gained control over the Texas Legislature in 2002 and now have the power to enact a much more Republican-friendly plan than the one drawn by the federal courts two years ago. This is an unprecedented approach to redistricting, one that subordinates its original purpose of ensuring the principle of "one man, one vote" to the purpose of perpetual partisan politics. Redistricting, in this model, would never be a settled matter, and districts would constantly be in flux depending on the balance of political power in the Legislature.
- The Texas Legislature has traditionally been defined by a spirit of bipartisanship and cooperation. This issue has polarized the legislature in a way that threatens to destroy that tradition. The Republicans have effectively exiled their Democratic counterparts in a power play that makes our state look more like a banana republic than a dignified democracy. The arbitrary decision to discard the 2/3 rule in the Senate sets a precedent that undermines that body's tradition of consensus and cooperation. The deployment of state law enforcement officials to apprehend boycotting legislators erodes the separation of powers between the executive and legislative branches of government, and diminishes legislators' ability to represent their constituents as they see fit. The unilateral Republican effort to penalize Democratic Senators and their staffs
What is needed
The Democratic Senators currently in Albuquerque have two critical needs. The first is to generate increased public awareness of the situation. By all reason, every day the Senators are out of the state this story should get bigger. Instead, news media have gradually lost interest in the story. The California recall has dominated the attention of the national media, and the Texas media has largely lost interest in the story -- out of sight, out of mind. Without public attention to this story, the Republicans have all the leverage -- if it does not cost them politically, it costs them nothing(8) to continue calling special sessions until the Texas 11 are forced to come home.
The second critical need is funding. The cost of hotels, meeting rooms, staff support, and public relations efforts is mounting. In addition, the Senators must defend themselves legally against Republican efforts to compel their return, while also filing legal claims against the Republican power play. The Senators are actively raising money for the Texas Senate Democratic Caucus Fund to offset these costs and prepare themselves for a stay of indefinite duration in Albuquerque.
- A recent Department of Justice investigation chronicled Republican state officials' illegal attempts to use federal resources -- including anti-terrorism resources from the Department of Homeland Security -- to compel the Democratic lawmakers' return. See http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/articles/A51520-2003Aug12.html for a news report on the Justice Department investigation, or http://www.usdoj.gov/oig/special/03-08a/final.pdf for a copy of the complete Justice Department report.
- At a cost to taxpayers of over $1.5 million per session.
- House Republicans passed a redistricting bill in the special session despite an outpouring of public opposition in hearings across the state. All 12 Democratic state senators opposed the plan, along with Republican state senator (and former Lieutenant Governor) Bill Ratliff.
- The "2/3 rule" requires the Senate to reach broader consensus on difficult issues than a simple majority vote. It is a combination of official Senate rules and tradition. The rules of the Senate require a 2/3 vote to suspend the "regular order of business" to consider a bill that is not the first bill on the Senate calendar. By tradition, the Senate has always placed a "blocker bill" at the top of the Senate calendar, so that every bill requires a suspension of the regular order of business to be considered. The process requires compromise and consensus to achieve a 2/3 majority on each bill. One Texas insider has said that the 2/3 rule is "what separates us from animals."
- In fact, the Governor and Lt. Governor attempted to "surprise" the Senators by calling the second special one day early and "trap" them in the Senate Chamber. The Senators were able to escape the Capitol with literally minutes to spare.
- Republican party activist Grover Norquist, head of the Washington D.C.-based Americans for Tax Reform, was quoted as follows in the August 17 Fort Worth Star Telegram: "Republicans will hold the House for the next decade through 2012 if Texas redistrictsIt depresses the hell out of the Democrats and makes it doubly impossible to take the House and probably depresses their fund raisingAnything that helps strengthen the Republican leadership helps DeLay become speaker someday if he wants it."
- Established in the landmark case Baker v. Carr, 369 U.S. 186 (1962)
- Notwithstanding the millions of dollars it is costing taxpayers.