Chronicle of a Death Foretold

I can’t live with this,” Plano Senator Florence Shapiro blurted out, shortly before she walked from a Thursday, May 13 evening meeting of the Senate Criminal Justice Committee, to a Republican Senate Caucus meeting in Buster Brown’s Capitol office. “They’re doing the same thing they did to us on vouchers.” After two days of intense negotiations, in which Waco Republican David Sibley tried to negotiate a deal between the four Republicans and three Democrats on the Criminal Justice Committee, the two parties had finally agreed to hate crimes language they could support. Before a final vote, however, the committee Republicans had to take the compromise to a specially called Caucus meeting in Brown’s office.

The meeting came at the end of two days of protracted negotiations on the Hate Crimes Bill, also called the James Byrd Jr. Bill in memory the nation’s most prominent recent hate crime victim, the African-American man murdered in Jasper last June. On Wednesday, two of the Democrats on the Senate committee, Royce West and John Whitmire, had repeatedly met – at times in conference rooms and at times in the hallway – with the bill’s Senate sponsor, Rodney Ellis. Committee Republicans Florence Shapiro, Jane Nelson, and Robert Duncan had begun their Wednesday meetings in a conference room, but abandoned it after several hours because it was too accessible to the press. Republican freshman Mike Jackson was usually nowhere to be seen, and Sibley (not on the committee but one of the most powerful members of the Senate) shuttled back and forth between the two groups. But it eventually became apparent that no shuttle diplomat could have moved Republican ideologues Shapiro and Nelson.

What could be gathered from observing the meetings, from hallway conversations, and from sources close to the unending negotiations, was that Shapiro and Nelson refused to allow the inclusion of gays and lesbians as a protected category in the Hate Crimes Bill. At one point on Wednesday, the Republicans responded to Democrats’ entreaties to vote a Republican version of the bill out of committee, agreeing to do so – only if the Democrats would promise not to attempt to amend the gay and lesbian category back into the bill when it reached the Senate floor. Whitmire wouldn’t respond to questions about that particular Republican offer. But speaking to the press, he was as intractable as the Republicans. “I can’t support a bill that takes sexual orientation out. This is about hate crimes … 20 percent of the hate crimes are committed against gays. It’s the second largest category.”

By late Wednesday afternoon, Ellis realized he did not have the vote of Lubbock Republican Robert Duncan, and promised to return for a vote on the following day. Duncan was the only Republican on the seven-member committee that the three Democrats could hope to move to their side. He is known as a thoughtful lawyer-legislator who will listen to logical, factual, and emotional arguments before reaching decisions. “The guy’s got a heart,” a public interest lobbyist watching the process said. “And he’s trying to live up to Montford’s legacy.” John Montford was the conservative Democrat who held the seat Duncan now holds, and during Wednesday’s negotiations, Duncan approached the bill as Montford might have – looking at the legal technicalities such as burden of proof, and how prosecutors might use the bill if it were to pass. And looking for a compromise.

But Bob Duncan doesn’t have the power that John Montford had, and Senate Republican Caucus Chairman Buster Brown isn’t known for either intelligence or negotiating skills. In the absence of the leadership of the Governor or the Lieutenant Governor, David Sibley would have to broker a deal. On Thursday evening, before his caucus met, he must have thought he had succeeded. But after the caucus, Sibley walked into the committee room and quietly told Democratic Committee Chair Ken Armbrister, sitting alone on the dais: “It’s a no go.” “When he said that,” Armbrister said later, “I realized there was no reason to wait any longer.”

So Armbrister summoned the committee, which slowly convened into a somber and dramatic tableau. At stage left sat a sober Senfronia Thompson, House sponsor of the bill the Senate committee was about to kill. Below her, in a seat usually reserved for a committee clerk, sat Austin Representative Glen Maxey, the only openly gay member of the Legislature. To Thompson’s right sat an expressionless Rodney Ellis. Next to Ellis, with a pained look frozen onto her face, Florence Shapiro. Then Mike Jackson, John Whitmire, Kenneth Armbrister, Robert Duncan, Royce West, Jane Nelson.

Duncan, pale and drained, appeared ill. West, a huge and usually robust man, looked down at the microphone with a lugubrious expression on his face. Even before Nelson began to make the argument that “if this bill could end hate …” and Shapiro followed with her rationalization that “categories divide us rather than uniting us” – there was no need to vote.

The Republicans had gone to their caucus with a bill they said they could vote for, and returned only to kill it. No one expected Shapiro, Nelson, or Mike Jackson of LaPorte (an unreflective Senate freshman) to vote with the Democrats. Thursday night was Bob Duncan’s moment. After asking several questions about procedure, in an almost inaudible voice, he voted “Present—not voting” – as did his three Republican colleagues. The Hate Crimes Bill was dead.

Immediately following the vote, West argued that the bill could be revived. “We’re not through. It’s not dead,” he said to Ellis and Whitmire. “We’re going to State Affairs.” West quixotically hoped to bring another version of the bill to the State Affairs Committee, which had suspended its meeting so that its chair, Florence Shapiro, could participate in the negotiations on the Hate Crimes Bill. In the Senate chamber, where Shapiro’s committee was still at recess, West and Whitmire spent an hour with Jeff Wentworth – arguably the most moderate Republican in the Senate. When the Democrats felt they had their votes lined up, West attempted to be recognized. Rather than allow Royce West to have the floor, Shapiro gaveled her committee to adjournment.

The Hate Crimes Bill was again dead. On Friday, in a day of parliamentary tactics unlike anything seen since a group of senators knows as the Killer Bees shut down the Senate twenty years ago, Ellis, Whitmire, and West would try unsuccessfully to revive it.

What killed it? “There are only two differences between today and 1993,” Whitmire said, recalling the year when the current hate crimes law (so vague that it will likely be ruled unconstitutional) was enacted. “There have been more hate crimes. And we are in a presidential campaign.” It has been widely reported that the Governor said he would consider signing the bill if it made it to his desk. But if the bill, overwhelmingly passed out of the House, were indeed to pass the Senate, Presidential Candidate Bush would be confronted with the prospect of signing a bill that would outrage the Christian right – whose support he believes he needs to win the Republican nomination.

Senate passage of a hate crimes bill would also be a liability for Lieutenant Governor Rick Perry. James Leininger, a Christian-right multi-millionaire and Perry’s biggest financial backer ($1.5 million), has two abiding interests: vouchers and tort reform. Perry has failed to get a voucher bill onto the Senate floor, and one of the session’s two major tort reform bills is dead in a Senate committee, while the other passed the Senate but is moribund in a House committee. Like Bush, Perry loses should a hate crimes bill pass.

“You want to know what this is about?” asked a Senator who requested anonymity. “See that little lady lobbyist from the Eagle Forum? She’s been all over the Republicans on the [Criminal Justice] committee. The right-wing, the 20-percent, Republican Christian right, are driving this whole train.”

On Friday the train arrived at its terminus. Democrats began the day with a walkout and thirty minutes of group prayer under the Capitol rotunda. Then, through a creative “filibuster by personal privilege speech,” they shut down the Senate. Perry realized he had lost control, and the Senate stood at ease for nine hours of additional back-room negotiations. The Democratic Caucus (excluding Eddie Lucio, Frank Madla, and Armbrister, who do not participate in the caucus – and Greg Luna, at home in San Antonio recovering from surgery) held the Senate hostage on the final day for bills to be either voted out of committee or die. During that nine hours there were deals, rumors of deals, compromise language supposedly sent over (at last) by the Governor’s office, and speculation. “We’re keeping hope alive,” Ellis said to reporters.

Hope died at 8:45 p.m., when no compromise was forthcoming, and Senate Democrats agreed to return to the floor. Bob Duncan delivered a speech that proved that he is no John Montford. Rodney Ellis eloquently held forth on the Constitution. And Royce West looked at Florence Shapiro and told her he still worries when “my son or my son’s son go out at night, that they are going to be the victim of a crime perpetrated on them because of the color of their skin.”

Just before Senators raced to committee meetings, where they would push through as many bills as they could get out before the midnight deadline, George W. Bush appeared.

Not in person, but in a press release, handed out by an aide to Senator David Sibley. Sibley had been negotiating since Wednesday, he said, only because Governor Bush had urged him to break the impasse. The compromise language offered up on the last day, Sibley implied, was the Governor’s work. And Republicans spread the word that Vance McMahan, the Governor’s criminal justice aide, had sat in with the Republicans for part of the day.

Ellis wouldn’t buy it. Nor would Senfronia Thompson. “The Republicans killed this bill,” Senfronia Thompson said. “We would agree on one line, and they would come back and move the line.” As for the Governor, Ellis found the rumors of his last-minute arrival hard to accept. “Governor Bush?” Ellis said before racing off to a committee meeting. “Governor Bush never put no paper in my hand.”

Lou Dubose was editor of The Texas Observer from 1987-1999. He’s authored five books, including the best-seller Shrub with Molly Ivins. He currently edits The Washington Spectator.

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Published at 12:00 am CST