Political Intelligence

Democratic Disarray


On March 28, minutes before one of the biggest votes of this legislative session, the House Democratic caucus gathered in the Speaker’s Committee Room behind the House floor. The meeting was a final attempt to scuttle House Joint Resolution 3, a broadly written constitutional amendment that permits caps on civil suit damage awards. The Republicans, owners of a solid bloc of 88 House seats, needed 100 votes to pass it. To entice 12 Democrats to defect, Republicans were using every temptation and threat they could. Two days before, a story in the El Paso Times reported that Appropriations Committee chair Talmadge Heflin (R-Houston) offered three El Paso Democrats $5 million for a medical facility if they would support HJR 3. Gov. Rick Perry’s chief of staff Mike Toomey had allegedly vowed vetoes on the bills of those who didn’t cooperate.

As Democrats crowded into the committee room, caucus leaders laid out the plan. They knew that many Democrats, having promised to lower doctors’ insurance rates, felt compelled to vote for HJR 3’s cap on noneconomic damages in medical malpractice suits. Yet most Dems agreed that the constitutional amendment went too far. In the meeting, caucus leaders said they had the votes to defeat HJR 3. Their intelligence indicated that if they defeated it, the doctors’ lobby would panic and Republicans would be forced to strip HJR 3 down to a simple medical malpractice cap. At meeting’s end, Rep. Sylvester Turner (D-Houston) rose and eloquently implored Democrats to hold together. The need for 100 votes afforded the minority party some leverage. And Dems could still vote for a more palatable version of HJR 3 later. Among those promising to come through were Norma Chavez (D-El Paso), who had told the Mexican American Caucus she would vote against the measure, and Kino Flores (D-Mission), who had even signed a pledge card to that effect.

But as soon as they hit the House floor, the plan fell apart. Fourteen Democrats broke ranks, including Flores and Chavez. HJR 3 sailed through untouched with 102 yeas. Weeks later, Democratic nerves in the House are still raw.

Seven of the 14 who voted for HJR 3 are white Democrats from rural, mostly Republican districts. They need conservative credentials to survive. But Democrats feel particularly betrayed by seven who broke ranks—Chavez, Flores, Mike Villarreal (San Antonio), Roberto Gutierrez (McAllen), Jaime Capelo (Corpus Christi), Timoteo Garza (Eagle Pass), and Helen Giddings (Dallas). The seven are virtually immune to Republican threats, boasting districts voting well over 50 percent Democratic in the last statewide election. If just three of the seven had voted no on HJR 3, it would have stalled. Meanwhile back at home, a number of the Democrats who broke ranks are facing growing anger over their support for a plan that would radically restrict their constituents’ access to the courts. The night before her no vote, Norma Chavez introduced the co-founder of the United Farmworkers of America, Dolores Huerta, at a fundraiser for the group held on the balcony of the Texas Trial Lawyers Association building. Contacted later by the Observer, Huerta said that Chavez deserves to catch some heat in her district for her vote. Chavez defends it by saying it gives voters a say and that she knew it would be watered down or eliminated in the Senate. Villarreal has already sparred with the Bexar County Democratic Chair in the press. Primary opponents have surfaced or are being recruited for challenges against Chavez, Flores, Villarreal, and Capelo.

When asked why they voted the way they did, many of the 14 Democrats responded that they thought it was the right thing to do. Four of the seven voted against HB 4, the omnibus tort reform bill, because they believed it went too far. But they said HJR 3’s cap on med-mal damages is desperately needed. “It’s conscience over convenience,” Garza said. But some don’t buy that rationale. The whole point of sticking together on HJR 3 was to get Republicans to make the measure strictly a med-mal cap. The Democrats who flipped knew they would have gotten the cap either way. “Everyone knew the plan,” growled one House Democrat, who asked not to be named.

Some Dems say the plan crumbled because Democrats have no faith in each other. The seven safe Democrats who voted for HJR 3, had jumped ship early on, backing Midland Republican Tom Craddick’s bid for Speaker just days after the election. And all seven were rewarded with chairmanships and vice chairmanships. Whether some of the defectors get budget pork tossed to their districts in the House appropriations bill in exchange for their support of HJR 3 remains to be seen.

Kino Flores argues that caucus leadership was disorganized and didn’t reach out to the Craddick Democrats until the last minute. So, as he left the meeting and returned to the floor, Flores had no confidence that other Dems would vote ‘no,’ and he didn’t want to risk the worst-case-scenario of crossing Craddick and having HJR 3 pass anyway. Bucking the leadership would have killed any bills he hoped to pass, Flores said. The vote also played on longstanding fissures within the party from South Texas Hispanic Dems who have felt neglected by the Democratic leadership, says Flores. “When I look back and evaluate, this will be in the top five bad votes that I ever made,” Flores said. “But how was I going to walk away from that deal? Because of the cuts that are coming and the influence they’re exerting, I have to stay in the lineup. I have to leverage that vote to get money for my district.”