Remember the Holiday Inn!

Democrats make a run across the border to save the state from Tom DeLay

The last opportunity for the mayor and City Council of Killeen, Texas to try and influence the House Committee on Redistricting occurred about an hour before midnight on Tuesday, May 6. The delegation had traveled to the Capitol before noon the previous Friday. They had waited all day and into the following morning for their turn to testify, to no avail. The committee had pushed on till dawn Saturday, listening as one witness after another pleaded with them not to go forward with a proposed Congressional redistricting plan. As the hours dragged, the witnesses grew angrier, excoriating the committee for crafting a map in secret. They called it an “embarrassment to the state,” and “a debasement of democracy.” They used words like “hubris” and “gerrymandering.” Witnesses cited press reports that pinned the plan on U.S. House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Sugar Land). Those testifying questioned whether the committee had the guts to stand up for their constituents against the interests of a Washington, D.C. politician. Are you more Republican than Texan, one demanded? Occasion-ally one of the nine Republican members on the 15-person committee would question a witness, or attempt to make a point, but mostly they just sat impassively waiting for the endgame.

The Killeen delegation got home around 3 a.m. Saturday. They slept a few hours and piled back into their cars to return to Austin. That Sunday at 1 a.m., they finally had the opportunity to testify, but on a map everybody knew would change. The real map, crafted by Tom DeLay, would be sprung on the whole committee right before they were to vote. Tuesday evening it appeared as a committee substitute offered by Rep. Phil King (R-Weatherford). And so the folks from Killeen returned to plead their case. By the time Scott Cosper, council member at large for the City of Killeen, rose to speak, 121 people had voiced their opposition to the bill and 11 had testified for it. More than a thousand had signed cards, mostly against.

Unlike the witnesses from Austin, who were the majority of those that testified, Cosper represents an area of central Texas that consistently votes Republican in statewide races. But there is an exception to the voting patterns in the Killeen area. For the past 12 years they have sent U.S. Rep. Chet Edwards, a Democrat from Waco, to Congress. White Texas Democratic Congressmen like Edwards are the ones that Tom DeLay has marked for extinction. Under the proposed map, DeLay would accomplish his goal by yoking vast swaths of rural Texas to densely populated enclaves of suburbia. It’s estimated the redistricting plan would eliminate from five to ten Democratic incumbents.

Cosper explained that Killeen votes for Edwards in part because the city is home to Fort Hood, one of the largest military bases in the world. Edwards has used his seniority in Congress to become the ranking Democrat on the Military Construction Appropriations Subcommittee. From this powerful perch, he works hard to safeguard a military installation that pumps $49 billion a year into the Texas economy. Under the map presented by King, Killeen would be severed from Fort Hood and placed in a district anchored by suburban San Antonio about 100 miles away. Edwards would likely lose his seat to a freshman Republican. “It is drawing the largest single site employer in the state of Texas [away from] the strongest Congressman who has the power and seniority to support that base,” Cosper told the committee. “It is actually very confusing to me why we would want to lose any seniority on either side of the House, but maybe I don’t understand the issues.”

Or maybe the issues just don’t matter. Cosper was learning a hard lesson about the 78th Texas Legislature. In the Texas House, the merits of the arguments don’t count. It’s a reality the Democratic minority learned quickly this session. And it’s what drove them to an unprecedented act of resistance. Whether it was tort reform or the budget, the Republican majority voted as a bloc all session long, sometimes against the very interests of their own constituents. Most often they did so because the leadership, usually acting on behalf of campaign contributors, ordered it. Implicit in their stance was the promise that, come election time, Republican leaders would flood their districts with enough special interest money that only one message would prevail—their own.

Shortly before the final midnight vote on the King map, the folks from Killeen were treated to another revealing spectacle. Committee member Rep. Vilma Luna (D-Corpus Christi), who had absented herself from most of the testimony, suddenly appeared with an amendment that would slightly move a line on one district on the map to favor her county. This session, Luna has been a consistent stalwart of the Republican leadership. In exchange for her allegiance she obtained a key role in the budget process. Her ability to demand the slight alteration of the map appeared to be another bonus. At no time did Luna express public concern that the new map, if passed, would ensure Republican control of Congress for decades to come.

Luna’s perks were not extended to Rep. Kino Flores (D-Mission), another Hispanic Democrat who gave his vote to Speaker Tom Craddick (R-Midland) at the beginning of the legislative session. In the room behind the committee chamber, away from public view, Flores and Luna had fought over the map. Under the new plan, there would be three new Hispanic districts in the Rio Grande Valley, Flores was told. One belonged to State Sen. Eddie Lucio (D-Brownsville), to win his crucial vote for the map in the Senate. The other followed Luna’s preferences. That left Flores with a district that stretched from Hidalgo County all the way to Austin. It was not a district that a Hidalgo politician like himself could win. “I don’t want anything less than what everybody else gets,” he would gripe the following day.

A greedy scramble for the crumbs left on the Republican table had been the Democrats’ fare the entire session. Craddick had coopted enough disgruntled blacks and Hispanics to neuter the Democratic caucus, fostering an every-man-for-himself attitude. The “cross-dressers,” as some of their colleagues snidely called them, made it exceedingly difficult to organize the Democrats.

Back in the committee room, Flores refused to go quietly. “How come I didn’t get an opportunity to try to go and cut this up and change my vote around,” he wheedled to the Republicans in charge. He then asked about the “protected” district without mentioning Lucio’s name. Audience members snickered as the farce played out before them. The group from Killeen grew increasingly frustrated. Luna glared at her fellow Hispanic Democrat. Despite the drama, in short order both her amendment and the map itself were voted out of committee.

That night it seemed as if Congressional redistricting was as inevitable as sunrise the next morning. The Republican leadership held a firm command. They would ram their plan through the House, and with the right enticements, it would pass the Senate. There was only one hope—a quorum-busting walkout—but that would take a degree of coordination, unity, and resolve House Democrats seemed unlikely to muster.

Elected as Democratic House Caucus leader at the beginning of the session, Rep. Jim Dunnam (D-Waco) found himself in a particularly unenviable leadership position. For the first time in 120 years, Democrats were in the minority in the Texas House. The caucus was divided. A number of its members owed their allegiance to the Republican leadership—a radical band of ideological zealots whose goal was to destroy the Texas Democratic Party by attacking its three main funding sources: unions, trial lawyers, and Democratic congressmen. And Dunnam had nothing with which to threaten or promise his troops. He couldn’t deny them chairmanships or provide money for their reelection. Furthermore, he declared himself, on principle, opposed to a heavy-handed style of leadership. “If we threaten or pressure our members we are just as bad as [the Republicans] are,” he said after the caucus failed to hold together for a vote on a tort reform constitutional amendment in April.

But unwittingly, the Republican leadership had strengthened Dunnam’s hand. Craddick deliberately excluded many of the caucus’ most experienced Democrats from his team. Unencumbered by the responsibilities of leadership, representatives like Pete Gallego (D-Alpine), Scott Hochberg (D-Houston), Garnet Coleman (D-Houston), Richard Raymond (D-Laredo), Senfronia Thompson (D-Houston), and Yvonne Davis (D-Dallas) could use their extensive knowledge to resist the Republican onslaught. Throughout the session leading to the walkout, Dunnam operated the caucus as a collective where anybody who could contribute was invited to do so. The result, in the end, was a genuine dream team: a mutually complimentary blending of diverse, individual talents which truly reflected the face of present-day Texas. Together they were stronger than the sum of their parts.

“Dunnam has an interesting mix of leadership styles,” says Rep. Aaron Peña (D-Edinburg). “He involves everybody; he understands the big picture; and he is not self-aggrandizing.”

Dunnam’s approach proved to be ideally suited to the redistricting fight.

After the redistricting committee hearings ended, members of the caucus had informal conversations about engaging in a walkout to break a quorum and prevent the bill from being heard, but with only days before it was to come to the House floor for a vote, not much had been finalized. “There was no real plan,” admits Dunnam. “On Thursday I said, ‘I have to get off my rear and start talking to people.'”

In a sequence that has been reported widely, Dunnam and a rotating core group of leaders: Coleman, Gallego, Raymond, Thompson, and Rick Noriega (D-Houston), began to meet with small groups of Democratic representatives. In meetings held in Coleman’s office, a discreet location since it was near a key elevator, Dunnam would lay out the situation. Everybody knew the new districts would likely rob their constituents of representation. They had been made aware that, despite his public insistence to the contrary, Senate Democratic caucus Chair Sen. Gonzalo Barrientos (D-Austin) couldn’t guarantee that his 12 members would stand together to block a redistricting vote. It would be up to the House. If they failed, Texas would be a domino for the rest of the nation, as DeLay pushed redistricting in every Republican controlled legislature. “If we can stop them now, then my six-year-old will have an opportunity to have a Democratic Congress in her lifetime,” says Dunnam.

Then Dunnam would take the members through different scenarios until they could see that the only workable alternative was a walkout. Dunnam insists it was not a hard sell. In particular, they talked with the Democratic chairmen who had cast their lot with Craddick. “There were competing values,” remembers Noriega. “It was a gut check—am I part of the leadership versus realizing the egregious nature of what was being attempted.”

Noriega, whom Dunnam had tapped at the beginning of the session to poll members and manage floor debates, knew that some in the caucus had a tendency to be extremely flexible when it came to their positions. “Jim rightly had the insight to bring them in by groups and look eyeball to eyeball and talk about what our commitment to each other should be,” he says.

Parallel to the conversations, Dunnam, with the help of rules expert Hugh Brady and Keith Hampton, the legislative chair of the Texas Criminal Defense Lawyers Association, explored various possible outcomes to the project. Originally they had wanted to go to Louisiana but Hampton pointed out that the state had a Republican governor, who after a phone call from the White House, might be inclined to expedite an extradition. So instead they chose Oklahoma after discreet inquiries to the state’s Democratic governor and attorney general. They talked with a former Texas Department of Public Safety agent to get a sense of what the agency might do. The logistics would be impossible if everyone went somewhere different, so they decided to stay together. “There had to be some way of guaranteeing that everybody could see everyone’s cards,” recalls Gallego.

Brady’s answer for how to prevent Republicans from voting on the machines left vacant by the Democrats provided an unanticipated key ingredient to the success of the plan. Each member would have to sign a letter asking the clerk to lock his or her voting machine. The letters would be distributed to the clerk, the leadership, and the press precisely at 9:15 a.m. on Monday, May 12. They originally decided to quietly take the letters to members on the floor to sign that weekend but they then thought better of such a public maneuver. So, instead, one by one, each representative came to Coleman’s office to sign. It turned out to be a significant, albeit unintentional commitment ritual as each signed the document in the presence of the others. Some hesitated. In the end, all those who had initially promised to support the plan signed. “That solidified it in my view,” says Noriega.

While the Democratic representatives took incremental steps toward their goal, the Republican leadership knew that a walkout was being planned. House Calendar Chair Beverly Woolley (R-Houston) purposefully scheduled bills by Democratic representatives for Monday as a way to entice them to stay. But the leadership clearly did not believe the Democrats could be successful at such a bold step.

The story of representatives anxiously awaiting the arrival of their peers for the late departure by bus from the Embassy Suites the Sunday night they left Austin has already entered Texas political lore. Some pessimistic members kept luggage in their cars while they waited for the others. Dunnam dispatched someone to the parking lot to watch for the DPS. Several diehard Craddick Democrats had declined the invitation. Luna would tell reporters on that Monday that she had not been invited, but Gallego insisted he called her cell phone and left messages on Sunday. They received a psychological boost when an ailing Rene Oliveira (D-Brownsville) came to see them off before heading for the Mexican border. Then 47 Democratic representatives took a leap of faith and boarded two buses, armed with the promise that four more reps would join them in Oklahoma to reach the magic 51 they needed to break the quorum.

Few but Dunnam knew they were bound for Ardmore, Oklahoma, just over the Texas border—the least likely place to be portrayed as a vacation spot by the media. Beyond their destination, the extent of Dunnam’s plans were the rough drafts of two press releases; one if they made it successfully, and the other if the DPS stopped them at the border. “I had confidence that if we got on the bus and crossed the line we had plenty of smart people who could figure out what to do next,” he says.

The spot where the 51 Democrats spent the bulk of their time while in Ardmore was a conference room at the Holiday Inn they dubbed the war room. Since every army needs sustenance, conveniently, it was attached to a Denny’s restaurant by a swinging door. The room couldn’t be locked, so Democrats took turns guarding it through the night. (They were not being overly paranoid, as two men with cameras not affiliated with any media organization took a room at the hotel, apparently to catch Democrats in compromising shots.) Sentries stood ready to eject nosy reporters. Photographers and cameramen were only allowed entrance for brief spells to take footage.

Dunnam set the tone for what would occur in the war room the very first day, recalls Nori
ga. “Jim said, ‘I’m not negotiating unless we all agree. There will be no c
tting of deals. It’s all of us or nothing.'”

The caucus leader resisted any attempt to portray the situation as a standoff between him and Craddick. Dunnam says there were some that felt that he should be the one to call Craddick to see if the Speaker would negotiate. Dunnam argued successfully that the call should come instead from someone close to Craddick. And indeed, Robert Puente (D-San Antonio), a Craddick-appointed chairman and one of the first Democrat to sign on with the Speaker, ended up making the call. When the group held press conferences, those picked to speak would rotate by region or area of expertise.

“Throughout this the attitude [was] to spread the wealth, be as inclusive as possible, and get everyone involved,” said Pete Gallego.

Remarkably for 51 headstrong politicians, every decision was made by consensus. Sometimes it took hours in the war room to decide the proper wording of a letter or the exact response to a Craddick press conference held in Austin. But everyone needed to claim authorship of whatever response they made. “Everybody was important,” recalls Dunnam. “If everybody had not gotten on the bus, nobody would have gotten on the bus.”

If the group hadn’t bonded sufficiently simply by boarding the buses, once again the Republicans inadvertently aided their cause. Back in Austin, they were vilified, called names like “chicken” and “coward.” Long after the DPS and reporters found them on Monday, their families were followed and questioned by police ostensibly searching for them. These tactics simply drew them closer together. “When they started calling us names, it showed a lack of character and a lack of leadership,” said a visibly angry Senfronia Thompson, sitting on a couch outside the war room.

Dunnam couldn’t quite believe that his group was so united, even after a tornado scare forced them all into a shelter in the middle of the night on Tuesday. “When we had the tornado, I expected the next morning to walk in and have everybody mad at Jim Dunnam,” he recalls. “But everybody was in a great mood.”

Gov. Perry and Craddick knew all they had to do was peel one Democrat away from the group. But this time, no amount of coaxing swayed any of the 51. The governor called at least one freshman, Rep. Timoteo Garza (D-Eagle Pass), allegedly urging him to “be a hero.” Garza acknowledges that he received a phone call from the governor’s office but won’t discuss the content of the conversation.

At the time, Rep. Miguel Wise (D-Weslaco) expressed the confidence everybody felt. “Nobody will break,” he said. “Who wants to be remembered that way?”

When they had arrived, the group had hoped to spend a few days filing cryptic media dispatches “from somewhere in Oklahoma” before revealing their whereabouts to the world. Instead, a Dallas Morning News reporter found them on Monday, followed shortly by the DPS, who had no jurisdiction to force their return.

On Tuesday, the media battle over the event commenced in earnest. While the Democrats had expected some interest, they were overwhelmed as 23 cameras lined up for their first press conference. “We were penned up yesterday and now we get to hit back,” said Rep. Barry Telford (D-DeKalb) at the time. “It’s an atmospheric change and it’s kind of fun to watch.”

They spread out, working their cell phones, talking to every media outlet that would listen. While some had help back in Austin, most simply winged it by themselves. Hispanic legislators held press conferences and interviews in Spanish so their communities would be informed. “[By mid-week] we saw the Republicans rev up their media machine,” remembers Aaron Peña. “They have a Rolls Royce and we have a Volkswagen.”

The Republican message, synchronized and disseminated with its usual efficiency, was a simple sell: Why won’t they work? It appeared everywhere from CNN’s Crossfire to the carefully crafted talking points Republicans in Texas parroted for the local news. Democrats had a much harder message to convey, involving as it did complicated issues of representation and process.

From the beginning the Democrats made their target Tom DeLay, not the colleagues they left behind. Some worked the sound bite better than others. “We will not be accomplice to a partisan, gerrymandered, Washington, D.C. plan,” Steve Wolens (D-Dallas) told the assembled press corps.

And indeed, their stand captured the imagination of the Democratic base everywhere. “The overwhelming reaction from Democrats all over the country is not in response to the principle of the thing,” believes Dean Rindy, an Austin-based political consultant who advises Dunnam, “but joy that someone had the courage to stand up to Tom DeLay.”

Toward the end of their stay, the war room looked like a battle zone. Scattered everywhere could be found gifts from grateful Democrats across the nation. A toy superhero action figure, one of 51 sent to each member, lay on a table. In a corner floated a cluster of yellow balloons. On the far wall someone had draped an American flag. A box filled with stacks of a book entitled Profiles in Courage for Our Time, a gift from North Texas Congressman Martin Frost, covered a chair. And everywhere, messages of thanks.

“Destalló la bomba (a bomb went off),” said Rep. Paul Moreno (D-El Paso), who had flown in from his hiding spot in Las Cruces, New Mexico, to be with the group so they would have 51 present. “This is going to have an impact nationally.”

I will always remember being [part of] 51 who had a common cause and who shared conviction,” says Rep. Jim McReynolds (D-Lufkin). “The experience was the richest I’ve ever had in terms of my political life.”

Inside the war room, Anglo Democrats (who called themselves WD-40s for White Democrats Over 40 until the owner of the trademark sent a threatening letter urging them to stop), urban blacks, and South Texas Hispanics found common cause with each other for the first time. Some discussed the future. In coming elections, they pledged mutual aid. “We talked about ways to support each other and how to see ourselves as a team instead of different tribes,” says Peña.

Dunnam says throughout the week he watched as those who had been ready to oppose the reelection of certain caucus members decided to put aside their differences. “It was a unique opportunity to heal wounds created during the session,” says Wise.

The result is an infinitely stronger Democratic legislative caucus. It created trust and goodwill where precious little had existed. “Obviously you will never have complete consensus on most issues, but what we at least demonstrated with our members is that we can do it and people will respect the opinions of others,” says Dunnam. “And that will help later on when we can’t agree.”

In the 2004 election there will be no significant statewide Democratic candidates. The key races will be legislative, and that is where resources will be focused. It is likely the caucus will form a political action committee to support fellow members. Increasingly, they will play a larger role in an ineffective Democratic Party battered by repeated defeat. “There is a new group in town and those who have exercised leadership in that group will now exercise leadership in how we rebuild the Party,” vows Garnet Coleman.

Even several weeks after Ardmore, a battle is raging over how the walkout will be defined. Republicans have targeted Anglo Democrats seen as vulnerable with political ads that portray them as scofflaws fleeing their work responsibilities. They have received help from friendly media like Fox and Time magazine. Still, Dunnam believes that if they can get their message out, the walkout will work in their favor. He mentions, for example, Patrick Rose (D-Dripping Springs), who represents Lockhart, which would be carved into four different congressional seats under the proposed redistricting. Jim McReynolds’ Lufkin district would be controlled by suburban Houston, which covets the rural area’s water. The same could be said for Barry Telford’s district in DeKalb, which would be dominated by suburban Dallas. “Forget about all the fundamental democracy issues,” says Dunnam. “If [they] say ‘By God, I’m not going to let anybody steal all our water, and I’ll go to Maine, if that’s what it takes’—you can win that all day long.”

The night before the Democrats returned, a package arrived for them from Texas icon Willie Nelson. Along with red bandanas and whiskey, the country star sent a note that read “Stand Your Ground.” Democrats had captured the imagination of the foremost expert on the populist theme of the renegade standing up for his community. It’s a story line that happens to be a Karl Rove special.

When DPS agents tried to enlist the Department of Homeland Security to hunt the absent lawmakers down, Democrats received a significant boost in their effort to portray the walkout as the resistance of the common man against an imperious outside authority. With a grand jury investigation underway, the outcome of that tale has yet to be concluded.

Whether the walkout presents the Democrats with a new sense of purpose for the future remains to be seen. Jeff Crosby, a consultant for the Texas Democratic Party, believes it won’t likely be an issue in the next election, but instead an undercurrent. Regardless of the spin that Republican-dominated media will put on it, the walkout has injected hope into a Democratic base starved for signs of life from its leaders. And the caucus knows they can’t afford to be complacent. DeLay has already vowed to continue to push redistricting. Gov. Perry could include it in a special session. He has already pledged to call at least one in the interim. While it is more likely, post-Ardmore, that Democratic senators will hold together to block redistricting, the outcome is far from certain. And the avalanche of Republican election money is already on the move. “We’ve peed in the lion’s face,” says McReynolds. “The lion is not just going to lay around.”

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