Monday, August 4, 2003

DALLAS — Eleven wayward Democratic state senators remain in New Mexico, trying to stop Republicans in Austin from passing a redistricting bill, but Texans are reacting in a “been there, done that” manner.

The 11 sneaked out of Austin on Monday in private planes to Albuquerque, vowing to stifle Republican efforts to redraw the congressional map, much as did the 51 House Democrats who ran out of state to Ardmore, Okla., in May.

Unlike the flight of the “Killer Ds,” as they were called, this contingent has not captured the imagination of Texans.

“That had a lot more of a wild factor to it because it was unprecedented,” said Austin political consultant Chuck McDonald of the House walkout. “This one is more like a surprise party where everyone knew it was coming.”

Talk-radio shows in Dallas, Houston and San Antonio, which fielded heated debate about the Killer Ds in May, have received fewer calls about the current missing-in-action Democrats.

Another element not in the current “run and hide” extravaganza: a chase.

In May, House Speaker Tom Craddick turned to the state police and federal authorities, and a fuss ensued in Washington about efforts to find a private plane. Threats of arrest also were made, with one representative, en route from her Austin home to the House chamber, being accosted by police and delivered to the Statehouse.

“All in all, it was exciting, a political drama — not just the usual drab legislative processes,” said Andrew Kendrick, a self-described “political junkie” from Houston.

He said that as a Democrat he is behind the temporary New Mexico residents, but hasn’t watched it day to day like the House adventure.

As with the House walkout, the current MIAs are fighting to keep Republicans from passing a redistricting bill that could mean a Republican gain of six or seven seats in the U.S. Congress from the current delegation of 17 Democrats and 15 Republicans.

Republicans hold a 19-12 majority in the Texas Senate, but Senate custom is to require consent from 21 of the 31 senators to bring a bill to the floor. Thus, the Senate cannot convene a quorum with the 11 absent, although Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst threatened not to abide by that practice if Democratic obstruction continues. One Democratic senator did not flee the state.

While the House members had to stay in Oklahoma four days before the deadline for introduction of redistricting legislation passed, the current special session requires that the Democrats remain out of reach for 30 days.

Last week Republican Gov. Rick Perry warned that he might call another special session if this one doesn’t pass a redistricting bill.

“No one’s going to turn into a pumpkin between now and the end of August,” Mr. Perry said. “So at that particular time, if the work of the state of Texas had been done, I would expect everyone can go home on a Labor Day vacation. If not, we may be back here continuing to work on the issues that are important to the state.”

The Democrats say they consider the redistricting unfair to minorities, but privately they also admit that the plans make some of the leading Democrat congressmen very vulnerable.

The senators in New Mexico dispatched a letter to Mr. Dewhurst on Friday, asking him to respect the two-thirds custom and promising to come home.

“We’ve asked him to show the truly great leadership he showed during the regular session,” said Sen. Leticia Van de Putte of San Antonio, chairman of the Democratic caucus.

Mr. Dewhurst’s media spokesman, David Beckwith, refused to comment.

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