The Unkindest Cut

The merits of redistricting are arguable, but one thing is not: David Dewhurst has wounded the Texas Senate—and his own reputation.

October 2003By Comments

FIRST, DEW NO HARM: Honestly, we thought we knew Best.
Photograph by Bob Daemmrich

AN EXPANSIVE, JOCULAR DAVID DEWHURST greeted reporters warmly at a celebratory lunch in his elegant Capitol dining room in early June. This was a happy man. He had earned rave media reviews for forging bipartisan compromises on tough issues like homeowners’ insurance and the budget. So what if Governor Rick Perry and Speaker of the House Tom Craddick were off on a press tour of the state without him, bragging about the successes of the legislative session? Dewhurst’s independence from his fellow Republicans had served him well. After all, the House under Craddick’s iron hand had collapsed into rancor and chaos. The Senate, Dewhurst proudly reminded his guests, had operated like a well-oiled machine.

Fast-forward to August, when a very different Dewhurst—this one grim-faced and businesslike—briefed the press. A week before, he had prompted the flight of eleven Democratic senators to Albuquerque when he said that he would abandon the Senate’s unwritten two-thirds rule, a parliamentary procedure that nurtures consensus by requiring that 21 of the 31 senators agree to debate a bill before it can be voted on. The Democrats had been using their votes to block Republican congressional-redistricting plans. Now Dewhurst had endorsed a plan by the nineteen GOP senators to fine their absentee colleagues up to $5,000 for every day of their quorum-busting boycott. “Enough is enough,” he sternly pronounced.

Watching the performance, I was struck by how Dewhurst looked exactly the same as he did in June—the same carefully combed silver hair framing the same tanned face, yet another meticulous suit draping his six-foot-five-inch frame—and yet he was espousing a fiercely partisan brand of politics he had eschewed his first five months in office. The transformation was so eerie that a thought seized me: Had Dewhurst’s evil twin taken over the lieutenant governor’s office? Was the real Dewhurst bound and gagged in a closet somewhere in the Capitol basement?

Sadly, I could find no evidence to support this theory, though it seemed plausible in the summer of 2003, which no doubt will be recorded as the high-water mark of U.S. political kookiness. After all, within the space of a few weeks, Arnold Schwarzenegger announced his candidacy for governor of California on Jay Leno, and Republicans in the U.S. House called the cops on their Democratic colleagues for huddling in the congressional library. Things would only get wackier on the home front: Later in August, Dewhurst had the Senate sergeant-at-arms brave a hurricane to stake out the Brownsville home of Senator Eddie Lucio, one of the eleven quorum-busters, so that Lucio could be apprehended in case he sneaked back into town to check on his family.

Though my diabolical-twin scenario may seem illogical, so did Dewhurst’s unforeseen decision to stake his hard-won reputation on his party’s unprecedented push to draw new congressional boundaries. There are plenty of reasons not to embark on redistricting at this particular time—it’s unnecessary, since even national Democratic strategists concede that they have little chance of gaining control of the U.S. House in 2004, and it’s certain to poison the Legislature’s ability to deal with the state’s real problems, like school finance. But my favorite reason is that it’s, well, silly. Silly because even Republicans can’t agree on how best to draw the districts. Silly because court rulings have severely restricted the possible changes they can make. Especially silly because of Perry’s insistence on calling repeated special sessions to resolve the issue; the Legislature—if its members really, really had to do it—could pass a more-Republican-friendly map in 2005 (when Dewhurst would have leverage over Democrats with their own bills to pass). And silliest of all because it inevitably eradicated all the goodwill Dewhurst had built up in his first session as lieutenant governor. And for what? When did congressional redistricting become so important to him? Hadn’t he once compared the issue to a virus and vowed to stay germ-free? Why did he drop his allegiance to the two-thirds rule like a bad habit?

On a personal level, I had another question: Were we at Texas Monthly wrong when we went out on a limb and named Dewhurst as a Ten Best legislator in our July issue—only the second time a presiding officer had earned that high honor? Here’s what we wrote: “Dewhurst and the Senate kept hitting the bull’s-eye. . . . They avoided the blowup over redistricting that brought the House to a standstill. . . . He put the state’s needs ahead of an ideological agenda. He took the moral high ground and held it. That’s what being a leader is all about.”

Oops.

“THE ONLY GOOD THING you can say about redistricting,” goes a worn-out phrase at the Capitol, “is that it only happens once every ten years.” Until now, redistricting (for the Legislature as well as for Congress) has occurred in the session following the completion of a new census, to adjust representation to account for population changes. When it happens, lawmakers have little attention span for anything other than their own districts. It’s called the survival instinct. Congressional redistricting is far less controversial; the usual course is to protect incumbents in both parties.

So why didn’t the Legislature work on congressional redistricting in 2001? Oh, wait, it did. New maps were drawn, debated—and abandoned. In the Senate, Republican moderate Jeff Wentworth, of San Antonio, chaired the redistricting committee, but his plans for a new congressional map were thwarted by members of his own party (Politics: “Party Poopers,” May 2001). Republican senators blocked consideration of a new congressional map—one of the great ironies of the current skirmish, since Dewhurst has barred the Democrats from using the same parliamentary privilege. The R’s reasoned that, with the D’s in control of the House in 2001, they would get a better deal letting the courts draw a plan. So off to court they went. A three-judge panel devised the current map, following the tradition of protecting incumbents but giving Republicans the two new seats that Texas was entitled to because of population growth. Advocates for more Hispanic districts filed appeals, but then-attorney general (and now U.S. senator) John Cornyn argued that the judges’ map was fair. The U.S. Supreme Court agreed with Cornyn.

Two developments prompted Republicans to ask the Legislature to draw new congressional maps. In the 2002 elections Texas voters elected seventeen Democrats and only fifteen Republicans to the U.S. House while producing a Republican landslide in state races; five incumbent Democrats won in districts that had heavy Republican majorities. That’s why the D’s argue that the R’s already have a map giving them twenty seats; they say the GOP just didn’t field the right candidates. The second development was that Republicans won enough races in the Texas House to elect Craddick as Speaker. Republicans saw the opportunity to take another shot at redistricting.

Since then, state lawmakers have been heavily lobbied on the issue by Republican Tom DeLay, of Sugar Land, the majority leader of the U.S. House of Representatives, who raised money to support Craddick’s election as Speaker, and Karl Rove, George W. Bush’s chief political adviser. While Republicans currently control the U.S. House by 24 seats, both men desperately want a safer cushion.

Dewhurst showed little stomach for the issue during the regular session of the Legislature. Certainly he wanted to avoid the kind of meltdown that occurred in the House, when 51 Democrats fled to Ardmore, Oklahoma, to kill a redistricting bill. As late as June 10, before the first special session on redistricting, Dewhurst publicly expressed reluctance about the issue. Speaking that day to the editorial boards of the San Antonio Express-News and the Dallas Morning News, he said he would push for a Senate vote only if “the House sends us a good bill” and that he was not “inclined” to drop the two-thirds rule. On the same day, he noted, “I have said over and over again that I see no consensus [in the Senate] for a redistricting measure,” adding, “I am not going to take the lead on redistricting.”

But his tune changed on July 16, during the first special session, when Dewhurst announced that he would abandon the two-thirds rule. His aides deny that pressure from Rove and DeLay caused a change of heart; he was reluctant to take up redistricting, they say, because of its divisive nature but decided to move forward because he felt that Republicans deserved more representation in Congress from Texas. “We have a real fairness issue,” Dewhurst said. “It is clear that our congressional delegation does not represent the voting trends in this state.”

On July 28, just before the start of the second special session, eleven Democratic senators fled to Albuquerque. Early in the boycott, I visited John Whitmire, a thirty-year veteran of the Legislature, in the lobby of the Marriott Pyramid Hotel, where the senators had made camp. I’d been looking forward to my visit, since the state Republican party Web site promised me that the Marriott was “one of the most luxurious resort-like hotels in Albuquerque.” After the big buildup, I was a little disappointed by the plastic greenery and faux waterfall.

During the regular session, Whitmire had enjoyed a close relationship with Dewhurst. Since Whitmire served as dean of the Senate, the freshman lieutenant governor often sought his counsel. In July, as the Senate hurtled toward disaster, Whitmire spoke to Dewhurst almost daily. “I urged him to honor the two-thirds rule,” he told me. If lawmakers had to secure only a simple majority, he said, “you wouldn’t have to reach out to the opposing view.” Members of both parties support the rule. “Those of us that represent rural areas would not want to see the rule changed permanently,” said Republican senator Robert Duncan, of Lubbock. “It is not even a partisan deal.”

Dewhurst cites several occasions in which the Senate has disregarded the two-thirds rule, notably in 1992, when then-lieutenant governor Bob Bullock dispensed with it to pass a Senate redistricting plan. But Whitmire and other senators there at the time say Bullock had a back-room understanding with his colleagues: Everyone agreed that a bill should be passed quickly so judicial review could begin immediately. Like most Democrats, and most of the Capitol for that matter, Whitmire believes that political ambitions guided Dewhurst this summer. “I assume he believes that if he doesn’t take care of the hard-core partisan voters, he won’t be [in office],” Whitmire said. “I argued that he could withstand the pressure from the right. I kept telling him that they couldn’t touch him—he’s got great name identification, wealth, looks, smarts . . .” And, once upon a time, a record of bipartisan leadership.

Whitmire’s strong belief in the two-thirds rule inspired him to join the boycott; it’s also why he abandoned it a month later, just after Labor Day. Each day the Democrats stayed away, support grew among Republican senators in Austin for dispensing with the rule. Whitmire said that at the outset of the boycott, there were six votes among Republicans to change the Senate rules. Under pressure from Perry, he said, that number has grown to ten. “I decided if we were out there any longer, we were going to lose the two-thirds rule and the integrity of the Senate,” he told me. Before he agreed to return, Whitmire said he got Dewhurst to back reinstatement of the two-thirds rule for future issues. “There has been that commitment made to me,” he said.

THE BOYCOTT BEGAN WITH A TIP from a Republican House member: “They are going to sine die [adjourn] the first session, lock the doors, and change the rules,” Whitmire recalled. Senate Democrats quickly huddled to review their options. Leticia Van de Putte, of San Antonio, the chair of the Democratic caucus, said her “mama’s instincts” had prompted her to prepare for a quick departure on July 28. She had scouted out-of-state cities to meet a short list of criteria—a Democratic state, near Texas, with a good heart hospital, since Lucio had recently suffered a heart attack—and had arranged to have airplanes standing by.

Whitmire raised the question of how long the boycott would last. A lawyer present at the meeting said he thought he could quickly obtain a court order barring the arrest of senators in Texas; if that occurred, they would be gone about a week. It was agreed, though, that they should be prepared to stay the duration of the second special session. Eleven of the Senate’s twelve Democrats agreed to leave the state; Ken Armbrister, of Victoria, whose district is dominated by Republicans, stayed in Austin.

Sensitive to charges that they were “not on the job” or “on vacation,” the Democrats assiduously kept to a schedule in Albuquerque. Convening early each day in a hotel conference room lined with gifts from admirers across the country (the Oberlin College Democrats, for instance, sent cookies), they held strategy meetings and press conferences and read supportive mail aloud to each other. The exercise took on the ambience of a religious retreat. Solidarity was stressed, since the defection of only one member would give the Senate a quorum and sink the whole enterprise.

But Whitmire fretted that an unhealthy psychology had taken hold. Anyone who questioned the boycott was assailed. Meanwhile, Perry vowed to continue calling special sessions, meaning that the boycott would have to continue indefinitely. There was no “exit strategy,” and senators began talking about staying until December.

Whitmire was also concerned that the group was taking its cues from consultants and lawyers flown in by the national Democratic party, which was using the Texas boycott as a fundraising opportunity. As the weeks wore on, the Democrats’ message, he said, became increasingly shrill. Eventually, his colleagues, all of whom represent predominantly minority districts, played the race card. They sued Dewhurst in federal court, arguing that his decision on the two-thirds rule violated the rights of their constituents. The weakness of the argument is its assumption that only Democrats can represent ethnic minorities—a sweeping stereotype itself.

Back in the Senate, Republicans were livid that they were being labeled racists. “The rhetoric has raised this to another level of irritability,” said Duncan. The GOP senators felt justified in voting to fine the absent members because the boycott could set a precedent allowing a small number of senators to shut down the body. “Quorum-busting,” Duncan said, “could become a routine end-of-session thing.” But that’s true only if the two-thirds rule ceases to exist.

WHILE WHITMIRE WAS FACING bitter criticism from members of his own party for breaking the boycott, Republican Bill Ratliff, of Mount Pleasant, was undergoing similar treatment from members of his own party. Ratliff, chosen by his fellow senators to serve as lieutenant governor when Perry ascended to the governor’s office in 2000, earned the affectionate nickname Obi-Wan Kenobi, after the venerable Star Wars character, for his unfailing grace and wisdom. Though Dewhurst forced him out of the 2002 lieutenant governor’s race with financial muscle, Ratliff’s influence among his peers continued this session.

But the first special session ended with an impasse after Ratliff agreed to sign a letter with ten Democrats, announcing their intention to block debate on redistricting. Dewhurst blames Ratliff for the impasse; he believes he had a commitment from Ratliff to support a new congressional map that fairly dealt with northeast Texas, which Ratliff represents. Once he lost Ratliff’s vote, he says, he had no choice but to dispense with the two-thirds rule. Ratliff denies he made any commitment to Dewhurst and says a “number of Republican senators” encouraged him to take a stand against the issue, because they opposed it as well. “I knew at the time it was going to be hard for some of them to acknowledge they had come to me,” Ratliff said. “They were rather clandestine conversations.”

Their objections may lie partly in the map adopted by the House. Craddick drew a new congressional district for his hometown, Midland, which has unpopular repercussions in neighboring areas. Duncan, the chairman of the Senate committee overseeing redistricting, objected to the map because it pairs his hometown congressman, Randy Neugebauer, with popular Democrat Charlie Stenholm, of Abilene.

SO WHAT HAPPENED BETWEEN June 10, when Dewhurst reaffirmed his support for the two-thirds rule as an essential civilizing influence on the Senate, and July 16, when Dewhurst decided to abandon the two-thirds rule? The answer is, he was for the rule as long as he thought he had 21 votes, but not after he realized he didn’t have them. “It’s political suicide for any Democrat to support redistricting and for any Republican to oppose it,” he said, “lieutenant governor included.”

After Perry called a third session in mid-September, and the Democrats announced their intention to show up, Dewhurst expressed hope that the Senate would quickly adopt a fair map and put the redistricting issue behind it. He told me he had no regrets over dropping the two-thirds rule; indeed, he would “do it again.” The hard feelings, he said, would fade over time, because “bruises heal.” The Senate is “on track” to come together and work constructively on issues he’s anxious to address, including school finance. “This wasn’t my idea of how to spend the summer,” he said ruefully.

Now he’ll spend the rest of his tenure as lieutenant governor trying to get the partisan genie back in the bottle. The Senate has a long history of moderates’ setting the tone: in the eighties Democrat Ray Farabee and Republican Bob McFarland; in the nineties, Ratliff, fellow Republican David Sibley, and Democrat John Montford. The fight over the two-thirds rule allowed hard-core partisans like Todd Staples, of Palestine, Tommy Williams, of the Woodlands, and Troy Fraser, of Horseshoe Bay, to gain influence inside the Republican caucus, a development that will make it much harder for Dewhurst to restore the bipartisanship he says he wants.

Maybe the evil-twin theory isn’t so outrageous after all.

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