At the beginning of this week, I fully expected an emotional insurrection overthrowing the presiding officer of one chamber of the Legislature — on the west side of the Capitol. But this morning, David Dewhurst’s handling of the Voter ID bill created such havoc that if the Senate rules allowed for a motion to vacate the chair, the votes surely would have been there to support it.
For weeks, Dewhurst has been coyly suggesting that he had the votes to pass the Voter ID bill, though 11 Democrats had all signed a letter stating they would vote to block its consideration. While Republicans call the proposal requiring a picture ID to vote the “Voter Integrity Bill,” Democrats consider it the “Voter Suppression Bill.” This morning, Dewhurst recognized author Troy Fraser to bring up the legislation, and the Democrats knew something was up. John Whitmire approached the podium and asked Dewhurst, “Do ya’ll have this rigged?” Dewhurst’s response: “Rigged,” he said, was too strong of a word.
Senate Democrats have been watching for and trying to be prepared for a trick play. Their staffs search every day for vehicles that can be amended with the Voter ID language; Democratic caucus chair Leticia Van de Putte is alerted when each Democrat makes it to the building every day. Liver transplant patient Mario Gallegos has stayed in Austin against doctor’s orders specifically to block the bill.
Today, Dewhurst recognized Fraser at a point in the session when most members thought the ceremonial resolutions were still proceeding. Indeed, many members had not yet made it to the floor: some, like Van de Putte and Kirk Watson, had checked in with Senate Secretary Patsy Spaw and ventured to the House to lobby their own bills. Van de Putte got an urgent cell phone call when Fraser was recognized; she shouted to Watson that they needed to get back to vote ASAP. Watson sprinted through the Rotunda and Van de Putte followed (as best she could, in high heels).
When Spaw began taking the vote, Whitmire held up two fingers indicating he was voting no, and thinking he would have to filibuster, took a quick bathroom break. Unbeknownst to him, Spaw had not seen his vote. Royce West saw that Whitmire’s vote had not been recorded and informed him. He asked Dewhurst to show him voting no, and Dewhurst rejected his request. Then all hell broke loose.
“I just started hollering, ‘you are not going to keep me from voting on this bill,'” Whitmire acknowledged. Calm down, Senator Whitmire, Dewhurst responded. Returning to his desk, Whitmire, slammed his hand on his desk. Again, Dewhurst scolded: Senator Whitmire, calm down, or I will have you removed from the floor.
“I was on the floor and he tried to pull something that goes against everything we stand for around here,” Whitmire said.”We leave the floor all the time. You don’t try to catch people off the floor and not let them represent their districts.”
Stunned senators, including Fraser, huddled at the podium and decided to call for a second vote to allow Whitmire to vote. By that point, Uresti, who according to Van de Putte was delayed by a serious bout of nausea, arrived on the floor and all 11 Democrats voted against the bill.
Dewhurst apparently tried to downplay the significance of the mid-day drama, but Democrats were having none of it. Added Van de Putte, “The lieutenant governor doesn’t have to resort to tricks. It belittles the Senate and the process.” Even Republicans were shocked, she said. “They realize that if he would do this to the dean, he would do it to anybody.”
In conversations afterwards, Dewhurst defended his actions by telling senators that “polls show 85 percent of the people support this,” Van de Putte said. “He didn’t get it — it’s not just about the end, it is how you get there.”
Eliot Shapleigh’s son graduates next Tuesday, and he asked Dewhurst after today’s imbroglio if Dewhurst would promise not to bring the bill up that day so that he could attend his son’s graduation. I can’t guarantee you that, Dewhurst reportedly told him. Democrats now are rounding up Republican allies to allow Shapleigh to attend his son’s graduation.
The timing could not be worse for Dewhurst to have undermined trust with senators. The lieutenant governor is in the middle of negotiations on the electricity issue with Fraser and Whitmire both participating as conference committee members. Whitmire also serves on the budget conference committee. Senators worked late into the night on both issues.
A constant theme of this legislative session has been Dewhurst’s unchecked ambition to be governor. It has colored his judgment on issues ranging from naming a TYC conservator to negotiating on CHIP eligibility. Now, the Senate is on guard, at a juncture in the session when the power of the presiding officer could be put to good use. There is no question that the issue is important to Republican loyalists; there is also no hard evidence showing a crisis exists regarding fraudulent voting. And yet, having gambled all his assets on this play, Dewhurst may be rendered ineffective for the remainder of the session.
“He’s a desperate man,” Whitmire said. “He totally ripped the heart out of this body.”