Finally, fair representation will be made possible in Texas. John Whitmire should be commended for his courage and for returning to Texas to do the job he was elected to do. Democracy has triumphed over the self-interested, irresponsible, cowardly behavior of the liberals. Governor Perry, call that Special Session!
'We failed,' Whitmire says, but vows to continue fight
By RACHEL GRAVES
Copyright 2003 Houston Chronicle
John Whitmire had already spent weeks pacing the halls of the Albuquerque Marriott like a caged tiger when reality set in.
A federal court would likely rule against him and 10 other Texas state senators on the lam in New Mexico, and the U.S. Justice Department would probably work against their attempts to stall a Republican redistricting effort, the Houston Democrat thought.
As the hotel walls grew more confining, the options of returning to Texas to deliberately get arrested or persuading 51 House members to take a 30-day out-of-state stint seemed increasingly remote.
Whitmire decided it was time to go home.
"We failed," he said Wednesday. "You've got to know when you've done the best you can."
Eleven Texas Democrats fled the state on July 28 to bar an effort to elect more Republicans to Congress. Ten of them remain in Albuquerque, but Whitmire returned to Houston late Tuesday.
His presence in the Senate, should Gov. Rick Perry order a third special session, would mean that a redistricting proposal could be considered because the boycotting Democrats would not have enough members to break quorum.
"We need to return the fight to the Senate floor," Whitmire said. But he also stopped short of saying he would voluntarily go to Austin.
Even if Whitmire stays in Houston, he could be arrested and forced to the Capitol once a special session begins.
The second session on redistricting ended last week. Perry has vowed to call a third but will not say when. The remaining 10 Democrats are staying out of Texas for fear of arrest if they return.
A day after the second session ended, Whitmire woke up at 3 a.m. and could not stand another moment in New Mexico. He snuck out in the middle of the night to spend Labor Day weekend at home.
While in Houston, Whitmire read the transcript of a federal court hearing on the Democrats' voting rights lawsuit.
Though the Democrats portrayed U.S. District Judge George P. Kazen's decision last week to send the case to a three-judge panel as a victory, Whitmire found the transcript troubling.
In it, Kazen said the case had little merit.
But the Democrats' lawyers told their clients the news was good, Whitmire said.
"Somebody really did one on us," he said. "We were told in no uncertain terms to be optimistic."
Reporters were allowed to listen in on a teleconference call between the lawyers and the senators last week in which the lawyers gave a rosy view of the judge's statements. The lawyers and senators also talked behind closed doors.
Gerry Hebert, one of the lawyers, declined to respond to Whitmire's complaint.
Whitmire returned to Albuquerque on Tuesday for a scheduled meeting of the 11 Democrats. But he took with him only an empty suitcase to pack up his clothes.
By Tuesday night he was back in Houston.
Whitmire expressed frustration Wednesday that House members, who fled to Ardmore, Okla., for four days last spring, were not signing on for a longer term out of state. Democrats in the House would need 51 members to break quorum.
"They don't have 51 members willing to do it," Whitmire said.
But Rep. Garnet Coleman, a Houston Democrat who helped organize the Ardmore trip, said House members could gather enough people and might still leave the state, if necessary.
"We are taking this day by day, and a third special session has not been called," Coleman said. "We've gotten 51 people on board to do it before."
Whitmire feared that staying in Albuquerque would push Republicans to permanently scrap a Senate rule that gives a third of the Senate the power to block a bill from being considered.
Republican Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst abandoned that rule during the second session, a move that prompted the Democrats to flee.
"Without it, 16 members run the entire Senate," Whitmire said, adding that he does not want that to be the case on other legislative issues. "Redistricting is really important, but so is school finance. So is criminal justice."
Whitmire encouraged his Democratic colleagues to return to Texas and fight redistricting on the floor. He knows they will lose the vote, he said, but they can debate vigorously to "build a record" to defeat the new maps in federal court.
Whitmire spent most of Wednesday explaining his actions. The phone started ringing at 5:45 a.m. and never stopped. The lapels of his navy suit were rumpled from the parade of microphones pinned to it for television interviews. By 4:30 p.m., he had 31 new voice mail messages on his cellular phone.
The attention, some negative, did not lessen his resolve.
"They've got the gavel," he said of the Republicans. "They've got the numbers. If they're willing to use it, they can outlast us."
And despite a public reprimand from his Democratic colleagues, Whitmire said several of them privately encouraged him to return to Texas and end the standoff.
Politics aside, Whitmire found the month in Albuquerque suffocating.
The other Democrats told him not to go in the swimming pool because it "might look wrong." He was forced to watch Senate meetings on the Internet, without the face-to-face interaction with friends and colleagues he thrives on. He had to live by consensus.
"You're talking to a guy who flunked the first grade because he couldn't stay in his chair," Whitmire said. "Now put me in a hotel for 30 days."