Texas Democrats set a mark for whole party

By Robert Jensen

Published in Newsday · May, 2003

Newsday , May 28, 2003.

Republicans dominate Texas politics, but the national Democratic Party could learn a simple lesson from the state Before you can become the party in power, you have to be a real opposition party.

When 51 Democratic members of the Texas House of Representatives left for Oklahoma earlier this month to derail a Republican redistricting plan, they did something that — for Democrats these days — seems radical They stood up for themselves and for the democratic process.

The national Democrats have caved in to the Bush administration on every front — most notably an obscene tax cut that benefits the wealthiest and an illegal war that was based on lies about terrorism and weapons of mass destruction. The Democrats’ status-quo politics has allowed the ideologically fanatical Republican leadership to push the status quo ever further to the right.

In Texas, it’s been an ugly year for centrist, let alone progressive, politics. With majorities of 88-62 in the state House and 19-12 in the state Senate, Republicans have been gutting health and human-services programs, undermining environmental regulation and pushing bogus tort-reform measures — all of which will reward the rich and punish the poor.

Texas Democrats were getting nowhere in attempts to slow down this right-wing juggernaut. The Republican House speaker, Tom Craddick of Midland, played Bush’s game Talk bipartisanship but wield power harshly. Some of the reactionary right’s agenda was advanced under the cover of a projected $10 billion shortfall for the next two fiscal years, but much of the legislative agenda was independent of the budget crisis.

Enter U.S. House Majority Leader Tom DeLay and his plan to redistrict the Texas congressional delegation. If his gerrymandering had succeeded, the current 17 Democrats-to-15 Republicans balance could have shifted to 22 Republicans and 10 Democrats.

Three federal judges drew the current boundaries when the Legislature failed to do so after the 2000 census. There’s no principled or legal reason the districts need to be redrawn before 2010; at least DeLay was honest about that. “I’m the majority leader, and we want more seats,” he said.

That’s what Texas Democrats faced when they boarded a bus for the Holiday Inn in Ardmore, Okla. Their absence denied the state House a quorum, and they didn’t return until after the after the May 15 deadline for passage of House bills, guaranteeing that the redistricting plan was dead.

They’ve been called cowards for leaving, but their action took real political courage. Yes, they were trying to protect the last remnant of Democratic political power in a state with a Republican executive and legislature, and two GOP senators. But there also was a question of fair play.

Lon Burnam, one of the Democratic refugees, said the walkout was born partly of outrage at GOP tactics.

“For three months the Republicans refused to deal with fundamental issues — the deficit, funding for public schools, a homeowners insurance crisis,” he said. “And then they wanted to let Tom DeLay define the state’s agenda during the last week that House bills could be considered. It was absolutely unnecessary and would have seriously undermined the Voting Rights Act in Texas.”

Will the Democrats’ gambit pay off politically? The next election will provide the answer, but the feeling in the air is that — love or hate them — the Democrats won some respect for taking the risk. As one letter-writer in Austin put it, “I was ecstatic to see that Texas Democrats still have guts.”

Erin Rogers, who handles grassroots organizing for the Texas chapter of the Sierra Club and also lobbies the Legislature, said she thinks this episode not only generated new enthusiasm for the party but for politics more generally

“I think lots of rank-and-file Democrats had become disenchanted with party leaders,” she said. “Democrats across the state were cheering not only because redistricting failed but because the party found its spine. Legislators who in the past had shied away from risk but a lot on the line for principle.”

Although I think the current two-party system is killing real democracy, I don’t mind offering the Democrats a bit of free advice If you want to be something more than Karl Rove’s doormat, keep more of an eye on Texas in the coming months than on the polls. Taking risks might prove to be politically effective. And even if it doesn’t win votes in the short term, it will win back some self-respect.