Outgunned, Texas Democrats Vamoose With Rangers on Their Trail

AUSTIN, Texas — In an act of political subterfuge, at least 53 Democratic legislators packed their bags, disappeared from the Capitol and apparently scattered across the Southwest on Monday as Texas Rangers searched for them, bringing a divisive legislative session to an abrupt halt.

Under state law, Republicans — who control the governor’s mansion, the state Senate and the state House for the first time since the 19th century — need 100 of 150 legislators on the floor of the House before they can conduct the people’s business.

Now they don’t have a quorum, and with Thursday the last day legislation can be sent to the Senate, the conservative agenda they’ve effectively waited 130 years to advance could die.

The Democrats’ maneuver came, not coincidentally, as Republicans were preparing to redraw congressional districts, allowing the GOP to take as many as seven congressional seats away from Democrats in the next election cycle. Democrats currently hold a slim majority of the state’s congressional seats, and the GOP plan could cement the Republican Party’s hold on power in Washington.

Texas House Speaker Tom Craddick, a Republican, was not impressed by the walkout. “Get back to Austin and get back to work,” he warned the Democrats.

As his compatriots whistled the Star Spangled Banner on the floor of the House, Craddick ordered the chamber’s doors locked. Then, citing an obscure provision in the Texas Constitution allowing members of the House to demand a quorum of their peers, he asked the chamber’s sergeant-at-arms to find the Democrats.

Texas Department of Public Safety spokesman Tom Vinger confirmed Monday night that three of his department’s law enforcement divisions, including the fabled Texas Rangers, were on the case.

The Democrats had vowed to stay in hiding until the Thursday deadline passed. But according to Associated Press, troopers were sent to a Holiday Inn in Ardmore, Okla., late Monday to tell 40-plus members gathered there to return to Austin.

It was unclear how Republicans learned of the Democrats’ whereabouts. The rebel lawmakers were planning a news conference today.

At midnight, legislators in jeans and casual shirts milled about a conference room near the rear of the Oklahoma hotel lobby. Rep. Pete Gallego of Alpine said the lawmakers, whose numbers he wouldn’t release, arrived Sunday night. Asked how long they would stay, he said, “That remains to be seen.”

According to published reports and interviews with aides and legislative officials, the Democrats not only hatched a secret plan to escape Austin, they leaked false plans to the Republican leadership in recent days to cover their tracks.

According to published reports and interviews with aides and legislative officials, the Democrats not only hatched a secret plan to escape Austin, they leaked false plans to the Republican leadership in recent days to cover their tracks.

Some of the legislators didn’t know where they were going until they left, said aides who have since spoken with them by telephone.

And correctly assuming that Craddick would send troopers and rangers to arrest them, they split into groups and headed for several states, including Oklahoma and New Mexico.

Texas Gov. Rick Perry dispatched his attorneys Monday to ask neighboring states whether his troopers and rangers could make arrests there. Though other states were looking into it late Monday, New Mexico’s Atty. Gen. Patricia A. Madrid said no.

She said Texas authorities would need to issue warrants for the legislators’ arrest. Only then, she said, would New Mexico authorities be able to arrest them — and even then the two states would need to discuss extradition proceedings.

“I have put out an all-points bulletin for law enforcement to be on the lookout for politicians in favor of health care for the needy and against tax cuts for the wealthy,” said Madrid, a Democrat.

Asked in an interview where his bosses are, Dean Rindy, a political advisor to the Democratic House Caucus, said: “I don’t know. And I don’t want to know.”

“They vanished into the night,” he said. “Gone with the wind.”

Rindy dismissed rumors circulating that the Democrats ditched their cellular phones en masse in case any of them, in a moment of weakness, call home and give away their whereabouts.

“To pry a cell phone from a politician’s hand would be unprecedented,” he said. “I doubt that.”

In a ploy audacious even by the standards of Texas politics, one of the GOP’s new congressional districts would be composed of two Republican-leaning areas, one north of Austin and one in the Rio Grande Valley — 300 miles away. The two areas would be connected by a mile-wide ribbon of land and have been dubbed a “community of interest.”

Democrats say U.S. House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, a Republican from Sugar Land, Texas, is behind the push for the new congressional districts.

DeLay could not be reached for comment.

“We did not choose our path. Tom DeLay did,” the missing Democrats said in a prepared statement.

“Our House rules, including those regarding a quorum, were adopted precisely to protect the people from what is before the House today — the tyranny of a majority…. The redistricting plan … is the ultimate in political greed — it is undemocratic, unjust and unprecedented. It’s a power grab by Tom DeLay, pure and simple.”

It’s not that simple, however, and the Democrats’ walkout was about more than redistricting.

Texas had long been a bastion of Democratic power, but the party began to falter in the 1980s, largely when white, suburban voters turned away from liberal social policies and toward the conservative wing. In 2002, Democrats assembled what they termed a “dream team” of candidates and declared it the “year of the comeback.”

It was a monumental flop. Largely because of President Bush’s influence and fund-raising prowess, the Democrats did not capture a single statewide election. Politically, Republicans may be more powerful here than they are in any other state but they could not have picked a worse time to take control.

Texas, though it spends less per capita than almost any other state, is in dire financial trouble, facing a $10-billion budget shortfall over the next two years. Many Texans, however, expect little more from their government than properly operating traffic lights, and raising taxes is tantamount to political suicide for Republicans.

The alternative to raising taxes, though, is a series of dramatic cuts in social services that have shocked even many moderates here.

The Republican leaders say they are trying to be good fiscal wards in difficult economic times. But they have proposed, among other things, reclassifying 56,000 elderly and disabled people so they are no longer “frail” — making them ineligible for Medicaid.

An estimated 250,000 children from low-income families would be removed from the rolls of the Children’s Health Insurance Program. Money set aside to replace antiquated textbooks in public schools has been cut, and teachers’ health insurance benefits are expected to drop considerably.

The budget bill containing those provisions is among those that could die this week because of the Democrats’ walkout.

Democrats also disagree with a host of other Republican legislation that is expected to pass, including one bill that limits damages in medical malpractice cases, restricts class-action lawsuits and shields some corporations from defective product claims.

“The Democrats in the Texas House of Representatives have taken a stand on principle,” said Texas Democratic Party Chairwoman Molly Beth Malcolm. “They are not going to allow themselves to be run over by Tom DeLay, Tom Craddick and the rest of the far right-wing Republicans who care more about their party’s agenda than what is best for Texas. The Republicans will attempt to call them obstructionists. They are heroes.”

According to Craddick, they are cowards.

“It’s not a disgrace to stand and fight, but it is a disgrace to run and hide,” he said.

The Texas Legislature meets just once every two years, for 140 days, during which, on average, more than 8,000 bills are proposed and more than 1,000 are debated and approved. That means every day counts, said Peggy Venable, the Austin-based state director of Citizens for a Sound Economy, which fights for lower taxes and less government regulations.

“They are supposed to do the people’s business. Instead they are taking a vacation at taxpayer expense,” she said in an interview. “They are acting like truant schoolchildren. Democrats don’t seem to know how to be in a minority. It is time they grow up.”

The Democrats’ maneuver is not without precedent. Twenty-four years ago, 12 Texas state senators went on a similar strike, refusing to work at the Capitol. They hid in an Austin apartment for several days while Texas Rangers and other law enforcement authorities searched for them.