What's with Texas Democrats?

Posted: May 15, 2003 12:00 AM

What's with Texas Democrats? Fearful that the Republican majority would push through a redistricting plan that might create between five and seven new Republican-controlled seats in the state's congressional delegation, all but one of the Democratic members of the Texas legislature fled under cover of darkness to Oklahoma. At least 50 of them hid out in a Holiday Inn just over the border. The absence of a quorum in Austin means that no business on the state budget, or any other matter, can be conducted.

Is this the low point for a once great party when the state Democratic delegation cuts and runs, instead of standing and fighting, and then flees at night to the state of its arch football rival? Not New Mexico. Not even Arkansas. But Oklahoma? The Democrats left the state to avoid arrest by Texas Rangers, a constitutionally permitted act when legislators fail to show up for work.

For as long as anyone could remember, Democrats ran government in Texas. Republicans knew their place and pretty much accepted their fate as permanent members of a minority political class. That began to change as Republicans in the '60s and '70s tapped into the patriotic and social concerns of conservative Democrats and won enough of them over to elect Republicans to Congress. That was soon followed by victories in the state legislature and governor's office.

Rather than accepting defeat, as Republicans were used to doing, and instead of plotting a strategy for retaking control of state government, Texas Democrats followed the lead of their Washington, D.C., colleagues and began to complain. Apparently under the misguided belief they have some intrinsic right to perpetually hold on to political power, Texas Democrats began to grumble about Republican "power grabs." But isn't that what Democrats -- in fact all politicians -- do? Isn't the purpose of politics to gain power so that one might exercise it? Democrats exercised power when they had it and now they complain when Republicans have it and wish to use it. That power includes redistricting to keep themselves in office. Republican legislators were elected by the people in open elections. If they don't like the outcome, perhaps Democrats should come up with ideas to run the state better than Republicans and voters might elect more of them.

Texas Republicans are considering several strategies. The most radical would be for Gov. Rick Perry to declare the seats of the absconding Democrats vacant and call a special election to fill them. That is not likely to happen because of the cost associated with a special election. A second strategy would be for the House Speaker to strip committee chairmanships from the Democrats. In Texas, a bipartisan policy allows members of the minority party to chair committees. Depriving them of their chairmanships would turn Democrats into political geldings.

Here's what probably will happen. Perry will call a special session of the legislature in June, because the budget must be passed. Republican legislators say at that time they will ram through the redistricting proposal. "It's going to happen," one legislator told me. He also said that Democrats may pay a penalty for leaving the state when some of their bills are not brought up for votes.

The problem for Democrats in Austin and in Washington is that they have failed the ideology test. As Joel Klein writes in a Time magazine cover story this week, Democrats seem to have lost firm convictions about anything and simply pander to the special interest groups who promise them votes.

Democrats used to be the party of grand ideas, but now Republicans are the ones with the ideas and Democrats spend most of their time complaining about them and blowing class-warfare smoke.

Texas Republicans are having fun with the Democrats' walkout. They've created playing cards that resemble most-wanted Iraqis. They've also plastered the faces of the missing Democrats on milk cartons. A comedian wearing a chicken outfit stands outside the legislature with a sign that reads "Chicken D Come Home!"

Call the Democrats Texas toast.