Who could blame those who want to escape the oppressive summer heat of Texas? Who wouldn't want to escape to the cool breezes and fresh air of beautiful ... New Mexico?
When 11 Democratic state senators high-tailed it from Austin to Albuquerque last week, clearly something more than the usual summer vacation was going on. Republicans lashed out at Democrats for "running away" and "abandoning their responsibilities" in Austin. New Mexico's Democratic governor, meanwhile, welcomed the senators as political heroes and posted state troopers outside their hotel to prevent bounty hunters from dragging the truants back to their desks.
The carefully choreographed flight across state lines shut down the Texas Senate, halting debate on a contentious redistricting plan that has divided lawmakers for nearly three years now. It's an issue with implications far beyond the borders of the Lone Star State. By most calculations, the GOP-sponsored map in Texas would add a minimum of five new Republicans to the U.S. House next year, virtually eliminating any chance of a Democratic takeover in the lower chamber. And other states, including New Mexico, Georgia, and Colorado, are still fighting bitter redistricting battles of their own.
With every major political prize up for grabs in 2004, drawing lines on a map has suddenly become an art: the art of war.
There's not much to do in Albuquerque, a tidy little desert city where the sidewalks seem to roll up at 7 p.m. Still, the 11 Democrats from hip, happening Austin say they're prepared to camp out at the Albuquerque Marriott for up to 30 days, until the end of a special legislative session called just for the purpose of redrawing the Texas electoral map.
It's actually the second special session of the summer, the third try at redistricting this year-and the second mass exodus by the Democrats. Back in May, 55 Democratic members of the Texas House fled to Oklahoma to break the quorum needed to debate a new map. Republican leaders deputized employees of the Department of Public Safety to round up the absent lawmakers, but the delaying tactic worked, and the session ended with no agreement on redistricting.
Republican Gov. Rick Perry called the legislature back into session in late June, but again the Democrats stonewalled. Senate tradition in Texas requires a two-thirds majority to bring any issue up for a vote, and the Democrats, with 12 seats out of 31, refused even to debate the new map. Still the Republicans wouldn't give up: Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst, who presides over the state Senate, said he would set aside the two-thirds requirement in any special session convened exclusively to debate redistricting. That would allow the new map to pass with a simple majority, which was virtually guaranteed with 19 Republicans in the chamber. Forced to a vote, Democrats knew they couldn't defeat the redistricting plan. So rather than vote, they chose to vamoose.
"We are prepared to stay here for the duration of this special session. We are going to take it a day at a time," Sen. Leticia Van de Putte, Senate Democratic Caucus chairwoman, said at a news conference in Albuquerque. "This is not about Democrats. It's about democracy and it's about civil rights."
Ms. Van de Putte said 1.4 million minority voters would lose effective representation under the GOP plan, a claim that drew scorn from Republicans. Democrats are "lying their pants off" because they're afraid of losing power, opines David Hill, a GOP pollster and consultant in Houston. Mr. Hill believes Latinos will actually gain one to two new representatives in Congress under the GOP plan. The real losers, he says, will be the rural white male Democrats who have long dominated Texas politics. Conservative Democrats like Charlie Stenholm and Ralph Hall would be thrown into districts with fewer farmers and more suburban soccer moms. And because suburban voters in Texas tend to swing Republican, the Democrats' 150-year ascendancy would likely come to an end.
Lone Star Republicans argue that's long overdue. Over the past decade, Texas has become a GOP stronghold at every level of government, yet the state sent 17 Democrats to Congress in 2002, compared to just 15 Republicans. Republicans insist that's because of unfair gerrymandering carried out under decades of Democratic rule, when congressional districts were drawn up to 250 miles long in order to encompass as many rural, yellow-dog Democrats as possible. (The etymology of the term gerrymander goes to the 19th century, when a Massachusetts governor, Elbridge Gerry, backed a redistricting bill that carved out an electoral district approximating the shape of a salamander-drawn purely to strengthen his party's political power.)
"As Republicans we have done a terrible job of communicating to the public that the real injustice was the Democratic redistricting following the 1990 census that was recognized as the biggest gerrymander in the country," Mr. Hill says. "We let them get away with it in 1990. We're now really just reconciling the injustice of that time."
GOP complaints about unfair gerrymandering may win sympathy for the cause, and there's little doubt that the state is far more solidly Republican than its congressional delegation would indicate. But Democrats raise a convincing fairness issue of their own: Redistricting, they say, is supposed to take place once a decade-not whenever a new party sweeps into power and decides to consolidate its base.
Following the 2000 census, the Texas legislature struggled for months to bring congressional districts into line with new population patterns. But the Republican-dominated Senate could never reach an agreement with the Democrat-controlled House, and lawmakers eventually had to leave the mapmaking up to a three-judge panel. That might have settled the issue, except for the Bush-led sweep of 2002, when a decades-long GOP trend finally culminated with a crushing defeat of Democrats up and down the ballot. At last firmly in control of both the state House and Senate, Republicans promptly threw out the judges' map and set about drawing one of their own.
Even for those who hope for a bigger GOP majority in the House of Representatives, the precedent set in Texas may induce a certain amount of queasiness. Redistricting is brutal enough when it happens just once every 10 years; few would want to see the process turned into an everyday occurrence. But it may already be too late. Though the Texas battle has drawn the most national attention, Lone Star lawmakers aren't the only ones to consider rewriting the rules on redistricting.
In Colorado, Democratic congressmen are raising money for a legal challenge to an electoral map that puts Republicans more firmly in control of two notoriously difficult swing districts. Ken Salazar, the state's Democratic attorney general, has sued to overturn the redistricting plan, which was passed by the state legislature just this spring. The Democrats' suit argues that Republicans tried and failed to agree on a map in 2001, and instead punted their responsibility to a judge. Revisiting the issue two years later is simply too late, according to the suit.
But don't tell that to New Mexico Democrats. Two years ago a judge redrew their state's voting lines after the Democrat-controlled legislature failed to reach an agreement with Republican Gov. Gary Johnson. Now that Clinton protŽgŽ Bill Richardson has replaced Mr. Johnson, Democratic leaders in both the House and Senate are talking about taking the matter back into their own hands. Gov. Richardson already plans to call the legislature into special session in October to discuss tax policy. He says he is reluctant to add redistricting to the agenda, but that he would consider it, "depending on what other states do."
That not-so-veiled reference to the standoff in Texas reinforces the possible domino effect of the redistricting issue. With control of the House up for grabs again next year, governors and legislatures will feel the pressure to squeeze out a few more safe seats in any state with judicially drawn voting lines. Those lines, in turn, will likely be challenged in court, and the whole process could well drag on until the next Census in 2010 starts it all over again.
Still, there may be some limit to voters' tolerance for the politics of redistricting. Most pundits in Texas say the issue is too complex to have any negative impact at the ballot box, but at least one prominent politician believes he owes his job to just such a backlash. Georgia Gov. Sonny Perdue, a Republican, plans to make Democratic gerrymandering a top issue in state House and Senate races next year. In 2002, he came out of nowhere to upset a popular Democratic incumbent, largely on the basis of voters' anger over the highly politicized redistricting process. Gov. Perdue and his aides believe they can ride the redistricting issue to even more victories next year.
Says Dan McLagan, a spokesman for the governor: "The redistricting issue is here to stay, and it's going to keep coming up as an epitaph of Democratic legislators."
Republican legislators in Texas might want to take note.