Cover Story

FLIGHT AND FIGHT

If you can't beat 'em, flee 'em? That seems to be the strategy of Texas Democrats holed up in neighboring New Mexico. They want to escape majority Republicans seeking to redraw the political map. But this is no mere Texas turf battle; this is about shaping the battlefield for the 2004 national elections

Issue: "Capitol stampede in Texas," Aug. 9, 2003

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.

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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.)

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