Slicing the Map

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The Killer Ds Take Flight

Jim Dunnam, Texas House member and Chairman of the House Democratic Caucus in Texas, describes walking through the Texas House chamber. "It's a rather imposing and beautiful room. On the walls, you'll see people that I think people around the world will recall: Davy Crockett, Audie Murphy who won the Congressional Medal Of Honor, and the founders of Texas, Sam Houston and Stephen F. Austin."

When the Texan Republicans attempted to push through their redistricting plan in the summer of 2003, 52 House Democrats took drastic action. They fled across the state border to Oklahoma, to deprive the House of the quorum needed for bills to become law. The fugitive Texas Democrats became known as the Killer Ds. As far as they were concerned, flight beyond state jurisdiction was the last, desperate attempt to kill the bill's progress. They boarded buses pursued by the authorities. The result? A political farce, Texas style.

"We showed up on Sunday night at a hotel right here in Austin," says Dunnam, "and we counted heads. And we really didn't know we were really going to leave until we sat there and everyone showed up, and we counted to 52 and we all got on a bus and we headed north."

And suddenly they found themselves in the midst of a media storm.

"Yeah, it was not anticipated," Dunnam continued. "But, it was an experience for us. It was an experience for our families. They had Texas Rangers following our family here at home. My child, for example, who was in 2nd grade at the time, had an adult at school come up and say, 'Do you know where your daddy is?' in an inappropriate manner. I was proud of him. He said, 'Yeah, he's on the front page of the paper.'"

National Public Radio covered the scene:

"The Democrats held a press conference Tuesday in front of the Holiday Inn in Ardmore. Sounding more defiant than ever, House Democratic Caucus Chairman Jim Dunnam made it clear who the group blames for their trip across state lines. 'We're here in Ardmore, Oklahoma, because the real problems of Texas-our budget problems, our school financing problems, our health care problems-they're being cast aside because of a power play by Tom DeLay.'"

Meanwhile, back in Austin, the state capital, the remaining House Representatives found themselves confined to the chamber with the doors locked. In a tradition that goes back to the days of the Wild West, lawmakers can be stopped from leaving the chamber. Republican Phil King was caught unaware.

"We come in Monday morning," says King, "and, sure enough, only Republicans were there and a handful of four or five Democrats who had not left the state. At first it seemed a little comical, because this had never happened before and we didn't know what to do. But after you've ordered fajitas for 100 people that evening, it begins to get a little bit serious. It was embarrassing. We became the laughingstock of the media. All of a sudden, CNN and FOX and everybody descended on the state capitol with cameras showing our empty halls. You know, there's nothing wrong with losing on an issue. It's wrong to cut and run."

But Dunham wasn't worried about being sore loser. "These are people that want to change the outcome of elections by going back after the fact and changing the boundary lines to shuffle up the voters, and really artificially change the power structure in the entire United States. Because if you can change seven districts in Texas, and you can change five districts in Ohio and two districts in Colorado, you can permanently alter the power structure of the U.S. Congress for an generation. And that is not democracy."

And so, after four days, the Killer Ds returned to Austin. When the bill passed to the State senate in July, a similar plot among Democrats there was being hatched. This time they would go to New Mexico.

"At 8:30 on Monday morning," says Leticia Van de Putte, leader of the Senate Democratic Caucus in Texas, "I set in motion to have the planes on the tarmac here in Austin. I made the call. There was only one other person that knew our destination; the senators did not know. And when they voted to break quorum, they didn't know I had the planes ready. But, from the time we left the capitol to the time we were wheels up was about 45 minutes. And I did not let them know where we were going until we were already in the air."

The senators stayed in a New Mexico hotel for 47 days.

"There's a picture that hangs in my office that shows us at the press conference. And if you could see the looks on those eleven senators' faces, it is one of resolve; it is one of seriousness. We didn't want to be there. We knew that it was very drastic. But it was the only way that we could call attention to this."

Despite the best efforts of the Killer Ds, the Republican plan was passed in October 2003. For the second time in two years, Texas had new congressional districts, leaving the Democrats fuming and the Republicans celebrating.

Go to part 2

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