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Texas Democrats refusing to leave hotel in Oklahoma

Wednesday, May 14, 2003

AUSTIN, Texas -- More than 50 Texas Democrats spent their second day on the lam at a Holiday Inn in Oklahoma on Tuesday, beyond the reach of the law for now, in a standoff with Republicans over the redrawing of the state's congressional districts.

The House Democrats sneaked out of Austin on Sunday after spending several days discussing ways to derail the GOP redistricting plan. Three Democrats returned to the Capitol on Tuesday, but Republicans were still denied a quorum needed to conduct business.

The mood was subdued in the historic chamber Tuesday, with Republicans pleased to see a few Democrats stream in. One legislator had organized a "behind-the-scenes" tour of the Bob Bullock Texas History Museum, not far from the Capitol.

Republicans had constructed signs and gimmicks ridiculing their colleagues. They plastered the Democrats' faces on milk cartons, and Susan Weddington, chairwoman of the Republican Party of Texas, borrowing from the "most wanted Iraqi" cards, announced she had playing cards featuring the missing legislators.

The defiant Democrats remained at the hotel in Ardmore, Okla., about 30 miles north of the Texas border and about 270 miles due north of Austin. They met privately in a hotel conference room to discuss school financing, homeowners insurance, the state budget and other issues.

Several Texans traveled to Oklahoma to give their support, including Sharon Copeland, who lives about 60 miles away in Denton.

"You guys are my heroes," Copeland said as she threw her arms around Rep. Lon Burnam. "I sure am proud to be a Democrat today. I didn't even know this could be done."

Democrats blame the standoff on the GOP's attempt to redraw the congressional districts. The plan could add five to seven GOP House seats to the 15 it already has. The state has 32 congressional districts.

States must redraw their congressional districts every 10 years to reflect population shifts found in the U.S. Census. A federal court drew Texas' congressional districts after state lawmakers failed to reach an agreement in 2001, leaving open the possibility that the districts could be redrawn by the Texas Legislature.

Democrats argue that they are not required by the Constitution to redraw district lines, particularly in a nonredistricting year, and blamed the drive for the Republican plan on U.S. House Majority Leader Tom DeLay.

In Washington, DeLay mocked the Democratic legislators.

"I have never turned tail and run," DeLay said. "Even when I'm losing, I stand and fight for what I believe in."

Redistricting had been scheduled for debate in the House on Monday. According to House rules, the deadline to preliminarily vote on House bills is Thursday. After that, it would take a favorable vote by two-thirds of the House to get legislation to the floor for a vote. Missing the deadline would stymie several major bills, including a budget-balancing government reorganization proposal.

When the Democrats didn't show up Monday in Austin, House Speaker Tom Craddick ordered Texas Department of Public Safety troopers to find the missing lawmakers, arrest them and bring them back. But on Tuesday, local law enforcement authorities in Oklahoma greeted the Democrats with big smiles and warm handshakes.

"We're here to let them know we support them," said Harvey Burkhart, sheriff of Carter County, Okla. "Nothing's going to happen to them here. I can tell you we're certainly not going to put them in jail."

Craddick said he would not negotiate with the absent lawmakers.

"This week it's redistricting, next week it's the budget, the next week when we get back in it's school finance, that's not the way the process works," Craddick said. "We're just not going to negotiate with them. If we negotiate on this we'll be negotiating on every calendar, every bill, every day."

Each representative will pay for his or her own room and other expenses, said Rep. Garnet Coleman. He said Democrats planned to stay in Oklahoma "indefinitely," but others said the group probably wouldn't stay beyond Friday.

The walkout came 24 years to the month since a group of 12 Texas state senators defied then-Lt. Gov. Bill Hobby by refusing to show up at the Capitol.

Some of the "Killer Bees," as the 12 Democrats came to be known, hid out in an Austin garage apartment while troopers, Texas Rangers and legislative sergeants-at-arms unsuccessfully combed the state for them.


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