A Timely Reading from Gerrymandering Texas

In November 2020, we released Gerrymandering Texas and subsequently posted an interview with the book’s editor, Bob Heath. Those masochists who follow the doings of the Texas legislature know that 2021 is a redistricting year, which means that at some point a cabal of Republicans in Austin will gather and do their best to make sure that fellow Republicans continue to dominate Texas elections for the next decade.  

To complicate matters, the census data normally required to draw districts has been delayed, meaning that redistricting will take place much later than it normally would. This circumstance creates an opening for the federal government, dominated by Joe Biden and the Democrats, to try to block the inevitable gerrymanders that will emerge from Republican statehouses.  

Now is a moment of dramatic inflection, which will have a lot to say about the politics of this young decade. In the following excerpt of Gerrymandering Texas, we are reminded that redistricting has often been dramatic. 

Jim Dunnam was in the parking lot of the Embassy Suites in Austin on Sunday afternoon, May 11, 2003. He was alone in his thoughts as he anxiously awaited his colleagues, the Democrats of the Texas House of Representatives. As chairman of the House Democratic Caucus, he knew that he was on the verge of either a historic walkout that would defeat the Republicans’ congressional redistricting legislation or a shameful fiasco. The planned walkout was the Democrats’ last and least-favored option.  

To break a quorum in the Texas House of Representatives so that it cannot pass legislation requires the absence of fifty-one members, one more than one third of the 150 members. The margin for error was narrow. There were sixty-two Democrats in the House, but the price to be paid for participating in the walkout would be steep. The Republican Speaker of the House, Tom Craddick, was certain to exact revenge. As a result, getting over fifty-one Democrats to secretly sign a pledge to leave had been difficult. 

As he waited in the parking lot, Dunnam went over the numbers in his head. He knew that Democratic Representative Ron Wilson had come out openly for the Republican legislation and that for various reasons eight Democrats would remain in Austin where they were likely, willingly or unwillingly, to become part of the House quorum. Six other Democrats pledged to join the boycott by traveling out of state on their own. If all kept their promises, the House would be without a quorum. If not . . .? 

The planned walkout was the Democrats’ last and least-favored option.  

The Democrats came to the parking lot slowly. They arrived alone or in small groups. Dunnam was anxious. Some Democrats were driving around and watching or receiving cell phone reports on the number of arrivals. They wanted to make sure the walkout would be successful before they joined it. Those already in the buses called their absent colleagues to encourage them to come. Dunnam waited and worried. 

Meanwhile, the Speaker, Republican Tom Craddick, was in his apartment at the back of the House chamber, totally unaware of the Democrats’ plans. He was furious when he learned that the Democrats were gone. Their absence jeopardized the Republican plan to gain control of the Texas congressional delegation for the first time since shortly after the Civil War. Craddick immediately called the other state officials (all Republicans), Congressman Tom DeLay, and the Department of Public Safety (DPS). The message was similar in each call: “Find the Democrats and bring them to the House chamber.” To the public he said, “The Chicken Ds that did this ought to be ashamed of themselves. There is disgrace in running and hiding. . . I’ve been in the House for thirty-five years and I’ve lost some, but I’ve never walked off the floor like these Chicken Ds.” 

The Democrats’ walkout captured the nation’s, and to some extent the world’s, attention for months in 2003. The question is: Why such drastic tactics for this particular moment?