Former Senator Lloyd Bentsen once said that in Texas, politics is a contact sport. The sport turned ugly earlier this month, as scores of Democrat officeholders scurried north to Oklahoma to avoid passing a bill they didn’t like.
For four days this month, 53 Democrat members of the Texas house of representatives holed up in Ardmore, Oklahoma to deny the Republican majority the quorum needed to pass a bill that would redraw the state’s electoral map. They called the redistricting plan an “outrage” and “unprecedented.”
The GOP plan is partisan to be sure, but is it unprecedented? Only if you don’t count what happened just a little over a decade ago. Political scientist Michael Barone is succinct: The current GOP plan pales in comparison to the plan it is meant to undo. According to Barone that plan, drawn up by Rep. Martin Frost (D., Ft. Worth) in 1991, was “The most partisan redistricting in the ‘90 cycle in the nation.” Barone’s 1991 Almanac of American Politics called the Frost plan “the shrewdest gerrymander” of its time.
In the late 1980s, Texas Democrats recognized a problem. Texas had been a Democrat lock since Reconstruction. From the end of that period to 1978, not a single Republican had been elected governor, and only one had ever been elected senator. When state Rep. Tom Craddick of Midland first took office 34 years ago, he was one of only six Republicans in the entire state house (today he is the speaker, leading a near two-thirds GOP majority). Prior to 1978, the Democrats held all statewide elective offices. The Texas representation in the U.S. House was Democrat.
But in the 1980s, the Reagan Revolution turned Texas into a tossup, and by 1990 Texas was trending GOP. It didn’t matter that Democrat Ann Richards would win the statehouse that year (she won because the Republican candidate, Clayton Williams, made a rather unfortunate comparison between bad weather and rape), or that the Democrats would retain their majorities in statewide offices and the legislature: The national Democrats had moved permanently to Texas’s left during the McGovern era, and Texas had thus been left behind by its traditional party. Texas Democrats foresaw their own imminent collapse, and the inevitable rise of the GOP to replace them. This also spelled doom for the Democrats’ lock on the U.S. House, to which Texas sent the nation’s third-largest delegation at the time.
To hold back the political tide, in 1991 the Democrats embarked on one of the great political capers of the past 50 years, creating a crazy-quilt of districts designed to maintain their majorities in the state legislature and the Texas delegation to the U.S. House of Representatives, and thus shore up the party’s majority in the House overall. The Democrats became very undemocratic.
U.S. Rep. Martin Frost (D., Fort Worth) carved Texas like a prized turkey, slicing up strong Republican districts, putting their shards in Democrat strongholds and pitting strong Democrat incumbents against perceived weaker Republican incumbents. The intent was to dilute growing Republican support in the state legislature, and to keep the state’s emerging GOP majority in the elected minority as long as possible. In some cases, it worked brilliantly. Hunt and Kaufman counties, which had been represented during the past several terms by a Republican and a Democrat respectively, suddenly found themselves joined in House District 4. The Democrats hoped their rising young star, State Representative Keith Oakley, would knock off the older Republican Bill Thomas, and he did, a net gain for the Democrats. Overall the Frost plan kept the Democrats’ erosion to a minimum, and kept the GOP from taking the state senate and house for a few more years.
At the U.S. House level, the Frost plan took Republican strongholds and made them “more Republican,” packing suburban voters in key districts to keep them from voting in races where they might have had an impact on Democrat incumbents. The net effect was to create GOP ghettos, maximizing the growing Republican vote in a few districts while minimizing it everywhere else. And the Frost plan has worked: In 2000, 56 percent of Texans voted for a Republican candidate to the U.S. House, and Republicans hold all 29 statewide elected offices while Texans have supported the GOP candidate for president in every election since 1980, yet thanks to the Frost plan the Democrats still hold a majority of the state’s House seats, 17-15.
The Ardmore fraternity party, as state GOP types have taken to calling the 53 wayward Democrats, said their flight was to protest what they called a highly partisan Republican redistricting plan. State Rep. Jim Dunham of Waco led the group, insisting that the plan was not only too partisan, but that adopting it in a non-census year was an outrage. Dunham has a short memory — he had his own district redrawn in 1997 so that he could build a house in a different neighborhood without having to run in a new district. Of course, 1997 was not a census year. The Ardmore 53 have also tossed up the canard of “diversity,” arguing that the GOP plan would dilute African-American votes and diminish their representation. That’s a funny argument, given that the state currently has three African Americans holding statewide elected office, and all are Republicans.
The truth is that the only thing about the GOP plan that is unprecedented is the fact that Republicans drew it. Tellingly, none of the fleeing 53 voiced any concern about the plan before heading for the Oklahoma flatlands. The two Democrats that did raise concerns during the legislative session had their questions addressed, and stayed in Austin to support the plan’s passage. Republican party Executive Director Wayne Hamilton recalled a bit of Texas history when summing up the state’s view of the hightailing Democrats: “The fact is, the line was drawn at the Alamo and these guys all cut and run.”
The Red River run succeeded in killing the redistricting bill, at least for now, and has also taken collateral damage in sidelining passage of the state’s budget. But the Dems’ victory may prove as pyrrhic for its architects as Santa Anna’s at the Alamo. That battle was his last major win: He soon lost Texas to Sam Houston’s rested army at San Jacinto. Recent polls show that 59 percent of Texas voters think the fleeing 53 Democrats’ actions were “very wrong.” Texans will undoubtedly punish them next year.
— Bryan Preston is a writer and television producer. He is also the author of Junkyardblog.