This isn’t the first time Texas House Dems have gone on the lam

The headlines would not have looked out of place this week: “Texas House paralyzed by Democrats walkout,” “On the lam, Texas Democrats rough it” and “Texas Democrats vanish (again).”  But those all appeared 18 years ago.

In 2003, Texas Democrats hightailed it from the state in dramatic fashion to prevent a vote on a redistricting plan that would favor Republicans.

This week during a special session of the Legislature, Texas House Democratic lawmakers for  the second time this year denied Republicans a quorum in order to block an election bill. In May, they walked out of the Capitol in the closing hours of the regular session to stop the bill, which they believe will unfairly restrict voting rights, from passing and becoming law. 

After that walkout, Governor Greg Abbott called the special session and pledged to address election reforms when lawmakers returned to Austin. House Democrats showed up for the first few days, but fled before the chamber’s election bill could receive a floor vote. 

Nine Senate Democrats also left Texas, but they lacked the numbers  to prevent a quorum, and the Senate passed its version of the election bill on Tuesday. 

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Texas House Democrats wave to supporters gathered on the south steps of the Capitol in Austin, Texas Friday, May 16, 2003. The Democrats, who have been in Oklahoma since Monday in order to prevent quorum in the House and stop a controversial redistricting bill, were welcomed home after their arrival early Friday morning. AP

In 2003, during a bitter fight over a controversial redistricting proposal, Texas House and Senate Democrats left the state on two separate occasions. At the time, Democrats held a 17-15 edge in Texas’ U.S. House delegation, but Republicans, who held majorities in the Legislature, were pushing a new map.

In May 2003, House Democrats walked off the House floor and went to Oklahoma to block the Republican redistricting plan. According to the Associated Press, Republicans slapped Democrats’ pictures on milk cartons and created playing cards like those made for the most-wanted Iraqis from Saddam Hussein’s regime. 

“We have a message for Tom DeLay: don’t mess with Texas,” former Democratic state Representative Jim Dunnam said at the time. DeLay, a Texas Republican who was the U.S. House majority leader in 2003, was behind the redistricting proposal, aimed at making a choice few House seats held by Democrats ripe for Republicans.  

Rick Perry was the GOP governor at the time. He slammed the Democrats and sent law enforcement out to look for them, but they had to stop at the state lines. (The current governor, Greg Abbott, was Texas attorney general.)The Democrats tarried in Oklahoma for a few days until the deadline passed for the House to approve bills. 

“We’ve weathered some troopers, we’ve weathered a tornado, and we weathered Denny’s,” Dunnam said when lawmakers returned. “No matter what happens, democracy won in this event.”

Perry called lawmakers back for a special session to address redistricting at the end of June. During that session, 11 Senate Democrats in the 31-member chamber blocked debate on the redistricting bill, according to the Associated Press. Senate rules required two-thirds of the members to agree to bring up debate on a bill.  

As soon as that session ended in late July, Perry called for a second special session. But after then-Lieutenant Governor David Dewhurst said the two-thirds rule would not apply, the 11 Senate Democrats left Texas and went to New Mexico to deny a quorum, according to the Associated Press.

“This is not about Democrats. It’s about democracy and it’s about civil rights,” Senate Democratic Caucus chairwoman Leticia Van de Putte said at the time.

Republicans sharply criticized their Democratic colleagues and voted to fine the absent lawmakers. Perry called on them to return to Austin and said there would be no compromise on redistricting. 

“That’s like negotiating for hostages,” Perry said according to The New York Times

After spending more than 30 days in New Mexico, Democratic Senator John Whitmire went back to Texas. Whitmire said leaving Texas initially “was a smart move,” but told The New York Times that Democrats did not have an “exit strategy” because Perry would just  keep calling special sessions. 

”We cannot remain in New Mexico indefinitely,” Whitmire said then. “‘I don’t perceive what I’m doing as caving…I’m pursuing a different strategy.” 

Indeed, Whitmire is still in the Senate today, but he didn’t leave Texas this time. 

“I hope we understand the concerns of some of our colleagues that felt compelled to leave,” Whitmire said on the Senate floor Tuesday.  “I hope we respect their right to disagree.”

In 2003, Perry called yet a third special session shortly after Whitmire returned in September. Lawmakers approved the redistricting plan in October, and the fines against the Democrats were also lifted.

The redistricting plan paid off for the Texas Republicans. In 2004, they went from minority to majority in the state’s delegation to Congress: Republicans won 21 seats, while Democrats held onto 11. Democrats in Texas have not been in the majority since then.

Like Perry, Abbott has vowed to keep calling special sessions until there are enough legislators in the room to vote on his agenda, including that election bill. 

“I can and I will continue to call special session after special session after special session all the way up until the election next year,” Abbott told KVUE in Austin on Monday.

Nearly 18 years later, Texas Democrats have a plan this time, even if it’s a very, very long shot. They’re in Washington to press federal lawmakers to pass a sweeping election bill that would overhaul the country’s election laws, superseding whatever Texas passes. Leaders have said they’ll stay out of Texas until the special session ends, but it’s not clear how long they are willing to stay away. 

“Our intent is to stay out and kill this bill this session and use the intervening time, I think 24 or 25 days now before the end of this session, to implore the folks in this building behind us to pass federal voting rights legislation,” Texas House Democratic caucus chair Chris Turner said outside of the U.S. Capitol on Tuesday.