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June 30, 2003, 3:00PM

Bickering kicks off Legislature's special session

Associated Press

Karl Stolleis / Chronicle
House Speaker Tom Craddick, R-Midland, wields the gavel to call to order the special session of the Texas Legislature today. Lawmakers were ordered back by Gov. Rick Perry to consider a GOP-backed redrawing of congressional district lines.
AUSTIN -- Partisan bickering broke out as quickly as the Texas Legislature convened today, with House Democrats claiming Republicans were acting as puppets in a congressional redistricting "power grab."

State lawmakers were ordered to return to work by Republican Gov. Rick Perry to consider a GOP-backed redrawing of congressional district lines, an effort pushed by U.S. House Majority Leader Tom DeLay.

"This week is independence week, and we're going to find out this week whether the Texas Legislature is still independent from the partisans in Washington, D.C.," Rep. Jim Dunnam of Waco, House Democratic Caucus leader, said just before Monday's special session started.

About two-dozen Democrats gathered with him and said Texans in a series of public meetings across the state the past few days made it clear they don't want the Legislature to take up congressional redistricting.

Only a few people out of hundreds at the hearings spoke in favor of it, the Democrats said. New districts that Republicans want would hurt minority and rural voters, said Rep. Garnet Coleman, D-Houston.

"We have a clear message for Tom DeLay," Coleman said. "Stop lying about what you're trying to do."

DeLay's office had no immediate response to the Democrats.

In the past, DeLay, a Republican from Sugar Land, has said he wants more Republican members of Congress from Texas.

Karl Stolleis / Chronicle
A protester holds a sign before a press conference by House Democrats.
Democrats hold a 17-15 advantage in the congressional delegation, even though all statewide elected officials in Texas are Republicans. A map that was backed by DeLay during the regular session in the spring would have likely given Republicans as many as 20 seats in the U.S. House.

Redistricting was so divisive in the 140-day regular session that 51 House Democrats secretly fled to Ardmore, Okla., to block a quorum and halt debate. Republican House Speaker Tom Craddick ordered state law officers to find and arrest them, but they had crossed the state line and were out of reach of Texas troopers.

Several of those Democrats -- who became known among supporters as the "Killer D's" -- said they will continue to fight redistricting but said they are looking to the Senate Democrats to block the bill in the special session.

"They are good and strong people -- they've got backbone," Coleman said.

Republicans hold a 19-12 edge in the Senate, but under the chamber's rules two-thirds of its 31 members must agree to bring an issue to the floor for debate. That means the redistricting bill could be killed with 11 votes.

"If it's a good bill, it's a fair bill, meaning it maximizes the majority-minority districts, it represents the voting trends of the state, it's generally fair, I think there'll be 21 votes for it," said Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst, who presides over the Senate.

While partisan sniping got going in the House soon after Craddick gaveled the session to order -- at one point, Redistricting Committee Chairman Joe Crabb, R-Atascocita, was accused by a Democrats of not holding proper hearings -- the tone was more civil in the Senate.

Some senators said they were still weighing the matter.

"I've not made up my mind. I'm praying on the issue," said Sen. Frank Madla, D-San Antonio, who said he was in church at 7:30 a.m. Monday. Madla said he is interested in what happens to districts affecting Bexar County, South Texas and West Texas.

Sen. Ken Armbrister, D-Victoria, said the original House plan was unacceptable and that he was filing his own redistricting bill.

"I've got an open mind to it. I'm going to look at rural Texas," he said.

Sen. Eddie Lucio, a Democrat from Brownsville, said the Senate may be close to having the votes for a redistricting plan.

Lucio said he hasn't experienced any pressure to vote in any certain direction. But he said a friend, whom he wouldn't identity, who is also a close friend of Delay visited him when he was having tests at a hospital and asked Lucio if he wanted to play golf. Lucio said he declined because of doctors' orders.

Sen. Bill Ratliff, R-Mount Pleasant, said he has not seen a proposed new map yet and therefore has not yet made up his mind.

Testimony on a proposed redistricting bill is expected to be heard in a House committee this week, with full House debate by next week.

Usually, redistricting is done by the Legislature every 10 years based on population changes from the latest census. In 2001, lawmakers could not agree on how to draw the districts so a map was drawn by federal judges.

Perry said congressional districts should be decided by elected officials, not federal judges.


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