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Texas Democrat breaks ranks, returns home

Sept. 3, 2003

By Elvia Aguilar, reporter

Gov. Rick Perry indicated Tuesday that a third special session for redistricting may be called depending on how quickly one or more of the 11 absent Democratic senators return to Texas from New Mexico.

After spending the Labor Day holiday in Houston with his constitutes, Sen. John Whitmire decided Tuesday to break quorum and permanently return to the state.

'After being in my district for five days, I have concluded my constituents are opposed to redistricting, but they also believe the fight should be on the Senate floor,' Whitmire said early Tuesday.

In May, a boycott by membesr of the Texas House of Representatives caused a Legislature deadlock over congressional redistricting. Republicans could not get enough votes in the Senate for a redistricting plan during the governor's first special session in July.

When Perry called lawmakers back July 28, at the urging of U.S. House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, R-Sugar Land, 11 Democratic senators fled to New Mexico to keep the Senate from conducting its business.

The Democrats said they would stay in New Mexico until Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst changed the Senate rules or Perry dropped congressional redistricting from the Legislature's agenda.

More than a month later, the Democrats still are in a hotel in Albuquerque, but they want to return. Perry denied their request for 72-hours notice before a new special session begins.

The Democrats are afraid that if even one of the senators returned to Texas he or she could be forced to the Capitol with the Senate in session.

Lisa Bond, a Greenville junior, said she thinks it is time for the senators to return.

'Whether they are Democrats or Republicans they should have known when they ran for office that one of the parties would have the majority and that sometimes some bills would be passed even if they didn't agree with them,' Bond said. 'They need to get back to work.'

More than 500 people filled the Kronzer Appellate Advocacy Courtroom at Baylor's Sheila and Walter Umphrey Law Center for a Texas congressional redistricting hearing in early July. The opposition to redistricting prevailed.

McLennan County residents voiced their opinions after presentations by officials from the 10 counties in Texas Congressional District 11.

Most citizens were concerned about the area's business and economic development if the proposed maps were passed.

'At the redistricting hearings in Waco, the response was mostly from concerned citizens who were afraid that McLennan County would be split up,' Rep. Kip Averitt, R-Waco, said. 'They were adamant that this would not happen.'

The two maps passed by the Texas House split McLennan County in half, putting West Waco, Woodway, Hewitt and McGregor into District 17, which would be based in Bell and Corynell counties. South, Central and East Waco would become part of the new District 31 under the plan.

Rep. Jim Dunnam, D-Waco, said the maps voted out of the Texas House were not good for the Waco community.

'The proper thing to do is to respect the process and keep the current map,' Dunnam said. 'Those maps are unacceptable.'

Averitt agrees that the proposed maps were not adequate for Central Texas.

'I am in favor of redistricting because I think we need a map that better reflects the voters of Central Texas,' Averitt said. 'The primary issue is that we elect someone from Central Texas into congress.'

The Democrats in New Mexico objected to Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst's decision to abandon a senate tradition dating to the 1950s that requires two-thirds of the Senate to agree to debate a bill.

Republicans wanted to secure at least 21 of the state's 32 seats.

Sen. John Whitmire, D- Houston, one of the 11 Democrats that fled to New Mexico, told the Houston Chronicle Tuesday that it was time to return to the capitol.

'After being in my district for five days, I have concluded my constituents are opposed to redistricting, but they also believe the fight should be on the Senate floor,' he said.

Averitt said he thinks the redistricting issue may take a while to be resolved.

'The sooner this is taken care of the better, but I have a feeling it may drag on for a while.'