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Redistricting Two-Step to Resume Monday

Unbowed by their two past failures, Republicans in the Texas Legislature will convene a third special session Monday aimed at redrawing the state’s Congressional lines.

Gov. Rick Perry (R) called the session Tuesday after state Sen. John Whitmire (D) declared he would leave New Mexico, where he and 10 fellow Democratic Senators had been sequestered for the past month, and return to the Lone Star State.

Whitmire said that passage of a redistricting bill was unavoidable and any further delaying tactics would negatively affect the relationship between the two parties on other issues in the state Legislature.

Rep. Gene Green (D-Texas), a close friend of Whitmire’s, said he has spoken to the Senator regularly throughout the redistricting battle — as recently as Wednesday morning.

“I don’t agree with him and I’ve told him that,” Green said.

Whitmire’s return ensures that Republicans will have a quorum when the Senate meets Monday, which will allow them to proceed with their attempts to pass a redistricting plan that adjusts the Congressional lines to elect more members of their party. The 10 remaining Democratic Senators are expected to return to fight the proposal on the floor as well.

“Democrats’ strategy of turning tail and running is not sustainable,” said Jonathan Grella, a spokesman for Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Texas), who has been a prime mover in the push to redraw the lines. “We are going to continue to press for these guys to show up and do their jobs.”

Despite Whitmire’s defection and Republicans’ confidence, a look back at past events in this long-running saga shows that accurate predictions are difficult to make.

After Texas legislators deadlocked in their attempts to redraw the lines in 2001, a federal court adopted a plan that upheld the status quo in the 2002 elections. All 17 Democratic incumbents won while Republicans added two new seats, bringing their numbers to 15.

In the 2002 elections, however, Republicans won a majority in the state House, which gave them control over all the levers of the state government.

Urged on by DeLay, state Republicans attempted to redraw the lines earlier this year during the Legislature’s regular session but were thwarted when state House Democrats fled to Oklahoma, robbing the GOP of the necessary quorum to bring up legislation.

A first special session convened June 30, but using parliamentary tactics, Democrats were able to bring the redistricting plan to a halt.

Perry quickly called a second special session, but the Senate Democrats vacated the state July 28, taking up residence in Albuquerque, N.M., and again keeping Republicans from a quorum.

Democratic strategists insist that there are still a number of options available to them, including another possible departure from the state in order to prevent a vote. Democrats have also floated the idea that Whitmire may still decide not to show up if his colleagues don’t.

“It can go on as long as the legislators can sustain it,” one knowledgeable source said about the Democrats’ fleeing tactics.

But recent public polling suggests that Texas voters are less than thrilled with Democrats’ strategy.

In a Scripps Howard survey conducted Aug. 7-21, 62 percent of those polled said they disapproved of Democrats leaving the state to avoid a vote; only 29 percent approved of the tactic.

In the same poll, however, 46 percent opposed redistricting and 40 percent supported it. And Perry’s approval ratings in the survey were the lowest since he took over the office from George W. Bush in December 2000.

One Democratic strategist noted that because redistricting in the state House and Senate made those seats so safe for incumbents, legislators have little fear of retribution over redistricting by the voters. But the possibility of a primary challenge to Perry by Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison (R) in 2006 is said to concern the governor greatly.

With a vote likely next week, both state and national Republicans are working furiously to try to reconcile differences within their own party primarily centered on the lines of West Texas.

House Speaker Tom Craddick (R) hails from Midland and is pushing to create a district centered on his hometown. The likely candidate for that seat would be accountant Mike Conaway (R), who finished second behind now-Rep. Randy Neugebauer (R) in the 19th district special election earlier this year.

If Midland receives its own district, Neugebauer would be forced to fight for a seat with Rep. Charlie Stenholm (D), who has regularly won re-election despite the increasingly Republican lean of his 17th district.

Some Republicans worry that Stenholm’s years of campaign experience and status as ranking member of the Agriculture Committee could present a troubling contrast with the newly minted Neugebauer.

Stenholm sounded a defiant note about his re-election prospects in an interview Wednesday.

“Whatever district we get dealt, we intend to run and win,” he said.

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