- The dozens of Texas lawmakers who fled the state in protest are part of a stored historic tradition.
- In 1979 and 2003, Democrats also skipped town to block election and redistricting legislation.
- Today’s lawmakers traveled further but face much more difficult odds in achieving their goals.
Nearly half a century before dozens of Texas lawmakers left the state on Monday in a legislative walkout, now-Rep. Lloyd Doggett was a young Texas state senator in 1979, dubbed “the baby Senator” by his colleagues.
During what he described as a “really bad legislative session,” leaders tried to rush through an election bill that would change Texas’ primary rules to benefit former Gov. John Connally, then running for president, Doggett recounted to reporters on Capitol Hill on Tuesday.
“After some discussion, 12 of us agreed to leave, I think about 10 of us ended up in a converted two-car garage,” he said.”We were there for a number of days, they sent the Texas Rangers out after us, they claimed they were going to bring us back in chains. And finally, after four or five days, they agreed to pull the bill down and not to pass it.”
The group, quickly nicknamed, the “Killer Bees,” returned to Austin triumphant with a theme song and themed t-shirts. And years later, the name has stuck. “Some people dressed up as killer bees,” Doggett said of the time, adding the legend is now “a part of Texas folklore.”
In 2003, Democratic lawmakers drew on the experiences of the Killer Bees in a bitter partisan fight over redistricting. Democrats raised an outcry over the maps, engineered by then-House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, for, in their view, gerrymandering the state to unfairly advantage Republicans.
And then they left, crossing state lines into Oklahoma and New Mexico, evading law enforcement, and drawing out the highly acrimonious and contentious process of drawing new state legislative and congressional maps for months.
The 2003 walkouts were flashpoints in a high-tension redistricting fight.
Around 50 members of the state House first camped out to Ardmore, Oklahoma in May 2003 for a few days to deny the quorum needed to pass the maps during the first attempt at a special session.
Then, in July, a group of 11 state senators known as the Texas 11 also left the state and waited out a special session in Albuquerque, New Mexico for over a month to deny the quorum needed to approve the legislation in that chamber.
But the impasse was finally broken on September 4 by longtime Sen. John Whitmire, whose choice to return back to Austin restored the quorum necessary to finally, in October, pass the new maps after months of consternation.
When all the senators returned, the Chicago Tribune reported, several lawmakers found their parking spaces had been taken away by Republicans, and Whitmire heckled with chants of “Quitmire” from some Democrats.
Now, a group of renegade Texas lawmakers is continuing that tradition, this time leaving the state in chartered jets and cars to leave to deny the quorum needed to pass two omnibus election reform bills that tighten voting rules during Texas’ ongoing special legislative session.
A lot of things have changed since 2003, but not the head-spinning logistics of skipping town. Back in 2003, a Senate staffer who accompanied the 11 on their mad dash to New Mexico told The New York Times he needed to make a Wal-Mart run “because one of the senators’ pants were falling down, and some people had forgotten cellphone batteries and underwear and stuff like that. It was the biggest mess.”
State lawmakers today, who only earn $7,200 a year and often need second careers to make a living, had to make tough choices, in some cases rearranging their entire lives in a matter of hours to ride out the special session out of state, the Washington Post detailed. One House member, Rep. John Bucy, drove the 23 hours from Texas to D.C. with his wife and 17-month old daughter to make it to the US Capitol by Tuesday.
“I know how many arguments we had among 12 people as to what to do, so getting 70 to come together is an accomplishment,” Doggett told Insider. “And we had, at that time, the potential to change minds in Texas. They don’t have that potential. The only minds they can change are on Pennsylvania Avenue and the US Capitol.”
The lawmakers today aim to also make their mark on history.
Texas lawmakers have taken their dramatic step and come with a clear message: time is running out for Congress to pass federal voting protections.
And while they traveled much further than their predesscors, they face a tough uphill battle given the 50-50 makeup of the US Senate and opposition from Republicans, the reality of the Senate filibuster, and President Joe Biden’s unwillingness to call for changes to it to advance voting rights.
Doggett said that compared to his and the Killer Bees’ quest, “their challenges are much, much greater. We know that [Gov. Greg Abbott] wants to run for president and he has to prove he’s crazier than [Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis]. There will be no compromise in Texas on this issue. Their only hope is to get some uniform national standards.”
Republicans, for their part, argue that the walkout is simply a publicity stunt and fundraising ploy that exaggerates the severity of the bills in question, which mainly restrict forms of voting temporarily used in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.
But the fact that this crop of Texas dissenters picked the nation’s Capitol over a garage, the Ardmore Holiday Inn, or an Albuquerque Marriot demonstrates just how much voting rights and election issues have become highly partisan and ultra-nationalized base issues for both parties.
The national spotlight means Texas’ Democrats’ drastic move will be hard to ignore from either side. And while they may not be able to spur immediate federal change in their favor, this dramatic walkout to halfway across the country could mark a new inflection point in the national voting rights and shape Texas politics, just as their predecessors did.