Austin, TX: A taste for raucous Texas politics spread far beyond the state's borders last week, as global media savored barbs flying across the Red River.
More than 50 Texas House Democrats covertly fled the state, protesting a congressional redistricting plan advocated by US House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Sugar Land, TX).
The group adopted the name "Killer D's" in deference to the Killer Bees, a group that broke a Texas legislative quorum in 1979. Republicans simultaneously dubbed them "Chicken D's."
Tracked down at a Holiday Inn just across the Red River in Ardmore, OK, the Democrats conducted a press conference at which they issued a "Declaration in Defense of Self-Determination," accusing DC Republicans of upsetting the state's relatively bipartisan apple cart.
The Republicans accused the Democrats of being childish obstructionists. Radio ads they ran in Democratic representatives' districts sounded like all-points bulletins.
Democrats accused Republicans of misusing state police dispatched to round up the
missing representatives, and they called for an investigation into requests for federal law-enforcement support.
Austin PR consultant Margaret Justus, a staffer from Ann Richards' tenure as Texas governor, stepped forward to represent the exiled Democrats.
"I just wanted to help and be part of this incredible effort," said Justus, who set her sights on explaining the complexity and unprecedented novelty of noncensus-cycle redistricting to TV reporters. Messaging focused on court approval of existing district lines, on other pressing legislative matters, and on quorum-breaking as a long-accepted political tactic.
While public opinion seemed split, major Texas dailies ran editorials sympathizing with the Democrats' harsh treatment at the hands of the first Republican majority since Reconstruction. DeLay felt the heat in Washington, where reporters questioned him about redistricting, and Texas Democrats addressed the issue on the US House floor.
"We've gotten calls from all over the world," Justus said.
The runaway Democrats were expected to return last Friday, after a key bill deadline expired, and supporters vowed to pack the state capitol to greet them, according to the Austin American-Statesman.
Meanwhile, Texans enjoyed the spectacle. James Bernsen, a Republican representative's staffer, took off half a day last Monday to design playing cards featuring the most-wanted Democrats in time for the local 10pm news.