Bud Kennedy

In 2003, Texas Democrats ran away to Oklahoma to stop a bill. But don’t get any ideas

In 2003, Texas House Democrats fled to the Ardmore, Okla., Holiday Inn to prevent the House from having a quorum. The inn is now a Quality Hotel.
In 2003, Texas House Democrats fled to the Ardmore, Okla., Holiday Inn to prevent the House from having a quorum. The inn is now a Quality Hotel. Star-Telegram archives

When tempers flare in the Texas Capitol and bathroom bills overflow, Democrats reminisce about the good old days of 2003.

Trust me: Nobody else but a Texas Democrat remembers a week in the Ardmore, Okla., Holiday Inn as the “good old days.”

But moments after Gov. Greg Abbott’s Tuesday announcement of a July 18 special session with a worksheet of 20 bills to pass, Democrats began joking about repeating their 2003 getaway.

Back then, they were leaving the state to defy then-Gov. Rick Perry and break House quorum, stopping a redistricting map costing them five seats in Congress.

Now, with a bathroom bill and school vouchers on the special-session agenda, state Rep. Armando Walle, D-Houston, joked on Twitter: “Why would we telegraph that? … But since you are mentioning it, Ardmore here we come.”

In 2003, 52 House Democrats holed up for three days in a conference room at what is now a Quality Hotel off Interstate 35. (They didn’t want to be seen in the Gusher Bar.)

Democrats called them the “Killer D’s,” standing up to hard-nosed House Speaker Tom Craddick. Republicans called them the “Chicken D’s.”

“The leadership is so rigid,” then-state Rep. Lon Burnam said: “There is no negotiating.”

Sound familiar?

Democrats kept their escape secret. They left Austin on a chartered bus the night of Mother’s Day.

It took most of the next day for reporters to find them in Ardmore, with troopers searching for them. House Majority Leader Tom DeLay’s staff even phoned federal aviation officials and the Department of Homeland Security asking to track former Speaker Pete Laney’s plane.

The Democrats’ leader, then-state Rep. Jim Dunnam, blamed DeLay for the redistricting.

“We’re here in Ardmore, Oklahoma, because the real problems of Texas are budget problems, are school finance problems, are healthcare problems that are being cast aside because of a power play,” Dunnam said.

Sound familiar?

One problem: The Texas Democrats of 2017 are not the Democrats of 2003, when Laney had just left the speakership.

“The problem is, the Democrats today are less cohesive than we were,” said Burnam, now a lobbyist for progressive causes.

“Getting 50 of them to go anywhere seems problematic. Back then, we had a stronger Democratic delegation that subsidized it and made it possible. This year, they’d have to get their act together enough to boycott.”

One of the staff organizers back then was young political consultant Chris Turner.

Now, the Grand Prairie Democrat leads House Democrats.

His office offered only a general statement on the special session, saying Abbott’s announcement “shows what an ineffective governor and leader he has been.”

“The biggest legislative emergency,” Turner said, “is our broken school finance system that is hurting 5.3 million Texas school children and property taxpayers across the state.”

That part sounds familiar.

Bud Kennedy: 817-390-7538, @BudKennedy. His column appears Sundays, Wednesdays and Fridays.