'It's a game of chicken': Texas Democrats' walkout has precedent, but will it work?

Brandon Mulder John C. Moritz
Austin American-Statesman

Texas Democrats chose the nuclear option to derail Republicans' voting legislation Monday, chartering two flights from Austin to Washington, D.C., to break quorum and evade the reach of state law enforcement officers.

The move targeted Senate Bill 1 and House Bill 3, which would curtail voting access in ways that Democrats say would disproportionately affect people of color. 

It's not the first time Democrats have used this explosive method, but precedent shows it's not a weapon that always finds long-term success.

The Killer Bees

The Texas legislative session of 1979 was one that was considered highly contentious, at least by 20th century standards. Out of that contention formed an alliance of liberal Democratic Senators who earned the moniker "Killer Bees" from then-Lt. Gov. Bill Hobby. 

"They were using every tactic in the book to block the legislation they opposed," Hobby wrote. "One tactic was the filibuster. They had developed a tag-team variation on filibustering that could keep the talking going for days. I started calling them the 'Killer Bees,' because no one knew when they would strike next.

More:Kamala Harris, Greg Abbott react to Texas Democrats leaving state to block GOP elections bill

One bill especially offensive to the Bees would have set the Republican and Democratic primaries on different dates, a change favored former Democratic Gov. John Connally, who was running for president as a Republican. The Bees torpedoed the legislation by fleeing the Capitol to break quorum. Although Texas Rangers were dispatched to bring the Bees to heel, the members — led by now-Congressman Lloyd Doggett — evaded capture for four days, bunkering in the garage of one member's chief of staff.

Members of the  "Killer Bees" playfully restrain state Sen. Gene Jones in a secluded West Austin garage apartment they day they went into hiding. Most still had their ties on, expecting the 1979 quorum break to be short. A few hours later, Jones' claustrophobia so agitated him that he became impossible to live with, and the others let him go. First row, from left: Lloyd Doggett, Carl Parker and Jones. Middle row: Babe Schwartz, Oscar Mauzy, Robert Vale, Ron Clower and Carlos Truan. Back row: Carrin Patman, Gene Kothmann and Bill Patman.

One state senator, Gene Jones, left the hive to see his granddaughter, prompting the Rangers to find him at his Houston home. 

"Photo in hand, they knocked on his door. A man who looked a lot like the picture opened the door. The Ranger asked him if he was Jones. He said, yes. They arrested him and took him to Austin. He was Jones all right, but not Gene Jones. They had arrested Gene’s brother, Clayton," Hobby recalled. "When the knock came at the door, the senator had jumped over the back fence and stayed lost for another day."

The bill the Bees had opposed died, and Hobby later lamented bringing it up in the first place. 

"It wasn’t a very good idea anyway. ... I can’t imagine what I was thinking," he said.

Four of the original "Killer Bee" senators who shut down the Texas Senate by holing up in an apartment for almost five days in 1979.  Gathered in the Capital senate chamber. (12/2/98)

The Texas Eleven

In 2003, during the tenure of former Gov. Rick Perry, at least 50 Democratic state House members broke quorum and fled to Ardmore, Okla., to thwart a GOP-backed congressional redistricting effort. The move forced Perry to call a special session, which was foiled again when 11 Democratic state senators made their own getaway for a stint in an Albuquerque, N.M., hotel. 

More:Texas Democrats leave state to block GOP voting bill in special session

Democrat House Representatives pose for a group photo in front of the Holiday Inn in Ardmore, Okla., on May 15, 2003. The representatives spent four nights in the hotel.

Their combined efforts effectively delayed passage of GOP redistricting efforts, but Democrats couldn't stay out of Texas forever. After a month-long standoff, one member — Sen. John Whitmire — broke ranks and returned to the state for negotiations with Republicans over their redistricting plan.

Republicans got what they wanted in the end: a redistricting plan approved by House Republicans that was never offered to the public for a hearing.

"Republicans got exactly what they wanted. They just had to wait," said Rice University political scientist Mark Jones. "It was a third special session, but Republicans won."

Then-Gov. Rick Perry, center, holds a news conference May 14, 2003, at the Governor's Mansion, joined by Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst, left, and House Speaker Tom Craddick, to urge Democrats who fled to Ardmore, Okla., to return.

Worsening partisan rancor

That year, 2003, marked the end of a bipartisan era in the Texas Legislature, Jones said. Until then, the House and Senate were more driven by the political center — conservative-leaning Democrats and liberal-leaning Republicans. 

When Whitmire broke from the Democratic ranks and returned to the state, it was because Republicans with whom he had trusting relationships committed to certain compromises, said University of Houston political scientist Brandon Rottinghaus. 

But today, partisanship plays a much larger role in the Legislature. And that polarization has resulted in lower levels of trust between members of the two parties. 

More:Can Texas Democrats be arrested for fleeing the state? What does it mean for the special session?

"When they asked Whitmire to come back, ultimately it worked out because there was trust," Rottinghaus said. "I don't know if there's that much trust now, given how partisan the issue is. It's not clear that there's enough trust to fill a thimble."

Austin lobbyist and political consultant Bill Miller also watched the 2003 walk-out unfold while serving as an informal adviser to then-Texas House Speaker Tom Craddick. The difference between 2003 and 2021 is the worsened political rancor.

"The animosity, the ill will, is not lessening, it's deepening," Miller said. "And it will affect everything and everyone."

Texas House Representatives who chose to showed up at the Capitol May 13, 2003, had nothing to do as they awaited the return of 51 Democrats.

Luring Democrats back to the state for bill negotiations will be a bigger challenge today than it was in 2003, Rottinghaus said. With that option diminished, the ultimate outcome might depend on how long Democrats are able to stay out of the state. That question is further complicated by Abbott's recent decision to veto legislative staffers' pay after Democrats initially broke quorum at the end of the regular session.

"It's a game of chicken between them and the Republicans," Jones said. "Neither of them wants their staffers to go without pay. But if they can't come to an agreement or don't come to a quorum, they will go without pay.

"If you're a Democratic staffer, it's one thing in theory to support your representative. But it's another thing to not have any money coming in and not being able to pay for food and shelter," he said.

Texas state Sen. Judith Zaffirini speaks to reporters at a press conference at the Albuquerque Marriot Pyramid North in Albuquerque, N.M., July, 28, 2003. Standing among the senators, third from left, is then-New Mexico Lt. Gov. Diane Denish.

Today's quorum break might have effects beyond the minutiae of the voting bill. 

Veteran political operator Harold Cook, who helped organize 2003's six-week quorum bust, said that today's effort might prove more effective if it persuades U.S. Sen. Joe Manchin, D-West Virginia, to join his fellow Democrats and end the filibuster on a national voting rights bill.

"That's an awful lot of pressure on the U.S. Senate, which is what Democrats nationwide want to happen in the first place," Cook said, "whether or not it works.

"Who knows? If it works, then the Texas Democrats will be national heroes."