It’s hard to pinpoint the most Texan detail in Lawrence Wright’s magnum opus in the New Yorker on the state’s changing politics. (Seriously, it’s 19,000 words long.) It might be a nighttime hunt for wild pigs, with Democratic lawmakers armed with pistols, wearing cutoff jeans and tennis shoes. Or perhaps it’s the “Poo-Poo Choo-Choo,” a train that shipped toxic sludge from New York City to El Paso in 1991.
For Wright’s purpose, which is to map the permanent shift right — far, far right — of the Texas State Legislature, it would likely be the 2003 redistricting plan, which involved a run to the border, an old fashioned manhunt, and a standoff at a Holiday Inn.
Tom Craddick, an ultra-conservative Republican lawmaker, became the Speaker of the House that year. Spurned by a lifetime of Democratic obstruction, he came up with a plan not just to win elections, but to make winning a foregone conclusion through gerrymandering. The Democrats, faced with a bill that would create a permanent Republican majority in the U.S. House of Representatives, left the state house and hightailed it to Oklahoma.
Under Craddick’s leadership, the Texas legislature began carving historical congressional districts into new fiefdoms. Taking care not to violate Supreme Court guidelines on minority representation, lawmakers jigsawed Texas into shapes that would decisively capture the state for the right.
In May, 2003, the redistricting plan came up for a vote in the Texas House. Fifty-three Democrats, sensing a lethal threat to their party, fled to Oklahoma, denying Craddick a quorum. He locked the capitol chamber, to prevent any more defections, and called out state troopers to hunt down the missing members, who became known as the Killer Ds.
In the midst of this hubbub, Pete Laney, the former speaker, flew his Piper turboprop from the Panhandle to Ardmore, Oklahoma, where he joined his Democratic colleagues at the local Holiday Inn. Someone from DeLay’s office obtained Laney’s flight plan from the Department of Homeland Security by implying that Laney’s plane was overdue to land and might have crashed or been seized by terrorists. Texas troopers and national reporters swarmed into Ardmore. The Democratic faction remained in Oklahoma for four days, until the deadline for considering new legislation had passed. The governor, Rick Perry—by then a stalwart Republican—called a special session for late June, whereupon eleven Democratic state senators decamped to New Mexico. It took two more special sessions to ram the vote through.
It was a successful gambit. So successful that redistricting has become the key tool in elections all over the country, resulting in a Congress with a steadfast and confident Republican majority. So should we watch Texas for what the future will bring? The future, writes Wright, is already here.
Because Texas represents so much of modern America—the South, the West, the plains, the border, the Latino community, the divide between rural areas and cities—what happens here tends to disproportionately affect the rest of the nation. Illinois and New Jersey may be more corrupt, and Kansas and Louisiana more out of whack, but they don’t bear the responsibility of being the future.