Texas Between the Lines
New Book Recounts Epic Struggle Over DeLay’s Plan to Redraw Map
In May 2003, 50 Democratic members of the Texas Legislature fled to Oklahoma on a bus and stealthily checked into a hotel, two to a room. Their efforts to break quorum in the state House made national news, and they temporarily stalled a bill that redistricted Texas to include more Republican seats.
But author Steve Bickerstaff says that’s only part of a long saga about a few Republicans’ efforts to transform the hierarchy of American politics. Bickerstaff lays out every detail in his hefty new book, “Lines in the Sand: Congressional Redistricting in Texas and the Downfall of Tom DeLay.”
He starts the story with the 2002 primaries, when an inventive political action committee, Texans for a Republican Majority, thought it had found a way to use corporate funds to push through the “right Republicans” — or those who supported the PAC and then-House Majority Leader Tom DeLay’s (R-Texas) game plan. One important indicator: support for pro-redistricting state Rep. Tom Craddick as Speaker.
“I was very surprised at the ability of TRMPAC to have an effect in the Republican primary to essentially eliminate what I call independent Republicans,” Bickerstaff said in an interview. Out went the academics, the lawyers and even the frontrunners in 15 of the 17 primary races targeted by the PAC. On to the general election ballot went those Republicans who passed the TRMPAC litmus test and thus got TRMPAC funding.
Such details took Bickerstaff 18 months of research, about 60 interviews and a year of almost uninterrupted writing. After spending 30 years as a state Senate parliamentarian in Texas and as a special assistant attorney general, Bickerstaff knows the ins and outs of state law. So the adjunct law professor jumped on the project when the University of Texas Press expressed interest in such a book.
The result is a 400-page definitive guide to all the intricacies of redistricting, campaign finance and rogue Texan Congressmen. More like a textbook than a novel, every detail is listed, down to what movie the lawmakers watched as they rode through the night across the Texas border (“Catch Me If You Can”).
“My objective had been to do as accurate and as thorough a job of documenting what happened as I could possibly do,” he said.
But Bickerstaff doesn’t stay completely out of the debate. Each chapter includes a commentary section, where he takes a stand on the issue. The Texas legislators’ walkout: a success. The media’s coverage: incomplete and sometimes wrong. DeLay: essential to the entire process.
“I’ve tried to separate that out from the facts of what happened so that my own perspective at least minimally affects the rest of the book,” Bickerstaff said. “I wasn’t out to lionize anyone or to demonize, but I think the facts themselves provided a story that does cause some to be uneasy about what happened.”
In the book, DeLay is usually just out of sight during the main action. He’s the puppet master in Washington, D.C., establishing a new approach to state politics, one where the national party dictates to the state politicians. But he’s also everywhere: Bickerstaff ties him to key players in TRMPAC and Republican state leaders.
Bickerstaff also goes into detail over DeLay’s involvement in TRMPAC’s transfer of $190,000 of corporate funds to the Republican National State Election Committee, which later gave $190,000 to seven Republican candidates on TRMPAC’s targeted list. The alleged deal led to money laundering indictments for DeLay and others.
The point of all of it, Bickerstaff contends, was to create a new, effective way to get corporations to donate to state PACs. By connecting national with state, DeLay and others were able to show donors that their money was going to a candidate — albeit in a roundabout way.
“What they had hoped was that the success in TRMPAC in Texas would be a model for other states,” he said. “They thought the model in Texas could be used in all major states because it would increase the control of national Republicans on state officials.”
But in the end, the results of the GOP push were mixed: Republicans did pick up more seats in Congress, but DeLay was indicted and resigned, some of his associates also resigned, and a media frenzy ensued. The real story, Bickerstaff said, is in the fierce battle between Republicans and Democrats. In other words: the drawing of a line in the sand.
“There was quite a battle over the media and public opinion,” he said. “In fact, that seemed to be the biggest battle.”