In a just world, Pete Laney would be U.S. secretary of agriculture. At least undersecretary of agriculture. Or ambassador to one of those insignificant Old Europe countries that can’t get it up for the occasional war of pre-emptive intervention. (Lichtenstein, Andorra and France come to mind.) No one in Texas would have ever thought the cotton farmer from Hale Center would end up a fugitive from Tom Ridge’s Department of Homeland Security justice. Funny how things turn out.
Remember Pete Laney?
The guy who presented President-elect George W. Bush to an anxious nation after the Supreme Court declared him president. The Texas House speaker with an accent so dense that the BBC’s Fiona Anderson considered hiring a translator to help her through a statehouse press conference. Flanked by portraits of Stephen F. Austin and Sam Houston, Laney looked into a bank of television cameras and offered that Texans were worried about what kind of leader Bush would be after he was elected governor in 1994. But Bush was all right. “When he became governor, he reached out to members of the Legislature of both parties. We didn’t always agree on issues, but we found we could have policy differences without having gridlock. We could have debate without bitterness, and we could reach agreements on problems without sacrificing our principles. Above all, we learned that Governor Bush is a leader you can trust and respect.”
Bush asked Laney to introduce him because the Democratic speaker of the House is so doubled over with decency he can’t hide it. Laney would call and blister any representative who insulted workaday Texans who traveled to “their Capitol” to testify at committee hearings. Nelda Laney would even serve cookies, milk and coffee to citizen witnesses waiting to testify.
Laney had been fair to Bush. Too fair. He helped get his legislative agenda passed. When he opposed the governor, he did so quietly — as he did when he worked to block Bush’s failed attempt to muscle 250,000 children of working poor off the rolls of the Children’s Health Insurance Program in 1999. He discreetly supported Bush’s presidential campaign. He avoided endorsing Al Gore. When the campaign started in earnest, he told Democratic reps it “probably wouldn’t be a good idea” to join a Democratic Party “truth squad” that showed up after Bush campaign events.
Then the Republicans won the House in 2002, eliminating the last redoubt of Democratic power. And Pete Laney quietly returned to a desk near the back of the chamber. Here’s where President Bush might have stepped in to provide a graceful exit to a man who served 31 years in the House and 10 years as speaker. (The two previous speakers had been indicted, the speaker before them shot to death by his wife.) I asked Laney if Bush ever offered him a federal appointment. “I
didn’t stick around long enough for him to ask,” he said.
In a word: No.
Yet Laney had allowed Bush to sell himself to the American public as a fair, bipartisan governor. After Laney introduced him to the nation, Bush said, “The spirit of cooperation I have seen in this hall is what is needed in Washington.” In Texas, that spirit lasted only until the Republicans took complete control. In fact, it only existed while Bush was governor because he so desperately needed the cooperation of Laney and the Democratic House. Writer and political commentator Jim Hightower, once a Texas ag commissioner, was the first of the 22 statewide Democrats unseated when Karl Rove kicked off his scorched-earth electoral plan in 1990. The last Democrat elected to statewide office left in 2002. Hightower would later complain that Texas government is run by bankers, bullies and bastards. (But the last banker, a genteel Houston Republican named Ashley Smith, retired from the Texas House soon after Rove made Hightower a radio commentator.)
Just as Jacques Chirac is Old Europe, Pete Laney is Old Texas. Bush, his lifetime political strategist Rove, and U.S. House Majority Leader Tom DeLay represent the New Texas, whose politics and policy are metastasizing across the country. Late in the legislative session that ended in early June, DeLay — a Texas House alumnus from the Houston suburb of Sugar Land — showed up with the redistricting plan that in a bizarre scenario made Pete Laney a national-security threat. We hadn’t seen such inspired cartography in Texas since 1848, when the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo moved 55 percent of the Republic of Mexico into the United States. Under the DeLay plan, my father-in-law could leave his home in Houston and drive 200 miles to Mexico without ever leaving his new congressional district. Austin writer Lawrence Wright tells me I can walk seven blocks east of the pink granite Capitol building and cross four congressional districts (one of them my father-in-law’s).
This is far easier than winning elections. Under the existing plan — drawn up by three federal judges because the Legislature failed to do it in 2001, after the Census — Democrats hold 17 of 32 seats in the state’s congressional delegation. DeLay’s plan would quickly get Republicans up to 20 seats. Tom Craddick, the Republican speaker who replaced Laney, predicted DeLay’s plan would pass “because we have the votes.” A Republican legislator said it was the right thing to do “because we’ve waited 100 years for this moment.” Approved by the Texas Legislature, DeLay’s plan would lock Republicans into power in Washington and solidify support for DeLay and Rove’s extreme-right policy agenda. And carve the state into districts that make little sense.
So 51 Democratic legislators fled to a Holiday Inn in Ardmore, Oklahoma, to break a quorum. Most traveled on a chartered bus. Laney flew in his small airplane. Someone from the Texas Department of Public Safety, whose name is redacted on a Department of Homeland Security inspector general’s report, called the feds and implied that Laney’s plane was missing. The Air and Marine Interdiction Coordination Center — charged with defending our borders against drug smugglers and terrorists — traced the plane to Oklahoma. In Austin, Speaker Craddick used that information to track down the runaway Democrats. In Washington, Majority Leader DeLay threatened to use federal marshals and the FBI to deliver the Democrats back to Austin — because redistricting is federal business.
The 51 Democrats stayed out of state long enough to kill DeLay’s redistricting plan as the session ended. A careful reading of the Homeland Security inspector general’s 111-page report reveals that a Texan whose name is redacted suggested Laney’s plane was lost or off course — so that federal authorities would track it down. The redactee stopped just short of requesting a Federal Aviation Agency search for the plane. (The report was signed by acting Inspector General Clark Kent Ervin, a once and future Republican candidate for a Houston congressional seat.)
Last week, DeLay and Rove pushed Republican Governor Rick Perry into a special session to deal with redistricting. The Legislature convenes next week. DeLay and Craddick promise a fair plan and a democratic process.
Pete Laney’s not saying whether he will fly across the state line again to break a quorum. But he appears to have learned a lesson about the crude, muscular politics practiced by Tom DeLay and Karl Rove. And countenanced by the president he once described as a leader we can trust and respect. Scott Hochberg, a cerebral Houston Democrat who joined Laney in Oklahoma, said DeLay’s redistricting play is bigger than Texas. In the past, we have re-drawn congressional boundaries only every 10 years, after the Census. “If we let them establish a precedent to re-draw the political map whenever they have the votes do to so,” Hochberg said, “this will be happening all over the country.”
If the sun is shining as you read this, Pete Laney is sitting on a tractor. He’s finished in politics, probably won’t stand for re-election and, like Cincinnatus, will return to the plow.
Bush, Rove and DeLay will be with us for a while.
Lou Dubose is the co-author of Boy Genius: Karl Rove, the Brains Behind the Remarkable Political Triumph of George W. Bush and, with Molly Ivins, Shrub: The Short but Happy Political Life of George W. Bush.