Return of the Boogie Man

Runaway Senator John Whitmire resurfaced at a downtown Houston bar and shocked political allies.
Tim Fleck

On the Friday before Labor Day, Houston City Councilwoman Carol Alvarado and state Representative Rick Noriega had just sat down to enjoy a holiday kickoff drink when Alvarado's cell phone buzzed. On the line was state Senator John Whitmire, one of the 11 runaway Democrats who fled to New Mexico a month earlier to stall the passage of a Republican-crafted congressional redistricting plan.

Whitmire jovially inquired as to where Alvarado was, explaining that he wanted to send a friend over to meet with her. Alvarado, assuming the senator was still safely on the reservation in Albuquerque with his fellow renegades, told him she was at Warren's on Market Square downtown.

Minutes later, a widely grinning Whitmire strutted into the bar. "We freaked out," recalls a flabbergasted Alvarado. "It was like watching somebody from the dead come back to life." More precisely, it was yet another manifestation of Houston's political version of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.

"I don't understand his actions," laments Alvarado. "He's been one of my dearest friends and political allies, and I wish he had taken the time to be up front with his colleagues and discuss it with them before taking some action."

She shouldn't have been surprised. Whitmire goes through well-documented cycles where Boogie, his wild and crazy persona as a young party-prone lawmaker, comes clawing and kicking back through the statesman facade.

After one such eruption in 1995, the senator found himself under investigation by a Harris County grand jury for misusing his office for personal gain. (Whitmire had negotiated a $4,000 monthly contract for himself with an agency for which he had legislative oversight.) No charges were filed and the senator slowly rebuilt his stature in the legislature, gathering clout as chairman of the powerful Criminal Justice Committee. Another visitation by the troublemaking inner child several years later led to Whitmire's divorce from his heiress wife, Becky, and his return to the singles circuit.

The state senators who fled to Albuquerque seem to have the same problem as President George W. Bush: They're damn good at starting wars but not so swift at getting out of them. And they clearly didn't count on the fact that one of their company in the trenches was a hyperactive eternal adolescent.

He was the first to crack, secretly slipping out of the Marriott Albuquerque at 4 a.m. that Friday morning when "there wasn't a mouse moving." The fugitive boarded a nonstop Continental flight and by noon was happily chewing on a sandwich at one of his favorite Heights haunts, the Carter & Cooley deli on 19th Street.

The legislator says he spent much of the weekend chatting with community leaders and neighbors, and "realized that the district is generally opposed to redistricting but generally believed we ought to be fighting it on the senate floor."

He left behind his mostly minority colleagues in New Mexico to ponder the rationale of staying in self-imposed exile. When his defection was discovered the following week, previous allies responded with scorn.

State Representative Garnet Coleman of Houston, one of the 51 legislators who fled to Oklahoma to short-circuit the regular session vote on redistricting, says Whitmire "stabbed his colleagues in the back."

"We would never have accomplished what we accomplished in Ardmore if we weren't committed to each other," says Coleman. "That was one of the most dishonorable things he could have done to his colleagues."

Coleman and others charge that Whitmire was influenced in his actions by the Republican-oriented Locke Liddell & Sapp law firm, where he has "of counsel" status.

"When he talked about his constituents, I thought he was talking about Locke Liddell," snipes Coleman. "What I believe is you ought to represent your constituents rather than your employer."

The senator denies that his job had anything to do with his decision.

"My law firm and my politics are totally separate," says Whitmire. "Look how I vote and see if you think it's influenced by anyone other than the district I represent."

With Whitmire's return, the fight seemed to be over since all Governor Rick Perry has to do is declare a special session of the legislature, bag Boogie and cart him to the capitol. Once there's a quorum, the Republicans can ram through a master redistricting plan for Texas congressional domination.

After his lost weekend, Whitmire did fly back to New Mexico for a final meeting with the other senators, where he told them it was time to end the stalemate. He says he warned that the longer the holdout continues, the greater the likelihood that Republican senators will vote to change the rules to allow a simple majority to dictate everything from the agenda to committee assignments. According to Whitmire, "If that happens, each of the Texas 11's districts will be disenfranchised and we won't be able to block anything."

Whitmire claims four colleagues came by after the last meeting, shook his hand and thanked him for what he was doing. Later, he says, some of those same lawmakers publicly denounced him for breaking ranks.

"Overnight their lawyers and political consultants told them that for the court record they need to discredit me," says Whitmire. "It's disappointing; it's the distasteful part of politics, but I guess I understand."

The battle is now in a temporary lull, as Perry's operatives put out the word that he wouldn't call a third special session before Saturday's constitutional amendment election. The governor is juggling two priorities: serving the insurance companies and the medical establishment by concentrating on getting the Prop 12 tort reform amendment passed, while helping Congressman Tom DeLay mint a handful of new GOP congressional districts in time for the 2004 elections. Perry's still hoping to accomplish both tasks before fall is over.

Despite Whitmire's defection, his colleagues seemed in no hurry to abandon the cool New Mexican plateau and descend into the last steamy weeks of the Texas summer. In fact, their month-old adventure may be just beginning.

Backed by a liberal Democrat Internet organization called MoveOn, the remaining Texas Ten may take their show on a nationwide tour ending with a new encampment in Washington, D.C. Three of them, including Houston's Rodney Ellis, headed to the nation's capital late last week to explore that scenario.

MoveOn is the brainchild of two Silicon Valley entrepreneurs, Joan Blades and Wes Boyd, who created a database of more than two million e-mail addresses of politically like-minded people. Using what it calls "flash campaigns," the MoveOn network generates contributions for Democratic causes. A former aide to Senator Ellis put him in touch with the group, which first provided a $25,000 contribution to the Texas 11 and within a week raised more than $1 million on the Internet.

MoveOn Texas spokesman Glenn Smith calls the Texas redistricting dispute just one facet of a national Republican campaign coordinated out of the White House by Bush adviser Karl Rove.

"If you want to get the White House's attention, you've got to speak to voters around the country," says Smith. "It's thought that the efforts outside of Texas will reflect back into Texas and may help resolve this thing in a way favorable to Democrats and not to Republicans."

Whitmire is suspicious of the group's fund-raising and emphasis on turning the redistricting fight into a national campaign against the White House. He notes that MoveOn has provided only a pittance to the Texas 11, while using their cause to raise a fortune. Smith responds that all the money will be spent on the communications campaign to bolster the fight against Republican redistricting plans in Texas and elsewhere.

"We were told in one briefing that MoveOn was going to have us go to Philadelphia, Miami, Chicago, New York," says Whitmire. "If they want to do that, go for it, but I'm more constituent-oriented than gearing up to campaign against George Bush and Tom DeLay across this nation."

Representative Coleman finds Whitmire's stance both shortsighted and self-serving.

"Our goal is to stop redistricting and the taking away of people's votes," says Coleman. "But it requires a whole lot of fortitude, which John Whitmire doesn't have."

"I was not elected to serve in New Mexico or Washington, D.C.," retorts Whitmire. "You've got to come back, fight it out, and ultimately it will be decided in the courts."

When Perry calls the third special session, we'll all find out which persona is currently in control of Whitmire's brain: Democratic loyalist John or that unpredictable Boogie.

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