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Police pursuits and 'Killer Bees': What happened when Texas Democrats broke quorum in the past

Legislators have run for the state line more than once before in attempts to block Republican-backed measures in Texas.
The Texas House receives a message from a Senate \"Bee Man,\"
The Texas House received a message from a Senate "Bee Man," one of 12 state senators nicknamed the "Killer Bees," who hid offsite to prevent the 31-member Senate from reaching a quorum on two bills, in 1979.Courtesy Texas State Library and Archives Commission

Rep. Lloyd Doggett, D-Texas, knows what it's like to break quorum in Austin.

Doggett, who met with Texas Democrats who fled the state at their hotel late Monday, was one of a dozen "Killer Bees" who broke quorum 42 years ago. As a young senator in the Texas Legislature, he was a pioneer of the kind of scrappy delay tactics Texas Democratic legislators have used in their fight to block election restrictions advanced by the Legislature's Republican majorities.

"This kind of tactic is really a last resort, when everything else fails," Doggett said. "It's very similar to what's happening today."

The Texas Democrats' dramatic walkout Monday — they took two private jets to Washington, D.C., where they plan to spend weeks lobbying for federal legislation and putting a national spotlight on Republican efforts to pass voting restrictions around the country — is not without precedent. In 2003, a redistricting proposal advanced by Republicans triggered two different walkouts to two different states. The walkouts offer colorful lessons for the legislators working to block bills in absentia, when caucus unity is critical and the Texas Rangers loom large.

Doggett and his fellow Democrats made a name for themselves in the 1979 legislative session with creative delay tactics, particularly the use of a filibuster-like measure in which they would force lengthy discussion of bills that were expected to pass but were on the calendar ahead of the legislation they actually opposed in the Senate.

"The lieutenant governor referred to us as just a bunch of killer bees: You could never tell where we might sting," Doggett said Tuesday.

Rep. Lloyd Doggett, D-Texas, at a rally June 20 in Austin.Sergio Flores / Getty Images file

They took things a step further in May 1979, toward the end of the legislative session, when Senate Republicans tried to change how presidential primaries were run in Texas, a measure Democrats believed was designed to boost conservative incumbents. To block the legislation, Doggett and 11 other liberal Democrats hid out in a converted two-car garage apartment, where they planned to stay for a few hours. They ended up staying for four days, winning the hearts of supporters who donned bee costumes.

"Cramped quarters," Doggett recalled. "We were looking to Texas history and to our hopes that we could stay unified," but there was "a good bit of debate about what we were doing, how we would accomplish it. I know those are the kind of challenges that these House members have had in deciding where do you go, what do you do, how — these things were happening as we listened to the Texas Senate debate bringing us back in chains and accusing us of being involved in terrible misconduct and not doing our job. All the very same kind of claims that are being made against these Texas House members."

The legislators evaded a statewide manhunt by the Texas Rangers and state police — reports said they were dubbed "bumble bees" for their failure to track down the defiant Democrats — but the brother of one legislator was not so lucky. Clayton Jones, The Washington Post reported at the time, was picking up his Sunday paper when he was detained and hauled back to Austin in a police helicopter before it became clear that authorities had apprehended the wrong man.

A key challenge was to maintain unity.

"Getting agreement among 12 people is a challenge. Getting agreement and unity of purpose among 70 Texas state House members who show the courage to take flight all the way to Washington is really quite an accomplishment," he said.

After four days, Doggett and his colleagues were successful: Republicans agreed to drop the proposal. The Killer Bees went back to work.

Twenty-four years later, in May 2003, Texas Democrats tried another walkout in protest of a redistricting plan. This time, they were not successful.

Jeff Rotkoff, a Democratic volunteer from Waco, held a computer speaker up so Texas House Democrats could hear a news conference by Texas House Speaker Tom Craddick in Ardmore, Okla., in 2003. Democratic legislators were boycotting the legislative session, leaving the state and staying at a Holiday Inn in Oklahoma to prevent a quorum and block a redistricting bill.Jeff Shaw / Getty Images file

That year, more than 50 House Democrats went to Oklahoma for four days, staying at a Holiday Inn just over the state line, according to contemporaneous reports.

The Washington Post reported then that Republicans plastered the fugitive Democrats' faces on milk cartons and decks of playing cards, like the ones soldiers had created with the faces of most-wanted Iraqis.

The legislators declared victory, but the governor called a special session for the redistricting legislation in June and then another the next month. In July, senators fled the state, this time to New Mexico for around 45 days, according to the Chicago Tribune. While they were gone, Republican senators voted to fine the runaway senators and were reported to have voted to remove their parking privileges.

The walkout continued until one of the senators broke ranks and went home in September.

The New York Times reported that the defecting senator, John Whitmire, said at the time that the walkout was "a smart move and I wouldn't undo it" but that the governor's threats to keep calling special sessions left Democrats without an "exit strategy."

Rick Perry, the governor at the time, did, indeed, call a rare third special legislative session, and the redistricting plan passed.

The Texas Democrats breaking quorum now face a similar threat: Gov. Greg Abbott has already promised at least one more special session to tackle redistricting in Texas.

"These Texas House Democrats, we know they have a much bigger challenge than we had," Doggett said. "They face a Republican who's running for the United States presidency in Greg Abbott — trying to outcompete Georgia, Florida and other Republicans to demonstrate he's more like Trump than anyone else. He's accomplished that, but we have to overcome it."