Rep. Senfronia Thompson: A Texas lawmaker takes a stand

WASHINGTON, D.C. – State Representative Senfronia Thompson, Democrat of Houston, is a Texan who stands tall for democratic rights, equality, and government that provides quality public education, health care, and other entitlements as basic human rights.

These qualities set her apart from oil men like George W. Bush and Richard Cheney who, in their craven service to corporate America and the rich, have given Texas politicians a bad name. Thompson knows Bush, his political strategist Karl Rove and Rep. Tom DeLay (R-Texas), majority leader of the House of Representatives, from the inside out. She’s been a member of the Texas Legislature for 31 years, and is the longest-serving woman and the longest-serving African American legislator in Texas history.

A lifelong Texan, she is a woman of great energy and determination, with degrees in biology from Texas Southern University, a masters degree in education and a law degree. She began her career as a schoolteacher. She is now a practicing attorney, the mother of three children and a grandmother.

Thompson demonstrated her staunch principles last spring when she and 51 of her House colleagues walked out of the Legislature and checked into a motel in Ardmore, Okla. Their absence denied the Republicans the quorum they needed to carry through a scheme by Rove and DeLay for a midterm redrawing of the boundaries of the state’s congressional districts.

Currently, the Texas congressional delegation is made up of 17 Democrats and 15 Republicans. Rove & Co. hope to reverse that, slashing Democratic seats to 12 and bringing the Republicans to 20.

The bold initiative by Thompson and her colleagues slowed down the Rove-DeLay juggernaut. An enraged Gov. Rick Perry ordered law enforcement to track down, arrest and return the truant lawmakers.

“We took a stand for democracy and voting rights for the people of Texas,” Thompson told the World in an interview during the Congressional Black Caucus Legislative Conference.

“My constituents fully supported our initiative,” she said. “Some of them told me, ‘If we had known where you were going, we would have paid your way.’”

Yet it was not without cost. “Members of my staff were forced to sign affidavits saying they did not know my whereabouts. The governor sent the Department of Public Safety and the Texas Rangers after us. Attorney General John Ashcroft was getting ready to find a way that he could arrest us under the USA Patriot Act. Then the FBI could come over to Ardmore and handcuff us and bring us back to Texas.”

Thompson cited reports that Ashcroft minions learned that former Texas House Speaker James “Pete” Laney had flown his private plane to Ardmore to join the walkout. “They put out the story that he had crashed and requested the assistance of Homeland Security to locate him. That was a cover up because they had already obtained his flight manifest.”

Thompson said the fugitive lawmakers won the battle of public opinion. The media trumpeted the story on the front pages and on the airwaves. “It made them [Republicans] look so bad they were forced to pull back from their plans to arrest us.”

But the battle did not end there. When he was unable to get his redistricting plan through the regular session of the Legislature, Gov. Rick Perry called a special session. This time 11 Democratic members of the Texas Senate fled to Albuquerque, New Mexico, once again denying the Republicans the quorum they needed to move ahead with their redistricting scheme.

The 11 held out for three weeks. During their absence, Perry threw 200,000 children off the Children’s Health Insurance Program and terminated home health care for 80,000 seniors and disabled people, blaming the absent Democrats for his action.

Finally Senator John Whitmire – now known as “Quitmire” – broke ranks and returned to Austin, providing the quorum the Republicans needed for the third special session on redistricting. The rebellious legislators were welcomed back by cheering crowds that packed the galleries of the Capitol to show their staunch opposition to the redistricting plan.

The GOP moved swiftly to consolidate their control of the Legislature by repealing the Senate rule that redistricting plans be approved by a two-thirds supermajority. They then drew up a map that delivered on the Rove-DeLay demands.

The Republican leadership also unleashed a full-scale vendetta against the Democrats, with $57,000 fines on each of the Democrats for their walkout. “We must pay it out of our own income, not from campaign funds,” Thompson said. The Republicans also reduced the expense allowance for Democratic staff members to $200 per month. The staff workers parking privileges have been revoked and their vehicles are ticketed and towed if they park in Capitol parking lots. When Democrats attempt to speak, their microphones are turned off.

During floor debate on redistricting, Thompson displayed her disgust at the GOP’s arrogant disregard for House procedures. She walked up to the podium holding up the House rulebook, thick as a Manhattan phone directory, and dropped it with a bang on the floor. The widely respected Texas columnist, Molly Ivens, wrote that Thompson’s act was an eloquent protest against what she called the “creepin’ fascism” of the Republicans.

Thompson is chairperson of the Judicial Affairs Committee of the Texas House of Representatives. Her crowning legislative achievement was the enactment and signing into law by Gov. Rick Perry on May 12, 2001, of the James Byrd Jr. Hate Crime Act that provides for stronger penalties against perpetrators of hate crimes.

In the summer of 2000, Thompson and Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-Texas) convened a news conference during the NAACP’s convention one hour before Bush, then the Republican candidate for president, was scheduled to speak.

Thompson told reporters of how she had arranged a meeting between then-Gov. Bush and the family of James Byrd Jr., the Black man dragged to death behind a pickup by Klansmen outside Jasper, Texas. The Texas Legislature had already approved her hate crime bill by 84-61 and it was pending in the Texas Senate.

“When James’ Byrd’s relatives met with Bush, he said he would not support the hate crimes bill and dismissed them from his office. The James Byrd Hate Crime Act was killed by George W. Bush,” Thompson said, angrily.

“There are 23 hate groups with headquarters in Jasper, Texas,” Thompson told this reporter at that NAACP conference. “Every month someone desecrates the grave of James Byrd. Do you think the governor went to Byrd’s funeral? No he didn’t. Bush was nowhere to be found.”

Three years later, Thompson said she is still locked in combat with these forces of hate. Before the 2002 midterm election, she said, there was virtually no support for changing a redistricting plan drawn up by a three-judge panel, two of them Republicans. In his State-of-the-State speech in January 2002, Perry specifically said there would be no change in that plan because it would be too costly to convene a special session of the Legislature.

Thompson said the Republicans accepted the court-ordered plan because they assumed that the GOP would pick up five or more seats in the 2002 election.

But that didn’t happen. They only won 15 races. Five incumbent conservative Democrats, running in majority Republican districts, were re-elected because GOP voters know these senior Democrats deliver major economic benefits to their constituents. DeLay revived their demands for a new redistricting and extended that same demand to Colorado, seeking to pick up more GOP seats. Even as Perry spearheaded the “Perrymandering” campaign, opposition continued strong. In field hearings across the state in June and July nearly 90 percent of those who testified spoke against redistricting.

At this writing, the House and Senate have each approved different redistricting maps. A conference committee, five each from the House and Senate, deadlocked over differences in the two versions. DeLay is twisting arms to get the conferees to report out a plan quickly. “Whatever comes out of the conference is going to pass. They have the votes,” Thompson said.

If approved and signed by Perry, the plan will go to the U.S. Justice Department for pre-clearance under the Voting Rights Act of 1965. If the Justice Department approves the plan, it will then be subject to challenges in the courts. “And it will be challenged,” Thompson warned. “It will dilute the minority vote in violation of the Voting Rights Act.”

This scheming by the Republican ultra-right for a second shot at the prize they lost the first time around is reminiscent of the Florida election of 2000 in which Bush lost the popular vote to Al Gore but was installed in the White House by the Supreme Court. The California recall is another attempt by the Republicans to revise the results of the November 2002 election in which the GOP failed to win a single statewide office in California.

“The Republicans in Texas didn’t want to play by the rules,” Thompson said. “Or they make the rules up as they go along. Their aim is to terminate the Democrats.”

Thompson has been honored many times in recent years. The Texas Women’s Political Caucus honored her as “Woman of the Year.”

She is ranked among the top five most effective legislators, sponsoring and pushing through 32 bills one year and 50 bills the next, including the James Byrd Jr. Hate Crime Act. It includes pushing through Texas’ minimum wage law, enacting the state’s first alimony law, and protecting the reproductive rights of women. She has campaigned against environmental racism that afflicts the people of Houston with its enormous petrochemical plants and oil refineries.

Marina Coryat, an aide to the Houston lawmaker, wrote a profile of Thompson for the African American, the largest Black newspaper in Texas, last year. In it she said Thompson, “often called the ‘Wo-Dean’ or ‘Madame Chair,’ has been in the forefront of every campaign against discrimination in the last 30 years.”

Houston Mayor Lee P. Brown, speaking at a banquet honoring her 30 years of public service, put it simply. “Senfronia Thompson is truly a treasure,” he said.

The author can be reached at greenerpastures21212@yahoo.com