Dallas Morning News: The ‘Killer Bees’ offer a strategic roadmap for Texas Democrats’ latest quorum break
WASHINGTON — When it comes to breaking quorum in the Legislature, Texas has a history.
In 1979, a dozen state senators nicknamed the “Killer Bees” used filibustering tactics and eventually left the Capitol and hid from Texas Rangers for four days.
At stake then was a GOP-backed bill to shift the timing of the Texas presidential primary to boost former Gov. John Connally’s chances.
The House Democrats camped out in Washington this month are following much the same playbook — this time to block Republican legislation on how elections are run.
“We’re not going to sit in Austin, in the House chamber, and watch the Republican majority steamroll the voting rights of my constituents,” said Rep. Chris Turner of Grand Prairie, chair of the House Democratic Caucus.
At the Democrats’ first press conference at the U.S. Capitol, an original “Killer Bee” was there to lend his support: U.S. Rep. Lloyd Doggett, D-Austin.
“I was a young state senator then, they used to call me the ‘baby senator,’” the congressman recalled with a smile. “We had a really bad legislative session where we were opposing a lot of anti-consumer legislation…. After some discussion, 12 of us agreed to leave — I think 10 of us ended up in a converted two-car garage.”
A walkout that was initially supposed to be only a few hours turned into four days at that garage apartment. The Republican bill they were blocking, an elections bill, was trying to change how the presidential primaries worked in Texas.
“They sent the Texas Rangers out after us. They claimed they were going to bring us back in chains and all this,” Doggett said. “And finally, after I think four or five days, they agreed to pull the bill down and not to pass it.”
The legislators earned the “Killer Bees” moniker for their efforts. The lieutenant governor at the time, Bill Hobby, came up with the nickname, a reference to fears that Africanized bees were invading the U.S. There was a series of famous Saturday Night Live skits in the late 1970s satirizing the panic.
“No one knew when they would strike next,” he wrote in an excerpt from his book, How Things Really Work: Lessons from a Life in Politics. “They were using every tactic in the book to block the legislation they opposed.”
Lloyd said support for the “Killer Bees” really took off, with songs, T-shirts and even Killer Bee costumes.
“It’s kind of a part of Texas folklore that was referred to when they went to Ardmore and to New Mexico against redistricting at a prior time,” he said.
In 2003, 24 years later, Texas Democrats walked out again — this time to protest a Republican redistricting proposal. In fact, they staged two different walkouts to two different states: Oklahoma and New Mexico. This attempt, though, was eventually not so successful.
In May of 2003, 50 House Democrats went to Ardmore, Okla. to prevent a quorum and block the redistricting bill. They camped out in a Holiday Inn for four days to wait out the end of the legislative session, which worked — until then-Gov. Rick Perry called a special session to address the redistricting legislation in June. And then another in July, and eventually a third after that.
When 11 Democratic state senators flew to Albuquerque, N.M., in July 2003 to again break quorum, they stayed for 45 days to thwart the Republicans. But they couldn’t stay forever, and when state Sen. John Whitmire of Houston returned to Texas, he gave Perry and the GOP the quorum needed to push the redistricting bill through.
“I don’t perceive what I’m doing as caving,” Whitmire said at the time. “I’m pursuing a different strategy.”
Now, Gov. Greg Abbott promises to call special session after special session until Democrats give in. For now, they have only committed to staying out of the state for the current special session, set to end no later than Aug. 6.
Monday night, during a MSNBC town hall with a dozen of the Texas lawmakers, Abbott’s campaign bought ad time for a 30-second spot that sought to ridicule and criticize the Democrats.
“Instead of addressing border security, retired teachers, ampersand foster children, Texas Democrats decided to take a road trip,” the ad says. “Texas Democrats need to #getbacktowork.”
Doggett said the “Killer Bees” faced a lot of the same criticism in 1979. The difference between the two quorum breaks, however, is the political landscape each faced.
“We had at that time the potential to change minds in Texas,” Doggett said. “They don’t have that potential. The only minds they can change are on Pennsylvania Avenue in the U.S. Capitol. That’s the big difference.”
Doggett applauded the Democrats’ efforts.
“I know how many arguments we had among 12 people as to what to do — getting 70 to come together is an accomplishment,” he said.