Wisconsin Legislative Standoff Reminds of Texas Capitol Episodes

February 18, 2011

Texas legislative history got a sidelight reference in a national wire story this week about the current standoff in Wisconsin between new Republican Governor Scott Walker and the state’s public employees.  Associated Press writer Scott  Bauer reported that the Wisconsin Senate was just begining to  debate a measure being pushed  by the governor and his Republican allies who control the chamber that would end a half-century of collective bargaining for those workers, when 14 Democratic lawmakers disappeared from the Capitol on Thursday, bringing the debate to a sharp halt.  The move drew cheers from tens of thousands of protesters who filled the state house this week.

In his article, Bauer wrote that “Thursday’s events were reminiscent of a 2003 dispute in Texas, where Democrats twice fled the state to prevent adoption of a redistricting bill designed to give Republicans more seats in Congress. The bill passed a few months later”

Bauer failed to mention a legendary earlier episode at the Texas state capitol. The June 4, 1979 edition of TIME magazine reported in hilarious detail on the time that a dozen state senators, dubbed the Killer Bees, vanished  to combat a bill being pushed by then Lt. Governor Bill Hobby that would have established a presidential primary election on March 11, 1980.  One objective was to give former Governor John Connally a chance to win early in the 1980 primary season and gain a boost toward capturing the Republican nomination for President. But the bill would have established two primaries, one in March for President, and another in May for state and local offices. That would have permitted voters to “cross over” between Democrats and Republicans, a practice that gave heartburn to the all-liberal-to-moderate twelve senators.

The Killer Bees holed up in a cramped garage apartment hideaway just three miles from the Capitol. Since their absence prevented a quorum to conduct Senate business, Hobby dispatched state law enforement officers to search for and return the legislative fugitives.  According to TIME, ” It was one of the most celebrated man hunts in the history of the state. As many as 50 lawmen, including members of the vaunted Texas Rangers, combed the countryside, scanning the sagebrush and cactus scrubland, throwing up roadblocks, searching bars and rumaging through seedy border towns. For five days the hunt went on while the 12 wily fugitives eluded the long, sweaty arm of the law, even though their mug shots were splashed all across the front pages of the state’s newspapers. Finally, after 102 hours of avoiding pursuers, the twelve turned themelves in..”  The measure eventually was defeated after procedural negotiation with Lt. Governor Hobby. 

(For more colorful details, Google Texas Killer Bees)

Julian Read

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