In the gauzy haze of political lore, the Legislature embodies a history replete with stories both wild and comic, as colorful characters fight the good fight, look after their friends, punish their enemies, and more than occasionally tilt at windmills. In the more glaring light of critical assessment, the Legislature is the first place that stubborn elites, backward looking bosses, and greedy hucksters went to protect their interests in the face of the profound historical changes that have made Texas ever more populous, more urbanized, and more diverse in a word, modern. As an institution, then, the Legislature has a rich and complex, but not always savory history.
Many of the most obviously anachronistic and even embarrassing characteristics of the Texas Legislature have been undone by the inability of other institutions and individuals to resist the force of structural change. The long stranglehold of the Democratic Party on the Legislature since Reconstruction slowly gave way in the 1990s, culminating in the 2002 elections which gave Republicans solid majorities in both houses. Enforcement of civil rights by federal authorities and changes in the political culture on the state level led to increased, if not nearly proportional, representation of women and ethnic and racial minorities in the Legislature. Even the Capitol itself was updated with a thorough renovation in the mid-1990s, as if to symbolize the gradual modernization of an institution rooted in the nineteenth century but striving to govern in the twenty-first.
But as the twenty-first century unfolds, the Legislature remains a curious combination of old-style politics, nineteenth century institutional design, and the realities of a state with 22 million people, many of whom live in or near some of the largest urban areas in the country.
The peculiarity of Texas politics was thrust into the national spotlight during the 2003 session when partisan warfare over belated attempts to redistrict Texas's seats in the U.S. House of Representatives erupted into a paralyzing political street fight. Democrats chafed as the newly-empowered Republican majorities advanced legislation to redraw U.S. congressional districts in order to undo existing Democratic advantages and provide Republicans with an apparent glide path toward a comfortable majority. At critical moments in the process first in the Texas House, then in the Senate Democrats fled the state, paralyzing proceedings.
Republicans accused Democrats of cowardice and being able to dish it out but not take it in historical terms. After all, had not the Republicans chafed not just for years, but for decades, under Democratic rule? Now that the table was turned, Republicans growled, the Democrats fled, first to Oklahoma and then to New Mexico. The Democrats, in turn, accused Republicans of being drunk on their newfound power of being heavy handed and vengeful amateurs, who were violating procedure, tradition, and the Constitution in their effort to punish Democrats for keeping Republicans in the wilderness all those years.
In the end, after a summer of political trench warfare, the Republicans passed a plan that seemed to create clear Republican advantages. Neither side could credibly claim undisputed occupation of the high moral ground; both sides had vividly illustrated that politics in the Texas Legislature in the new century could be just as unpredictable, unruly, and idiosyncratic as ever.