AUSTIN, Texas – When 10 Democratic lawmakers returned to the Capitol after running off to New Mexico for six weeks to block congressional redistricting (search), they were met with boisterous cheers from the Senate gallery.
But the crowd had a different welcome for Democratic Sen. John Whitmire (search) of Houston: Members of the audience unveiled white T-shirts printed with one letter apiece, spelling out "QUITMIRE."
After 36 days holed up in a hotel in Albuquerque, N.M., Whitmire broke ranks with his fellow Democrats Sept. 2 and decided to return to Texas. His decision gave Senate Republicans the quorum needed to get back to work on a redistricting plan that could give the GOP more seats in Congress.
His angry fellow Democrats regard him as a turncoat (search). But the 20-year Senate veteran said he has no regrets.
"I'm just so at peace with what I did," said Whitmire, 54, the state's senior senator. "I made a very hard but correct decision to come back."
A week after he returned, the other Democrats reluctantly followed, and on Monday, the Legislature began a third special session to work on redistricting.
"We feel he obviously compromised his position," said Sen. Mario Gallegos, a Democrat from Houston who has called Whitmire his best friend. "We'll continue to be friends, but it'll never be the same."
Sen. Judith Zaffirini said: "I don't believe that he will ever regain the trust and respect, but time will tell, and most importantly, his constituency will determine his future. He is a hero to the Republicans, but his action was detrimental not only to the Democrats and his constituents, but also to the restoration to civility."
But Whitmire said he remained in Albuquerque for the 30 days that Democrats had committed to stay. And he said he felt the need to return to take up other important business that was being held up by the boycott.
"I've gotten an awful lot of show of support from across my district," he said, adding that staying in Albuquerque would not have changed the dynamics of redistricting at all. "It's going to be reviewed by the courts, ultimately."
The only bachelor in the Senate chamber, Whitmire, a lawyer, sits in a back corner of the chamber and is often heard holding court and cracking jokes.
He has made his legislative niche in criminal justice policy and this year passed a bill that helped 14 defendants in a now-discredited series of drug busts in the small town of Tulia get out of jail.
In a recent interview, he mentioned criminal justice as one of the issues he felt he needed to address by getting back to Texas.
Some Republicans have said he made the right decision. "I think he realized there needed to be an end, and I think it was right," said Sen. Jane Nelson.
That kind of response from GOP colleagues has him feeling a bit awkward, Whitmire said: "The Democrats won't hug me, and the Republicans, I won't let them."