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Last time Democrats fled Texas was in 2003, and one former lawmaker has his arrest warrant framed

In 2003, Texas Democrats fled to Oklahoma and New Mexico to thwart a Republican-backed redistricting plan. It passed eventually, but with newfound notoriety.

DALLAS, Texas — Just over 100 miles north of Austin, Jim Dunnam sits in his Waco law office. 

Hanging on a wall nearby is an arrest warrant with his name on it, just waiting for Dunnam to talk about. 

"That arrest warrant is why you picked up the phone and called me today," Dunnam said with a laugh. 

"If you ask me, it was worth it. Standing up for democracy is worth it." 

Credit: Jim Dunnam
A photo of Jim Dunnam's arrest warrant when he was a state representative.

For Dunnam, time itself has become a flat circle. Presently. Texas House Democrats are doing the same thing he and fellow Democratic lawmakers did in 2003: breaking quorum and fleeing Texas to log jam Republican-backed legislation. 

RELATED: Texas House votes to 'send for' Democrats who flew to Washington, D.C., arresting them if necessary

"This is a constitutional tool," Dunnam said. "These lawmakers are doing the job they were elected to do, and that's protecting their constituents and their right to vote." 

At least 51 of the 67 Democratic members of the Texas House are in Washington D.C. right now, after Gov. Greg Abbott's specially called legislative session began. 

Their absence is enough to break quorum/prevent any legislative business in the House from being conducted. 

Those Democrats who plan to stay in Washington aim to run the clock out on the special session, ending on Aug. 6. 

Their reasoning: prevent Republican-backed legislation that tightens voting restrictions from passing and getting to Gov. Abbott's desk. 

The Democrats have gone to Washington to avoid being arrested/detained within the state and brought back to the Texas Capitol to work. 

The last time Democrats from the Texas House broke quorum was in 2003, when Republicans aimed to push through redistricting legislation in the regular session that would help them elect more GOP members to the U.S. Congress. 

RELATED: When was the last time Texas lawmakers fled Texas to halt legislation?

Dunnam was the House Democratic Caucus leader then and decided to gather at least 50 Democratic members and flee to Ardmore, Oklahoma, to run the clock out on the regular session and kill the redistricting legislation. 

It worked. 

Credit: Fort Worth Star-Telegram
Texas House Democrats pose for a photo in 2003 outside of the hotel they fled to in Oklahoma to run out the clock on the regular session that year.

Redistricting is done every 10 years, and Democrats were displeased that Republicans wanted to redraw voting lines -- not even halfway through the decade. 

"That's elected officials choosing the voters and not voters choosing their elected officials," Dunnam said. "There needed to be an awareness about what was going to happen." 

"Us going to Oklahoma ended up going national and international." 

It was almost inevitable that former Gov. Rick Perry would call a special session to push the legislation through to his desk. 

But when he did, 11 Texas Senators fled to Albuquerque, New Mexico, hoping to do what their cohorts in the Texas House did. 

Credit: Getty Images
11 Texas Senators speak in 2003 after fleeing Texas to break quorum for the special session that year.

Democratic Sen. John Whitmire (Houston) was part of that group. After speaking on the Texas Senate floor Tuesday, he spoke to WFAA. 

"We literally left with the clothes on our backs," Sen. Whitmire said. "No question, we got the notoriety." 

Whitmire stayed in New Mexico for 35 days, helping kill at least one of the specially called sessions. 

But he was the first of the Texas 11 to return, drawing ire and scorn from colleagues. 

It was enough to give Republicans a quorum to continue business on the redistricting plan, and the other Democrats in New Mexico followed suit and came home. 

Whitmire was called "Quitmire" by colleagues, but he doesn't regret what he did. 

If he hadn't returned, his place as chairman of the Senate Criminal Justice Committee was likely going to be vacated. 

Whitmire has wielded jail reforms from that position for years. 

"We were going to lose our seats on the Finance Committee, so you know you have to represent your district ultimately. We played our cards, and it didn't work. So, it was time to return to the floor," Whitmire said. 

Dunnam, who is no longer in politics, smiles as he watches the present Texas Democrats follow in his footsteps. 

Pointing to Texas history, he told WFAA that even Sam Houston had to retreat to win the Battle of San Jacinto.

"That's how we won the Texas Revolution," Dunnam said. "Sam Houston ran away to fight another day." 

Though, it's not clear how successful this political move might be. 

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