Texas R.Ph. and Senator Letitia Van De Putte lead the 11 Democrats who fled to New Mexico to thwart a Republican plan to redistrict the state's Congressional seats.
No one would ever accuse Leticia Van de Putte of being fainthearted. The feisty San Antonio pharmacist-turned-state-senator risked arrest and $57,000 in fines for leading 10 other Democrats into exile in New Mexico. She helped stage the six-week exodus to thwart Republican plans to gerrymander Texas' Congressional districts in their own favor.
Arrest warrants were issued to haul in the senate Democrats who boycotted a special session in order to deny Republicans a quorum to ram through the redistricting plan championed by Rep. Tom DeLay to give Republicans another seven House seats. To avoid the long arm of the law, the 11 renegades fled to Albuquerque on July 28 and each racked up a fine of $57,000 imposed by the Republicans. They returned to Texas on Sept. 11, after one of their numbers broke ranks.
"We did it because any of the maps we saw would have disenfranchised 1.5 million African-Americans and Hispanics," explained Van de Putte, in a telephone conversation squeezed into her hectic schedule the day before she returned home to San Antonio. She joked, "We'd better talk now; if I get arrested, I only get one phone call. This is basically an intramural Washington, D.C., fight, because Tom DeLay wants to be the new Speaker of the House."
A 25-year veteran pharmacist, Van de Putte's sense of outrage detoured her into politics back in the days when she still owned her own pharmacy. In 1990, she decided to do something about what she saw as wrongheaded public policy. She threw her hat in the ring and ran for the state legislature. To everyone's surprise, she was elected.
"I got mad," said Van de Putte. "I was outraged that we would spend thousands on a premature baby on Medicaid, but we wouldn't spend the lousy 98 cents a month that it took to get prenatal vitamins. I thought that it was absurd that policy said every cow in the state was going to have its proper immunizations but we didn't have a similar policy for children. I'd never been in public office before, but there was a vacancy in the house. I wasn't supposed to win, but I did. I served five terms in the house. Then I ran for the senate in 1999, and I've been there ever since."
Representing about 720,000 people in San Antonio, Van de Putte focuses on healthcare issues, such as disease state management and childhood asthma and immunizations. She finds that when fellow legislators know there's a healthcare professional at the table, the policy outcome is better. "That's the good side," said the mother of six teenagers. "The downside is that you're going to lose money when you're not working and it's tough on your family, who've got to be very supportive. I have a fabulous husband who did really well, especially when the younger ones asked, 'Daddy, why are the police looking for Mommy?'"
Pharmacy is in Van de Putte's blood. Her background includes consultant pharmacy, mental health work, and eight years at a hospital pharmacy, and she owned her own pharmacy for a decade. "My grandfather was a pharmacist, an old-fashioned Mexican-American boticario who got his license through an apprenticeship," she said. "I grew up in a pharmacy."
Van de Putte's senate duties, which include chairing the Democratic caucus, have kept her away from her pharmacy job since January. She is the fourth pharmacist at Davila Pharmacy, a large community practice catering to special needs children. "I managed to work two weeks in June before the governor called another special session," she said. "They want me back because some of them haven't gotten vacation time this year. They are really mad at the governor."
Despite the arrest warrant, the $57,000 fine, and the six weeks away from her family, Van de Putte has no regrets. "There comes a time in your life when you have to take a stand," she said. "This was not about Democrats and Republicans. This was about democracy. When any one political party can change the rules in the middle of the game to secure victory, what's at stake is not just whether Tom DeLay will be the next Speaker of the House. When you can trash the Constitution, our system of government is in peril. We took a stand."
Carol Ukens. Pharmacist led Texas legislative rebellion. Drug Topics Oct. 6, 2003;147:40.