South Texas legislator may also flip.
Updated: 2:45 a.m. Sunday, Dec. 12, 2010
Published: 9:22 p.m. Saturday, Dec. 11, 2010
State Rep. Allan Ritter of Nederland said Saturday that he will leave the Democratic Party and become a Republican, probably giving the GOP a two-thirds majority in the Texas House.
He may not be the last one. Democratic Rep. Aaron Peña of Edinburg hinted Saturday about making the switch to the GOP.
Ritter would be the 99th Republican in the 150-member House. The seat last held by Republican Edmund Kuempel of Seguin, who died last month, is likely to stay in GOP hands, which means two-thirds of the members of the House would be Republicans. The party would be able to pass a constitutional amendment and take money out of the state's rainy day fund without any Democratic votes.
Ritter, whose district is in the Beaumont area, did not have a Republican challenger this year. Others who fit his profile — moderate to conservative, white Democrats from rural areas and mid-size towns — got swept away in the November elections, and Ritter could well have lost if the GOP had challenged him.
"In order to best reflect the views of the majority of the people of District 21, I have decided to change my party affiliation," Ritter said in a written statement Saturday. "I believe this will allow me to more accurately and effectively represent my constituents while addressing the challenges facing our state. There will be a formal announcement this Tuesday in Austin."
The switch is the latest setback in a disastrous year for Texas Democrats. In the 2009 Legislature, the party held 74 House seats, just two fewer than the Republicans. But Republican momentum this year in Texas and nationally wiped out a number of Democratic members who had been elected in the last four years, when national Democrats enjoyed better fortunes, or who had long survived in conservative districts.
A switch by Peña could provide one final blow to Democrats before year's end. One of the most conservative Democrats in the Legislature and a close ally of Republican Speaker Joe Straus, Peña on Friday told the Rio Grande Guardian that he was weighing a switch.
"I am taking the matter under consideration, and I will issue a public statement in the coming days, one way or the other," Peña said. "I am who I am and my intention is to represent my community and to give them the best possible advantage under the current environment."
Peña was out of state on a vacation with his wife Saturday, but wrote on Twitter: "Hard not to notice the stir back in Texas. Change is always difficult."
Peña comes from heavily Democratic Hidalgo County.
But the Legislature will redraw legislative districts this year, and with Republicans in control of that process, they could seek to carve out a seat that Peña could win as a Republican in 2012.
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