Between the Lines
Flush with a resounding victory, exuberant supporters of Republican Bill Flores jammed into his election-night victory party on November 2, standing shoulder to shoulder on the brown plaid carpet of the banquet room of Bryan’s Best Western Atrea. It was a night to savor the triumph of their collective efforts. That day, voters from the Seventeenth Congressional District, which stretches from College Station through Waco to the rural counties south of Fort Worth, had roared their disapproval of twenty-year Democratic congressman Chet Edwards and the party he represented. Only a few years after his name had been floated as a possible running mate for Barack Obama, Edwards would now join the swelling ranks of America’s unemployed.
“Ultimately the voters sent a clear message that they want a new Congress that will help the economy recover,” declared Flores as he stood behind a lectern flanked by flags. Later that night a supporter would capture the room’s mood with a spirited Facebook message: “CONGRATULATIONS Congressman Bill Flores!!!!!!!!!!!! We’re behind you. Constitution and conservative principles . . . our guiding lights. Make us proud sir!!!!!”
Surely this moment was cause for exclamation-point abuse: A 25-point trouncing of Edwards represented democracy at its finest! The voters threw the bum out!!! Didn’t they?
In truth, Edwards’s defeat was engineered less by the tea party backlash of 2010 than by Texas’s unprecedented redistricting plan of 2003. Never before had the Legislature adopted boundary lines without the benefit of a new census (which occurs only once a decade, in the years ending in zero) or the threat of a court order. But following the lead of then–House majority leader Tom DeLay, an exterminator by trade, lawmakers in Austin had seized upon the historic election of a Republican Speaker in the Texas House as an opportunity to adopt a Democrat-zapping map and produce a Republican majority in Congress. Though DeLay had no official role in the process—the task falls under the purview of the Legislature, not the U.S. Congress—he and his allies in the Texas House went to work on the congressional maps, targeting every single Democrat, regardless of voting record or the importance of committee assignment. Party was the only thing that mattered.
Most people remember the 2003 session for what happened next: In a desperate attempt to thwart DeLay’s scheme, Democratic legislators decamped to Oklahoma and New Mexico to deny their Republican counterparts a quorum. But resistance was futile. The Legislature ultimately adopted a new map that was brutally effective at advancing DeLay’s aims: Of the ten Democrats who were targeted, five were defeated, one resigned, and another switched parties.
Chet Edwards and the story of how his district was carved up provide a good example of what might happen when lawmakers take up redistricting in the new legislative session, which begins on January 11. With surgical precision, DeLay and his associates separated Edwards from the people who had faithfully elected him. As a Democrat in a conservative district that was home to George W. Bush during his presidency, Edwards had always had a balancing act to perform. He voted against Obama’s health care plan, stimulus package, and cap-and-trade proposals, and he skillfully courted the support of the military community in and around Fort Hood. As chairman of the House Military Construction and Veterans Affairs Appropriations Subcommittee and co-chairman of the House Army Caucus, Edwards was instrumental in securing funding for the base, and voters in the area were reliably in his camp.
Then his district was redrawn, and the results were easy to predict. Consider this e-mail from one of DeLay’s associates, who gleefully anticipated Edwards’s demise under the new congressional maps: “Chet loses his Killeen–Fort Hood base in exchange for conservative Johnson County. They will not like the fact he kills babies, prevents kids from praying and wants to take their guns.”
Ah, redistricting. It has always been a toxic task, one that creates warring factions with long memories of past abuses. Yet the term is so bureaucratic-sounding, so yawn-inducing, that it is easy to forget that its purpose is to provide the essential foundation of democracy by ensuring that the ballot of each qualified voter counts equally. As population patterns change, redistricting is designed to draw maps that make certain that each office you vote for—from your representatives in Congress to the members of the House and Senate in the Legislature to the officials on the State Board of Education—reflects fair districts that protect the sacrosanct notion of “one man, one vote.” Or at least that’s what the textbooks say. In Texas, redistricting has become the process by which politicians choose their voters and, in Edwards’s case, deny their enemies support. Silly voter, you didn’t think that you chose your representative, did you?
The process could be as contentious as ever during the 2011 session because of what is at stake. In the past decade, 3.9 million people moved to Texas, making it the fastest-growing state in the country. That means we could gain three or four new congressional seats, which will entitle us to more from the federal government: more representation, more money, and more clout.
Of course, that also means more partisan warfare. For example, startling demographic shifts will spark battles between regions of the state. Since the previous census, Texans have been fleeing rural areas and settling in roughly the middle of the state. It is as if someone collapsed a game board and spilled its players along Interstate 35 from the suburbs of Dallas and San Antonio and back east to Houston. While suburbanization is not new, the phenomenon has accelerated dramatically in the past ten years. More than half as many counties lost population than in the previous ten years. This spells disaster for incumbent politicians in rural areas, who simply don’t represent enough people to justify their existence.
Meanwhile, an explosion in the state’s Hispanic population has created legal and political pressure to draw at least one new congressional district that can be controlled by Hispanic voters. Hispanic residents account for 63 percent of Texas’s historic population increase. Without them, Texas’s population growth would not have been sufficient to claim any new congressional seats. But where the new district is drawn could prove contentious. For example, there are now more Hispanics living in the Dallas area (1.8 million) than in the entire Rio Grande Valley (1.04 million).
If history has taught us anything, the pressure to draw new lines and protect incumbents will set off a protracted, consuming, and nasty battle steeped in partisanship and racial politics. The November elections reinvigorated Republicans for combat by delivering a breathtaking 99 to 51 majority in the Texas House. Quite simply, the electorate made the dreams of the GOP faithful come true. As the saying goes, in love, comedy, and politics, timing is everything. And getting spanked by the voters during a census year is unimaginably bad for the Democrats.
Which brings us back to Edwards. After 2003, he survived a few election cycles, but in the end the Fort Hood for Johnson County swap was fatal. Flores creamed Edwards in Johnson County by nearly 14,000 votes. Residents of the current district, swept up in the national conservative tidal wave, may think they threw Edwards out. But his fate was sealed in 2003, when Republican leaders threw his voters out.
Gamesmanship has defined redistricting at least since 1812, when Massachusetts governor Elbridge Gerry inked a salamander-shaped district to help elect a political ally. That map introduced the term “gerrymander” into the political lexicon to describe the art of drawing a district whose reptilian boundaries absorbed friendly voters and slithered around unfriendly ones. Over the years, the game grew in complexity and developed new strategies: “packing” (jamming one voter type into a district), “cracking” (dispersing a community of cohesive voters into several districts), and “pairing” (putting the homes of two incumbents in the same district to force them to run against each other).
For generations, the game was played exclusively by elected officials and their patrons. Two things changed that. First, in 1964 the U.S. Supreme Court inserted itself into the process by ruling that districts must have equal numbers of people. Then, in 1975 a congressional amendment to the Voting Rights Act required Texas to prove that new boundary lines did not diminish the strength of minorities. For the first time, the average person got to play. If voters (or, more accurately, their advocates, like the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund or the Republican Party of Texas) didn’t like the districts drawn by the politicians, they could take the maps to the federal courts for review.
Over time the technology for identifying voters and drawing increasingly sophisticated maps changed as well. Inkwells were abandoned for calculators, which were in turn abandoned for computer software. Today a click of the mouse can reveal a district’s voting-age population, voting history, and minority population, not to mention its country clubs, school districts, and churches. Redistricting now resembles a high-body-count, multiplayer computer game.
Each state plays with its own set of rules. In Texas the Legislature gets the first crack at drawing maps, and redistricting bills make their way through both chambers just as any other piece of legislation does. However, the process becomes more complicated if lawmakers cannot agree on new maps. If that happens, the Legislative Redistricting Board (LRB), which comprises the lieutenant governor, House Speaker, comptroller, attorney general, and land commissioner, assumes responsibility for the state House and Senate districts; federal and state courts draw the lines for congressional seats. In any case, because of the Voting Rights Act amendment, all Texas maps must get a thumbs-up from the U.S. Department of Justice, known as a Section 5 preclearance, to ensure that minority voting strength has not been damaged.
Strategy is often influenced by the party affiliation of those in charge at the various levels. For instance, a clever move for Democrats would be to try to compromise with their Republican colleagues in the House and Senate, because they are certain to get hosed by the LRB, whose members are all Republicans. But that doesn’t mean that Republicans can do anything they want. The Democrats’ only leverage this session will be their constant reminder to the majority party that the DOJ is now led by Obama appointees. That means the Republicans don’t want to get too greedy and risk being smacked down by the feds. (Republicans do have another option, one that would allow them to bypass the DOJ by going directly to a Washington, D.C., court to seek preclearance. That decision rests with Attorney General Greg Abbott, who will decide where he believes the state’s plans will be best received.)
Voters too can punish greedy game players for immoderation. For instance, in 2001, in an attempt to elect as many Republicans as possible, the LRB drew Texas House lines that spread their strength too thinly. One year later, 88 Republicans were elected, but by the next election, Democrats had whittled the number down to 81. As a Republican political consultant told me ruefully, “Pigs get fed, and hogs get slaughtered.”
One of the dominant and recurring features of redistricting is revenge. After decades of watching Democrats draw the lines, Republicans were all too eager to strike back when the red pencil fell into their hands. The current war began in 1962, when Republican Ed Foreman, of Odessa, won election to Congress to represent a district that included both Odessa and Midland. Three years later, when a Supreme Court decision required the adoption of a new congressional map, the Democrat-controlled Legislature intentionally split the Republican bastion of Midland-Odessa, sister cities that are only 21 miles apart, by putting Odessa in a district with San Antonio, 285 miles away. Foreman lost his next election.
The power grab made an impression on a young Midland businessman named Tom Craddick. “That was a source of serious irritation for Craddick,” said Steve Bickerstaff, the former Texas Senate parliamentarian who wrote a book on redistricting called Lines in the Sand and who is an adjunct professor at the University of Texas School of Law. Craddick won election to the Legislature in 1968 and would toil for more than three decades before getting the opportunity to even the score.
Democrats continued to control the process, drawing maps in the seventies that elected only four Republicans to Congress, though 45 percent of Texans voted Republican. Ironically, Republicans used the preclearance requirement thirty years ago to gain a partisan advantage. In 1981 Republican governor Bill Clements vetoed the legislative maps, throwing the process to the Democrat-dominated LRB. Over the objections of Mark White, who was then the state’s Democratic attorney general, Clements’ Secretary of State, David Dean, urged the Department of Justice to reject the revised maps. Dean’s submission led to the maps’ rejection by the Reagan Justice Department, and federal courts drew new plans.
By the time of the 1990 census, Democrats still controlled state government, with a majority in both legislative chambers and on the LRB. A review of their work that year can be summed up in a word: selfish. The chair of the Senate Redistricting Committee, Eddie Bernice Johnson, wanted so desperately to draw a safe district for herself that she didn’t even properly research the home addresses of the members of the Texas congressional delegation: One of the maps she proposed placed five incumbents’ homes in the wrong districts.
Meanwhile, David Sibley, of Waco, won a special election in 1991 and alarmed Democrats by becoming the ninth Republican in the Texas Senate. Democrats welcomed him by drawing Senate maps that put his house in another district. “I loved my old house,” Sibley recalled. “I raised my kids there. There was laughter in the walls.” But he wanted to stay in the Senate, so he bought a lot for a new home in his new district. Democrats responded by drawing a second version of the map. “I didn’t even represent the school district my wife taught in,” Sibley said of that plan. “They put me in an area where I’d never represented anybody.” (The courts ultimately wound up drawing a new map, and Sibley survived.)
The tide had turned after the next census. By 2001 Republicans held four of the five seats on the LRB, but this shift in power led to surprisingly terrible consequences for incumbent Republican senators. Since many members of the LRB—notably U.S. senator John Cornyn, then the attorney general—harbored ambitions for higher office, they were susceptible to pressure from major party donors. A handful of them, hoping to create opportunities for new Republican candidates, pushed a map that eviscerated the districts of several incumbent Republicans. At the time, I wrote in TEXAS MONTHLY that state senator Jeff Wentworth, then the chairman of the Senate Redistricting Committee, had phoned Cornyn to beg him not to adopt the last-minute proposal. Wentworth said that the attorney general told him he was getting “significant pressure from major donors in Dallas and Houston” to adopt a map that guaranteed more Republican influence.
Wentworth, a longtime friend and supporter of Cornyn’s, told him not to give in. “I felt betrayed,” Wentworth said. “I put my heart and soul into trying to avoid exactly this result—it will cost the taxpayers of Texas millions of dollars fighting over this map [in court] now.” And he remembered all too well how loudly Republicans complained when Democrats had rammed through a highly partisan map in 1991. “It is hypocritical, and it is sorely disappointing to me,” he said.
In the end, the Republican LRB created a map for the Texas Senate that Republican incumbent senators detested. What lesson do we take from this? Eat or be eaten. Eager to achieve a Republican majority in the Texas House, that same year the LRB adopted a plan that would spread GOP voting strength as far as possible. The map elected 88 Republicans in the first election cycle, which would help the party reach the magic number to control the Texas House in 2003, heralding in the first Republican Speaker since Reconstruction. Craddick, who for so long had yearned to correct Democratic gerrymandering, would finally get his chance.
As with any popular computer game, redistricting continues to evolve, with new versions promising speed, power, and different methods for annihilating your opponents. Gaming aficionados are constantly sharing “cheats” online, secret codes that allow a player to skirt the game’s usual rules. And in 2001 Texas saw a range of new tactics. For example, Tom DeLay and his aide Jim Ellis founded Texans for a Republican Majority Political Action Committee, which was designed to extend the party’s influence across the state and help elect a Republican Speaker. TRMPAC brought unprecedented strategy and weaponry into Texas. DeLay and Ellis saw an opportunity. If they could wrest control of the Texas House from Democratic hands, they could elect a Republican House Speaker who would support the adoption of an aggressive new congressional map favoring the GOP—without waiting until the end of the decade for a new census. And according to subsequent indictments, the two men didn’t flinch at using corporate money to help fund state campaigns, which is illegal in Texas. In late November 2010, a Travis County jury agreed and convicted DeLay of money laundering and conspiracy to commit money laundering. His attorney, Dick DeGuerin, vowed to appeal the conviction.
After Craddick’s election as Speaker, in 2003, the House lurched toward the adoption of a new map. At each stumble, DeLay unleashed new tactics: When the Democrats fled the state, he joined the Federal Aviation Administration in the hunt for House Speaker Pete Laney’s Piper Cheyenne. If the feds could track it down, the Democrats’ cover would be blown!
The quorum-busting strategy worked only until the regular legislative session expired, in May. Governor Rick Perry continued to call a series of special sessions over the summer, which prompted Democrats in the Texas Senate to flee. Their Albuquerque exile lasted just long enough to expose raw nerves. Finally the self-diagnosed hyperactive member of the group, Houston’s John Whitmire, went stir-crazy and bolted back to Texas. (This outcome was predictable, given that Whitmire’s nickname around the Capitol is Boogie.)
Back in Austin, the machinations continued. Under the DeLay-Craddick plan, 26-year veteran Charlie Stenholm, the chair of the House Agriculture Committee, was paired with Lubbock congressman Randy Neugebauer. In a region where livelihoods depended on the continued kindness of the United States Department of Agriculture, the prospect of losing Stenholm, with his prestigious chairmanship, caused serious heart palpitations. But Stenholm was a Democrat, and by DeLay’s calculations, he had to go. And so an offer was extended to Stenholm: Would he like to resign, to take an endowed chair of agriculture at Texas Tech University? Stenholm kept his dignity but lost his congressional seat in the following election.
Matters were brought to a head by the calendar: The Capitol would soon be emptied of legislators for the annual Texas-OU football game, in Dallas. With the legislators departing, pressure was on. It was time to take the job out of the hands of the amateurs. According to Steve Bickerstaff, DeLay and Ellis turned up the heat by enlisting powerful donors to call and visit lawmakers.
“Some of the most effective pressure came from major Republican donors,” Bickerstaff wrote in Lines in the Sand. “Several Republican senators told me in 2005 that they received very clear messages directly or indirectly from these major donors in 2003. The senators were certain to listen to these major donors because in the 2002 election cycle they (using the top 10 donors to TRMPAC as a measure) directly gave Republican senators over $700,000. For an elected official to offend such important Republican donors could mean virtual political suicide.”
By this time, both the House and the Senate had adopted plans and had appointed a conference committee to work out the differences. Bickerstaff recounts how DeLay and Ellis took over the conference committee and produced an entirely new map, with districts approved by neither the House nor the Senate.
“The conference committee never met,” Bickerstaff wrote. “The sponsors . . . conducted the conference committee business without any quorums present or any formal meetings.” Soon a new DeLay map was presented for approval to both chambers. “That plan was drawn in secret by a handful of persons with a common objective working under pressure from outside partisan interests. . . . After five months, the final redistricting plan . . . became public only hours before it was passed by an emotionally exhausted state legislature.”
His charges are backed up by a nakedly honest memo written by Ellis, stating that the plan needed to reflect “the priorities of the [Republican] congressional delegation and not the legislature.”
So how did Bickerstaff sum up the process? “For decades, a dispute has existed in this country over the best state institution to engage in redistricting—an independent commission or a state legislative body. Texas found a third alternative—redistricting by cabal.”
While Bickerstaff calls DeLay’s map “a masterpiece of partisan engineering,” the U.S. Supreme Court found fault only with the South Texas district, then held by Representative Henry Bonilla, for decreasing minority voting strength. But Matt Angle, the founder of the Lone Star Project, a Democratic research, policy, and analysis firm, believes the 2003 map undermined minorities in several other districts. “People make a bad assumption that redistricting is just a colossal fight between parties, but what it really does is decide whether the voting strength of people of color and residents in rural areas will be realized or suppressed,” said Angle, who served as an aide to longtime Democratic congressman Martin Frost, who was successfully defeated by the 2003 maps.
Frost’s old twenty-fourth district, in Fort Worth, is a prime example. Its minority voters were splintered among several Republican districts, diluting their impact. “Fort Worth now has the largest concentration of African American people in the country without representation by a Democrat,” he said in an interview just before the November elections. “That is the result of Republicans’ making sure that African Americans and Hispanics didn’t have a voice in a congressional race. Before 2003, African Americans were the deciding factor in that congressional district.”
According to Angle, marginalizing minority voting power is a consequence of the plan to maximize the election of Republicans. “In order to preserve power, [the Republican] method is to undermine the voting strength of people of color,” Angle said. “They went to the bank to rob it; they didn’t go to kill the guard and teller. But they have to do it to get to their goal.”
Though it is difficult to predict exactly what will happen this session, Texans can take one thing to the bank: Lawsuits challenging the maps will be filed. After all, the courts are the final arbiter of the rules of the game. This year’s redistricting battle offers a venue for changing some of those rules.
In particular, conservatives have been abuzz about a 2009 U.S. Supreme Court decision involving an Austin municipal utility district (MUD) that challenged Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act. Though the court left unresolved the question of Section 5’s constitutionality, the opinion was widely read by scholars as inviting a direct challenge in a future case. Several legal experts believe that the Supreme Court will eventually hear a case on Section 5’s preclearance mandate, which is predicated on historic discriminatory practices. However, the challenge is not expected to be decided in time to affect this year’s round of redistricting.
The Austin MUD case was the brainchild of the late Greg Coleman, a brilliant Austin attorney who died in a plane crash in late November. Coleman had been advising current Speaker of the House Joe Straus on redistricting issues, but in an October interview, he played down the impact of the case on this year’s redistricting debate. “We are going to comply with Section 5 and obtain preclearance,” he said simply.
Conservatives might also find a friendly audience in the courts for another legal strategy that is gaining popularity, one that dovetails with the national debate over immigration: Should districts be divided equally based on the number of residents or the number of voting-age residents? In a legal case against the City of Irving, a conservative group is arguing that by not taking into account the population of illegal immigrants, the council districts have unbalanced numbers of qualified voters. This, the lawsuit claims, violates the principle of “one man, one vote.”
While discounting illegal immigrants might be a popular notion, as a practical matter, states have no concrete data to rely on for such a plan, since the census does not identify immigration status by specific locations. Still, if such a theory received traction in the Legislature and the courts, the effect would be drastic in Texas, where, in some urban areas, an estimated 50 percent of the Hispanic voting-age population is made up of noncitizens.
This year Angle predicts that Republicans will argue against creating Hispanic districts by focusing attention solely on where population has grown, not on which groups are responsible for the increase. “It is absolutely wrongheaded,” Angle said. “A racial and political gerrymander is the only way that Republicans can ensure that they hold majorities going forward.”
Jim Dunnam, who was the chair of the Texas House Democratic Caucus until he fell victim to the November Republican landslide, frames this year’s debate as geographic versus demographic: Do you focus on where the growth has occurred or pay attention to which ethnic groups compose the population surge? “We’re already hearing Republicans talking about ignoring demographic growth and looking only at geographic growth,” he said. “When you are drawing that district, it can be drawn as a Hispanic district or it can be drawn to elect a white Republican.”
But how will mapmakers lasso enough of those minority voters together in one district to have an impact on election results? Census data is expected to show huge percentage gains for minorities in urban areas. For instance, according to Steve Murdock, a former state demographer and head of the U.S. Census Bureau who is now a sociology professor at Rice University, Dallas County grew from 30 percent Hispanic to 40 percent Hispanic in the past decade; Harris County saw a shift from 33 to 40 percent. At the same time, Dallas and Houston have grown more slowly than their suburban areas. That creates problems for incumbents. In Houston, both African American Democrats Al Green and Sheila Jackson Lee have experienced slowed population growth in their districts.
These shifts will make it difficult to achieve Voting Rights compliance. And, according to Harris County judge Ed Emmett, a social phenomenon that should be celebrated—integration—will also make it difficult to protect minority districts in the county. “Harris County minorities have moved throughout the area now,” he said. Testimony before the House Redistricting Committee found the same phenomenon in Arlington, according to state representative Aaron Peña. There are plenty of Hispanics—just not in one easily identifiable neighborhood.
Meanwhile, the Texas congressional delegation hopes to avoid the contentiousness of 2003 by presenting a consensus plan to the Legislature, with an effort led by Republican Lamar Smith, of San Antonio. Straus is particularly close to Smith (he once managed one of Smith’s campaigns) and will likely champion a plan endorsed by him.
According to Democratic congressman Lloyd Doggett, who has been working with Smith, even Republicans in the Texas congressional delegation see flaws in DeLay’s lines: “In [Michael] McCaul’s district, they drew a line around a condo I used to live in [in Austin] and connected it to Houston through six counties. It is a very difficult district to represent.”
Smith and Doggett might get a plan approved by the Legislature, but what about the governor, who has the authority to veto a congressional map? For months Doggett has been warring with Perry over federal education stimulus funding. Perry would surely be tempted to veto any map that treats Doggett kindly.
Before the Legislature even takes up congressional boundary lines, it will want to debate its own districts. If a map is drawn that attempts to secure safe districts for 99 Texas House Republicans, the GOP could face a quick slide in its numbers as the state’s anti-Obama fervor subsides in subsequent election cycles. Either way, carnage is unavoidable.
As the Legislature prepares to convene, far-right groups are clamoring to exercise their power; for instance, they began a phone bank operation urging conservative voters to demand that Democrats be excluded from voting for the House Speaker. If successful, the Republican bloc will not allow Democrats to influence the configuration of House districts.
Sideshows are also inevitable: Expect the process to get snagged on the usual personal peeves and quirks, such as state senator Chris Harris’s desire for his district to encompass his Alito ranch or state senator Eddie Lucio’s ambition to run for Congress and allow his son to take his current seat. Rumors abound that maps will be unfriendly to two rising Democratic stars in the Texas Senate, Kirk Watson, of Austin, and Wendy Davis, of Fort Worth.
But the most sweeping change will be dictated not by politics but by simple data. Rural communities are dying off and no longer will be entitled to as much representation. The state’s population growth must be parceled out equally, and that means that, on average, each Texas House district drawn in 2011 will have about 26,000 more people than today’s districts. Meanwhile, each Texas Senate district will grow by 125,000 to 130,000 people. “In the rural districts, the people are just not there,” said Republican Delwin Jones, a former chair of the House Committee on Redistricting who was defeated in the March 2010 primary. He predicted that “three or more rural Texas House districts” will simply disappear.
For example, two Republican state senators, Kel Seliger, from Amarillo, and Robert Duncan, from Lubbock, will need their districts to absorb 100,000 to 130,000 residents, because their communities have not kept up with the state’s rate of growth. And some urban state senators, such as Mario Gallegos, from Houston, are in the same boat, though for different reasons. Gallegos’s inner-city district is hemmed in by other urban districts and therefore has nowhere to add new residents. It too has fallen behind the state’s average population growth and will need to reach into neighboring districts to be equalized. Those deficits will force lawmakers to compete for voters with other incumbents. Combat will occur not just along party lines but also between urban-suburban and rural factions.
Because redistricting is so angst-ridden, it’s fair to ask if there’s a better way. Efforts in the Legislature to appoint a bipartisan commission to do the job have barely registered, but other states have decided that elected officials shouldn’t be in charge of drawing lines and have handed the job to citizen commissions.
Skeptics question whether such commissions can act independently of political patrons. They are, after all, appointed by someone. But Texas’s history proves the importance of an open process. Like any game, it’s all about the rules. It has become the practice for the redistricting conference committee, which hammers out differences between the House and Senate versions of the bills, to meet privately. If, for instance, both the House and Senate required it to meet, debate, and vote in public—or perhaps even hold hearings on all maps before their adoption—then the Legislature could preside over a transparent process.
That isn’t likely to happen anytime soon, particularly since Republicans have been emboldened by their gains in the November election. A few political consultants and elected Republicans have privately argued that their party should view this session as the last hurrah of the GOP. They believe that the rapid growth of Democratic-leaning Hispanics will eventually relegate Republicans to minority status. Those moderate Republicans argue that their party should establish a precedent for redistricting that they can live with when they are no longer in power. But a loud contingent of conservative groups is advocating a scorched-earth approach when it comes to dealing with Democrats. They argue that the voters gave them the mandate to overwhelm Democrats in all matters. If this argument prevails, then the Legislature will take another step toward bitter partisanship.
It will also ensure that the endless loop of power grabbing and retaliation will continue. Remember Tom Craddick in 1965, becoming disgusted with the process? It’s not hard to imagine that somewhere, someone, perhaps a student in the Copperas Cove Independent School District whose parents wish they could have voted for Chet Edwards, will watch the Legislature this year and vow to seek revenge in 2021.