Drawing the Line(s)
Mon July 24, 2006 12:37 pm

What is the likely outcome of the Texas redistricting case, which will be argued before a three-judge federal court in Austin on August 3?

Although a multitude of maps have been filed with the Court, only three are likely to matter: the State Defendants Plan (approved by Perry, Dewhurst, and Craddick and submitted by Attorney General Abbott); the Bipartisan Compromise Plan, put together by Republicans Henry Bonilla and Lamar Smith along with Democrat Henry Cuellar; and the G.I. Forum Plan, submitted by the winning side in the lawsuit and drawn by the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund.

The Court can adopt one of the submitted maps or draw its own. Even if the Court decides to adopt one of the maps, the judges will probably make minor alterations. Time is short before Election Day, and an adopted map would have to be precleared by the Justice Department under the Voting Rights Act. A Court-drawn map would not.

To review: The Supreme Court found only one problem with the Legislature's 2003 mid-decade redistricting plan--District 23, represented by Republican Henry Bonilla, which sprawls from San Antonio and Laredo all the way to the outskirts of El Paso. The Supremes ruled that the splitting of Webb County, which removed 100,000 Latino voters, most of whom voted Democratic, from Bonilla's district and added a like number of Ango from the Hill Country, most of whom voted Republican, violated the Voting Rights Act. But several judges also grumbled about the shape of the "fajita strip" district, represented by Democrat Lloyd Doggett, that runs from the east side of Austin to the Rio Grande, one county wide. The three-judge court is not obligated to change the district, however, because the Supreme Court did not strike it down.

The State Defendants map is on the firmest legal ground. It repairs the breach in Webb County, makes Doggett's district more compact, and changes a minimal number of districts (four). It also is on the firmest political ground--for Republicans--because the new shape of Doggett's district lops off his Travis County population base. This district is now likely to elect a Latino Democrat from the Rio Grande Valley. The consequence of this move is to leave the state's only concentration of liberal Anglo Democrats without representation in Congress--much like the Democrats used to do to Midland's Anglo Republicans, before all of West Texas flipped to the GOP. In throwing Doggett to the wolves, however, the state's leadership may have done the same to Bonilla. With Webb County whole, he can't win his old district; Cuellar will inherit it. Bonilla's consolation prize is a district that is half San Antonio and the nearby Hill Country, and half Travis County, an area he has never represented before. Bonilla would be very vulnerable to an Austin Republican--yes, there are such creatures--in a primary election (Terry Keel?). And Lamar Smith is no fan of the leadership plan either; he picks up Doggett's former east Austin constituency.

The Bipartisan Congressional Compromise plan, as you would expect, gives its authors districts they like, and, as you might not expect, also helps Doggett. Bonilla would keep most of his current Southwest Texas district, picking up more Latinos in Laredo and surrending a couple of Hill Country counties. Cuellar would have a safe Democratic district starting in eastern Webb County and proceding northeast, picking up a chunk of Bexar County and continuing through mostly rural country east of San Antonio. And Lamar Smith's district would retain its Bexar County/Hill Country character. Doggett's district, made much more compact, would shrink back toward Austin, straddling Interstate 35 between his home town and San Antonio. However, this plan has one glaring flaw: Although Bonilla takes more of Webb County, the county remains split. This isn't necessarily fatal if the plan otherwise meets the requirements of the Voting Rights Act--but the judges will be leery of not addressing the Supreme Court's major concern. The State Defendants acknowledge in their brief that the bipartisan plan is an acceptable alternative to their own--the only competing plan to be so blessed.

MALDEF's plan for the G.I Forum should have started on top of the pile, because it is the remedy sought by the winning side in the lawsuit. But the plaintiffs may have thrown away their advantage. Their map does reunite Webb, but Doggett's district becomes a shorter, narrower fajita strip from Austin to San Antonio. To quote from a long-ago redistricting debate, it's "so narrow that if the congressman drove through it with his car doors open, he'd kill everybody in the district." The map also changes the lines in seven districts, far more than is necessary to address the Supreme Court's concerns.

I'm going to put my money on the favorite. The Republican leadership has gotten its way at every stage of this process except in one congressional district at the Supreme Court level. Unless the three-judge court is particularly concerned with protecting incumbents, or determined to draw its own map, the State Defendants' proposal looks like a winner.

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