Between the Lines

The budget crisis? Peanuts. Voter ID? A trifle. The most contentious political issue this session may well be redistricting, which will determine how elections are won and lost for the next decade. Silly voter, you didn’t think you were in control, did you?
Between The Lines
Illustration by Thomas Fuchs

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

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