Party Poopers

The legislators in charge of drawing new congressional districts are both veteran Republicans. So why is the GOP nervous?
STEP TO THE RIGHT: GOP control of Congress may rest with Jones (l.), Wentworth.
Photograph by Wyatt McSpadden

As predictable as the winter influx of whooping cranes in Aransas Pass, the Texas congressional delegation has made its regular migration from Washington to the state capitol in Austin, just about the time that the Texas Legislature tackles the issue of congressional redistricting. This ritual happens once every decade, in the spring of years ending with the number 1, when Texas' 30 members of Congress (soon to be 32) set out in search of new nesting grounds in which to run in subsequent years, until the cycle starts anew. Some of the new arrivals haven't been spotted in these parts since the 1991 redistricting battle. This year, though, the esteemed visitors from the East have come with ruffled feathers, for the stakes are higher than ever: not only their own survival, but also control of the U.S. House of Representatives. Nationally, the Republican party is counting on the great strides the GOP has made in Texas to bolster its hold on the U.S. House—in particular, by creating new Republican districts to offset the expected efforts of the California legislature to create more Democratic districts.In addition to drawing new boundaries for Congress, the Legislature, over the next few weeks, will have to come up with new maps for the Texas House and Senate and the State Board of Education. Partisan control of these bodies too is in the balance. Legislative redistricting in particular is expected to lead to open partisan warfare, as lawmakers debate their own futures. But the congressional map will have nationwide impact. The edge seems to belong to Republicans. Continuing population growth in Republican strongholds gives the GOP a chance to win new seats, and the committee chairs who will oversee the redistricting process in both the House and the Senate are Republicans. What more could Republicans ask for?

Enter state representative Delwin Jones, a 77-year-old retired small-business owner from Lubbock, named by Speaker Pete Laney, a Democrat from nearby Hale Center, to chair the House Redistricting Committee. In 1972 Jones was seeking his fifth term in the Texas House as a Democrat when, as he now tells it, a radio talk show host asked him about his opponent, a young cotton farmer named—Pete Laney. "I'd gotten to know Pete on the campaign trail," Jones recalls, "and so I made the honest but not particularly smart statement that I liked him a lot—so much that if I wasn't the other candidate, I'd be voting for him." Twenty-nine years later, there's not a trace of regret about what happened next: "My campaign folks told me that was not smart politics, and I guess they were right because he beat me."

In the three decades that followed, Laney became an enduring power in the Texas House, serving as an influential committee chairman under two Speakers and then claiming the office for himself in 1993. Jones returned to the House in 1989, after switching to the Republican party. But he remains very much the guileless politician he was during that 1972 race, when he declined the opportunity to excoriate Laney over the radio waves. Now the state's political future, and perhaps the nation's, is in the hands of someone who belongs to an old-fashioned era of Texas politics, in which relationships mattered more than partisanship.

Instead of the expected Republican romp, redistricting has emerged as a struggle between the old and the new styles of Texas politics. Traditionally, redistricting has operated to protect incumbents (who until the eighties were mostly Democrats). This year, however, powerful Republicans hope the new lines will be drawn to eliminate vulnerable Democrats like Martin Frost in Dallas and Ken Bentsen in Houston, increasing Republican numbers in the state's congressional delegation, which now has seventeen Democrats and thirteen Republicans. Laney's appointment of Jones signaled his belief that the old way of doing business in Texas was superior to the virulent party struggles conducted on the national scene—or, to put it another way, that incumbents should be protected.

The Republican lieutenant governor, Bill Ratliff, likewise engineered a bipartisan redistricting committee in the Texas Senate. A state senator from Mount Pleasant who was chosen by his peers in December to fill the vacancy left when Rick Perry became governor, Ratliff won his office with considerable backing from Democrats. He responded by splitting the membership of the Senate redistricting committee evenly between Republicans and Democrats and naming Jeff Wentworth, a San Antonio Republican, as the panel's chair. Like Jones, Wentworth is unlikely to take his marching orders from the national GOP. A maverick who was censured by the state Republican executive committee four years ago for opposing legislation requiring parental notification before a minor girl could obtain an abortion, Wentworth holds similarly heretical views on redistricting. He believes that politicians should not be responsible for drawing their own boundary lines. For the past four sessions, he has sponsored legislation taking the issue away from the Legislature and giving the task to a citizens panel split evenly between Democrats and Republicans. Twelve states now employ such a system to create political boundaries, but Texas isn't one of them: Wentworth's proposal never got serious consideration.

Republicans argue that they are due at least 60 percent of the seats in Congress to reflect their share of all of the votes in congressional elections. But redistricting is based on population, not voter participation. In any case, Wentworth rejects his party's contention that the object of redistricting should be to maximize its representation. To Wentworth, the goal should be to increase voter participation by creating as many competitive districts as possible. If people are certain that their party's candidate is going to win an election, he reasons, then they are less likely to show up at the polls on Election Day. "Truthfully, I am not here as the agent of the Republican National Committee," says Wentworth. "I don't want to trade a one-party Democratic Texas for a one-party Republican Texas. I want true competition and a true two-party system."

That sort of thinking is not

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