Party Poopers II

In May I told you how the Republicans were already squabbling over redistricting. Seven months later, it's worse than anyone could have imagined.
Party Poopers II
PIN PALS: GOP officials (l. to r.) Rylander, Cornyn, and Dewhurst stuck it to Republican senators in redistricting.
Illustration by Nick Cocotos

JANE NELSON IS A CHEERFUL, BLOND MOTHER OF FIVE who got her start in politics the same way most Republican women of her era did: stuffing envelopes for U.S. senator John Tower, a trailblazer for the Texas GOP. Elected to the Texas Senate from Flower Mound in 1992, she has spent the past eight years loyally promoting her party’s conservative causes with a certain Doris Day perkiness. But since July 24 she has been on the political warpath. And who is the target of her wrath? Spendthrift liberals? Misguided do-gooders? Partisan Democrats? None of the above. Try Attorney General John Cornyn, comptroller Carole Keeton Rylander, and land commissioner David Dewhurst—all Republicans.Cornyn, Rylander, and Dewhurst formed a three-member majority of the Legislative Redistricting Board who voted to eviscerate Nelson’s district in drawing the new boundary lines for the Texas Senate that, unless a court intervenes, will take effect for the 2002 elections. “Oh, I’m mad. Believe me, I’m mad,” Nelson says. “Things that are so blatantly wrong just drive me nuts. I have never been so mad about anything in my entire life.”

Nelson is not alone. Nine of the sixteen Republican senators strongly object to the new map. Some are angry about their own districts. Others object to the secretive process used by the mapmakers. Many are willing to speak for the record in blunt language seldom heard from politicians, particularly in a party whose Eleventh Commandment, promulgated by Ronald Reagan, is “Thou shalt not speak ill of a fellow Republican.”

What should have been a moment of unvarnished glory for the Texas Republican party—its long-awaited takeover of the Legislature—has turned into a Shakespearean family feud, complete with charges and countercharges of greed, deceit, villainy, and vanity. The redistricting process lifted a veil on the behind-the-scenes power struggles within the state GOP since the ascension of George W. Bush to the presidency. Without Bush and his political architect Karl Rove to orchestrate Republican politics, a battle has raged between two loosely defined factions: the “grass roots” (legislators and their local GOP constituencies) and the “big shots” (statewide officials and the party’s major financial benefactors).

No one, least of all the GOP senators, foresaw that redistricting would turn Republican against Republican. Drawing political lines has traditionally been a process in which the dominant party (heretofore Democrats) attempts to maximize its electoral prospects through imaginative cartography. As the Legislature wound down last May, Republican senators killed a plan to redraw district boundary lines for that body. After all, they reasoned, why negotiate with their Democratic colleagues when, according to the state constitution, they could simply let the Republican-dominated Legislative Redistricting Board ( LRB) do the job for them?

On July 24 that question was answered. Cornyn, Rylander, and Dewhurst voted for a Senate map—over the objections of the board’s other two members, Republican lieutenant governor Bill Ratliff and Democratic House Speaker Pete Laney—that was dramatically different from anything considered during nearly two years of debate and public hearings on the issue. Among the biggest losers: many of the Republican senators. “The plan was posted on the computer that morning. I was stunned. Never in any plan was this scenario ever discussed,” Nelson recalls. “I picked up the phone and called all three of them and said, ‘You can’t do this.’” But they could.

Many Republican voters in Nelson’s Ninth District (between Dallas and Fort Worth) had been sucked into the nearby Twelfth District to make that Fort Worth district more Republican. It didn’t take long for Nelson to figure out why: Dee Kelly, Jr., son of the Fort Worth attorney who is the longtime consigliere to the megawealthy Bass family, announced he would run in that district. An outraged Nelson decided to follow her voters and announced that she too would run in the Twelfth District—but not before airing her objections to Cornyn. The attorney general, she says, responded: “Don’t complain; you still have a safe [Republican] district.” But Nelson wasn’t mollified: Not only were her longtime constituents moved from her district, but 19 of the 25 small towns—including her hometown of Flower Mound—were split in two.

“This is not about me. It’s about the people I represent. You can’t divide these communities,” Nelson says. Had advance notice been given that the LRB was considering such a move, she adds, “people would have been down [to testify in Austin] in busloads. This was not done for partisan reasons; this was done because people with a whole lot of money had a whole lot of influence,” she says.

For the record, Kelly Junior has publicly denied exerting influence on the LRB to get the district that looks custom-tailored to his interests. And comptroller Carole Keeton Rylander says it is “hogwash” to suggest that big donors affected the outcome of any redistricting decisions. But Republican state senator Jeff Wentworth, of San Antonio, who chaired the Senate redistricting committee and failed to win enough votes for the Senate to debate his redistricting plan, says he had a cell phone conversation with Cornyn on the morning of the vote urging him to adopt an alternative map proposed by Ratliff. Emphasizing that he is a longtime friend and supporter of Cornyn’s, Wentworth says 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.

“I told him, ‘Don’t give in,’” Wentworth says. “I felt betrayed. 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.” He recalls that Republicans loudly complained when Democrats rammed through a highly partisan map in 1991; now his party was doing the

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