The Unkindest Cut

The merits of redistricting are arguable, but one thing is not: David Dewhurst has wounded the Texas Senate—and his own reputation.
FIRST, DEW NO HARM: Honestly, we thought we knew Best.
Photograph by Bob Daemmrich

AN EXPANSIVE, JOCULAR DAVID DEWHURST greeted reporters warmly at a celebratory lunch in his elegant Capitol dining room in early June. This was a happy man. He had earned rave media reviews for forging bipartisan compromises on tough issues like homeowners’ insurance and the budget. So what if Governor Rick Perry and Speaker of the House Tom Craddick were off on a press tour of the state without him, bragging about the successes of the legislative session? Dewhurst’s independence from his fellow Republicans had served him well. After all, the House under Craddick’s iron hand had collapsed into rancor and chaos. The Senate, Dewhurst proudly reminded his guests, had operated like a well-oiled machine.

Fast-forward to August, when a very different Dewhurst—this one grim-faced and businesslike—briefed the press. A week before, he had prompted the flight of eleven Democratic senators to Albuquerque when he said that he would abandon the Senate’s unwritten two-thirds rule, a parliamentary procedure that nurtures consensus by requiring that 21 of the 31 senators agree to debate a bill before it can be voted on. The Democrats had been using their votes to block Republican congressional-redistricting plans. Now Dewhurst had endorsed a plan by the nineteen GOP senators to fine their absentee colleagues up to $5,000 for every day of their quorum-busting boycott. “Enough is enough,” he sternly pronounced.

Watching the performance, I was struck by how Dewhurst looked exactly the same as he did in June—the same carefully combed silver hair framing the same tanned face, yet another meticulous suit draping his six-foot-five-inch frame—and yet he was espousing a fiercely partisan brand of politics he had eschewed his first five months in office. The transformation was so eerie that a thought seized me: Had Dewhurst’s evil twin taken over the lieutenant governor’s office? Was the real Dewhurst bound and gagged in a closet somewhere in the Capitol basement?

Sadly, I could find no evidence to support this theory, though it seemed plausible in the summer of 2003, which no doubt will be recorded as the high-water mark of U.S. political kookiness. After all, within the space of a few weeks, Arnold Schwarzenegger announced his candidacy for governor of California on Jay Leno, and Republicans in the U.S. House called the cops on their Democratic colleagues for huddling in the congressional library. Things would only get wackier on the home front: Later in August, Dewhurst had the Senate sergeant-at-arms brave a hurricane to stake out the Brownsville home of Senator Eddie Lucio, one of the eleven quorum-busters, so that Lucio could be apprehended in case he sneaked back into town to check on his family.

Though my diabolical-twin scenario may seem illogical, so did Dewhurst’s unforeseen decision to stake his hard-won reputation on his party’s unprecedented push to draw new congressional boundaries. There are plenty of reasons not to embark on redistricting at this particular time—it’s unnecessary, since even national Democratic strategists concede that they have little chance of gaining control of the U.S. House in 2004, and it’s certain to poison the Legislature’s ability to deal with the state’s real problems, like school finance. But my favorite reason is that it’s, well, silly. Silly because even Republicans can’t agree on how best to draw the districts. Silly because court rulings have severely restricted the possible changes they can make. Especially silly because of Perry’s insistence on calling repeated special sessions to resolve the issue; the Legislature—if its members really, really had to do it—could pass a more-Republican-friendly map in 2005 (when Dewhurst would have leverage over Democrats with their own bills to pass). And silliest of all because it inevitably eradicated all the goodwill Dewhurst had built up in his first session as lieutenant governor. And for what? When did congressional redistricting become so important to him? Hadn’t he once compared the issue to a virus and vowed to stay germ-free? Why did he drop his allegiance to the two-thirds rule like a bad habit?

On a personal level, I had another question: Were we at Texas Monthly wrong when we went out on a limb and named Dewhurst as a Ten Best legislator in our July issue—only the second time a presiding officer had earned that high honor? Here’s what we wrote: “Dewhurst and the Senate kept hitting the bull’s-eye… . They avoided the blowup over redistricting that brought the House to a standstill… . He put the state’s needs ahead of an ideological agenda. He took the moral high ground and held it. That’s what being a leader is all about.”

Oops.

THE ONLY GOOD THING you can say about redistricting,” goes a worn-out phrase at the Capitol, “is that it only happens once every ten years.” Until now, redistricting (for the Legislature as well as for Congress) has occurred in the session following the completion of a new census, to adjust representation to account for population changes. When it happens, lawmakers have little attention span for anything other than their own districts. It’s called the survival instinct. Congressional redistricting is far less controversial; the usual course is to protect incumbents in both parties.

So why didn’t the Legislature work on congressional redistricting in 2001? Oh, wait, it did. New maps were drawn, debated—and abandoned. In the Senate, Republican moderate Jeff Wentworth, of San Antonio, chaired the redistricting committee, but his plans for a new congressional map were thwarted by members of his own party (Politics: “Party Poopers,” May 2001). Republican senators blocked consideration of a new congressional map—one of the great ironies of the current skirmish, since Dewhurst has barred the Democrats from using the same parliamentary privilege. The R’s reasoned that, with the D’s in control of the House in 2001, they would get a better deal letting the courts draw a plan. So off to court they went. A three-judge panel devised the current map, following the tradition of protecting incumbents but giving Republicans the two new seats that Texas was entitled to because of population growth. Advocates for more Hispanic districts filed appeals, but

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