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 welcome news to Republicans. According to Congressman Joe Barton of Ennis, one of the point people for the state’s GOP delegation, the Republicans’ goal is to pick up at least seven seats during the redistricting process, including both of the new seats that the state is entitled to because of population growth. After the new boundaries are drawn, Barton hopes the split is at least twenty to twelve in the Republicans’ favor. This means that five or more seats now held by Democrats would have to change hands.
The first battle is likely to be over where the two new seats will be located. The main growth areas are suburban Dallas, suburban Houston, the Interstate 35 corridor north and south of Austin, and the Rio Grande Valley. Only the Valley is likely to produce a Democrat. The next question is, Which five Democrats are vulnerable to having their districts drawn in a way that could cause their defeat? Republican and Democratic incumbents interpret the numbers as differently as they would Rorschach inkblots.
“The white Democrats—their seats are at risk,” Barton says bluntly. “They are an endangered species.” The Voting Rights Act and the federal courts protect minority districts, prohibiting any political boundary maps that dilute the voting strength of African Americans and Hispanics. That means that legislative mapmakers are unlikely to make changes that would harm the reelection of minority Democrats in Congress—Sheila Jackson Lee of Houston, Eddie Bernice Johnson of Dallas, Charlie Gonzalez of San Antonio, Ruben Hinojosa of Mercedes, Ciro Rodriguez of San Antonio, and Solomon Ortiz of Corpus Christi. In addition, Gene Green of Houston, an Anglo Democrat, holds a seat in a district comprised mostly of minority voters. Many of the inner-city districts have lost population, and the only way these districts can approach the ideal population figure of 651,619 and still continue to be safe seats for minorities is for the boundaries to be redrawn to include new Democratic areas.
That’s bad news for Anglo Democrats in nearby districts, such as Martin Frost in Dallas and Ken Bentsen in Houston. If they have to cede Democratic voters to minority members, they too will need more population to bring their districts to 651,619. Unfortunately for Democrats but fortunately for Republicans, the growth in Republican suburbs means that GOP incumbents have excess population that can be shifted into these redrawn Democratic districts. “We’ve got Republicans to share,” Barton says, almost giddily. “We’ve got a surplus of sharing.” A prime target for Barton’s “sharing” is Frost, whose district abuts Eddie Bernice Johnson’s in Dallas. “Frost is going to get a lot of leftover Republicans,” Barton says. “That’s the facts. That’s not a Republican plot.”
Another Democratic congressman on the Republicans’ “endangered” list is Ken Bentsen, the nephew of former U.S. senator Lloyd Bentsen. Conventional wisdom holds that Bentsen’s Houston district will have to be mined for Democratic-leaning minority voters to help Sheila Jackson Lee, then backfilled with Republicans. Bentsen, not surprisingly, sees things differently. The population growth pattern has been more complicated, Bentsen argues, because minorities are no longer as segregated as in the past. “The state is multiracial,” he says. “We are seeing the assimilation of minorities in what were all-Anglo neighborhoods. The candidate who will be successful in the future is the candidate who can build a multiracial coalition.” His prediction for the new congressional map could hardly be more different than Barton’s. “Republicans definitely get one of the new seats—northern Houston or Dallas County. There will be another district in South Texas. Beyond that, there’s not a case to be made that they get anything else.”
Neither Barton’s nor Bentsen’s views are likely to be of much consequence to Texas lawmakers, who generally agree that everything seen from a Potomac perspective is distorted. “Most members of the Legislature believe that congressmen consider themselves superior,” says Wentworth, who has had about a dozen “pleasant” meetings with members of Congress since being named Senate redistricting chairman. “About the only issue they are interested in talking to us about is their boundaries.” Delwin Jones early on communicated that his fealty lies with members of the Texas House, not those in the U.S. House. When U.S. House Republican whip Tom DeLay of Sugarland came to meet with Jones about redistricting, he was invited into a Capitol conference room to which his local legislators had been summoned.
“Delwin explained the process to him,” recalls state representative Tom Uher, a Democrat from Bay City. “He said, ‘You need to visit with your delegation.'” And how did the most powerful Texan on Capitol Hill react? “He may have expected some different treatment,” Uher acknowledges. Afterward, Jones sent all members of Congress from Texas a letter asking them to meet with the Texas House members in their districts to draft a suitable plan for their areas.
As a result, Jones has already drawn fire from his party for his viewpoint that the redistricting plan should protect incumbents. A memo circulated by a board member of the Texas Federation of Republican Women accused Jones of “ignor[ing] the best interest of the Republican party.” Jones, however, regards keeping current districts largely intact as “respecting the people.”
“We would be, in a sense, disenfranchising the voters if we singled out members” by significantly changing their districts in a way that led to defeat, Jones says (and Wentworth agrees). “We have to give some consideration to the express will of Texas voters.”
The biggest question about congressional redistricting, however, may not be what the process overseen by Jones and Wentworth will produce, but whether their product will be the final word. The bill could become a victim of partisan wrangling, particularly in the Senate, where legislation cannot even be considered unless two thirds of the members vote to allow it to come to the floor. Substantial opposition by either party could cause the bill to die unheard. Or Governor Rick Perry, a strong Republican partisan, could veto a bill that he believes doesn’t do justice to the GOP. If no redistricting bill makes it into law, then the federal courts will draw the Texas plan. Even if a bill does become law, it will undoubtedly be challenged in court. That’s when politicians of both parties will find something they agree upon—that they’d prefer a plan of their own hatching over one devised by the judiciary. However birdbrained, the new creation would at least bear the markings of its progenitors.