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August 13th, 2014:

On redistricting and race

Phase Two of the redistricting trial is underway, and if it sounds an awful lot like Phase One to you, you would be right.

Texas’ Republican-controlled Legislature didn’t discriminate against minorities by drawing election maps in 2011 that voting-rights activists say make it harder for Hispanics and blacks to elect their candidates, a lawyer for the state argued Monday as the fight over redistricting continues.

“The plaintiffs must prove the state did more than favor Republicans and harm Democrats who happen to be minorities,” Assistant Texas Attorney General Angela Colmenero said in opening statements at a federal trial in San Antonio taking place before a three-judge panel.

She said that the evidence will show the state did not discriminate in redrawing the congressional maps. The state contends that the maps were designed to improve re-election chances for Republican incumbents and weaken Democratic opponents, not dilute minority voting strength.

Colmenero added that Texas’ explosive minority population growth, and the greatest jumps in the numbers of voting-age Latinos, “occurred in areas that were already Hispanic.”

The activist groups waived their right to give an opening statement.

But in court papers, they and the Justice Department argue that GOP lawmakers intentionally drew congressional districts in 2011 to curb the political power of the state’s booming Hispanic population.

Like I said, we’ve heard this before. The claim that it’s all just partisan politics and has nothing to do with race – nothing actionable, anyway – has been the foundation of the state’s case since the maps were first presented in 2011. Michael Li summed it up at one point as “they would be fine with non-Anglo people if they would just vote Republican”, and it’s easy to see why. Both the San Antonio court and the DC court had previously found reason to believe that the 2011 maps were intentionally discriminatory regardless, but I suppose as with the same sex marriage appellate brief, if a bad argument is all you’ve got, you’re going to keep making it. I also think the Texas Election Law Blog is right to suggest that what Abbott really has in mind is another shot at gutting the Voting Rights Act once the appeals make it to SCOTUS, so one can at least say there’s a method to the madness.

In the meantime, I want to call your attention to this New Republic story about the state of partisanship and race in Alabama.

Mike Hubbard, the speaker of the Alabama House, is not a beloved politician. His Republican colleagues call him “abrasive” and “divisive”; Democrats use other words. From his seat at the front of the House chamber, Hubbard presides in an aggressive fashion. He speaks in a rapid-fire auctioneer’s patter, barreling over anyone who questions his authority, and slams down his giant speaker’s gavel with alarming force. With his slicked-back hair and thin smile, he casts an almost predatory air. Hubbard, in other words, is no deal maker. And as the man who almost single-handedly won Republicans control of the legislature in 2010, he is the most powerful politician in the state.

Hubbard, who grew up in Georgia, moved to Alabama as a young man in the mid-’80s to work in the Auburn University athletic department; he later made a small fortune when he helped the school launch its own sports broadcasting network. In 1998, Hubbard won a seat in Alabama’s House of Representatives, which had been controlled by Democrats since 1874. But unlike so many of his Republican colleagues, Hubbard did not accept Democratic dominance as a fact of life. Instead, he was determined to end it.

It was the Democrats themselves who helped Hubbard realize his goal. During the 2001 legislative redistricting process, Joe Reed and other prominent black leaders were eager to further protect black incumbents. They successfully pushed to fill the House’s 27 majority-minority and the Senate’s eight majority-minority districts with even more black voters. In the process, they endangered the seats of white Democrats, who increasingly relied on African Americans to make up for the growing number of whites defecting to the GOP. James Blacksher, a civil rights attorney who advised Democrats on redistricting, is still stunned by the shortsightedness of this plan. It wasn’t so much a gerrymander, he told me, as a “dummymander.”

In 2002 and 2006, Republicans benefited from this tactical mistake, picking off white Democrats here and there. But in 2010, Hubbard, who had recently become the state Republican Party chairman, proposed the most audacious electoral plan in the history of the Alabama GOP. Rather than take out white Democrats piecemeal, he decided to eliminate them in one brutal election. He put together an 88-page playbook, innocuously titled GOP Alabama State Victory Plan 2010, and pushed the plan to conservative donors not just in the state, but all over the country. Alabama’s campaign-finance laws prohibited corporations from giving more than $500, and some Alabamans were reluctant to contribute to Republicans in case the GOP’s takeover plans didn’t come to fruition. But moneyed conservatives beyond Birmingham and Montgomery didn’t share those concerns and saw a chance to flip the statehouse. Hubbard and his finance chairman, State Senator Del Marsh, ultimately reaped more than $1 million in out-of-state contributions. And in one instance, Hubbard appears to have used a national group, the Republican State Leadership Council (RSLC), to effectively launder contributions to Alabama Republicans from politically toxic gambling interests—a scheme, Politico’s Alexander Burns recently reported, that the RSLC’s lawyers concluded could result in “possible criminal penalties” if it was ever discovered.

Hubbard couldn’t have chosen a better time to attempt a takeover. The election of Obama, and white Alabamans’ visceral distaste for the president (88 percent voted against him in 2008), created a massive shift in the state’s politics. For many years, white voters had often split their tickets, voting Republican in federal and gubernatorial contests but sticking with the Democrats in legislative campaigns. Hubbard realized that, by nationalizing Alabama’s 2010 state races and putting Obama on center stage, he could bring that to an end. Hubbard himself had always been careful never to speak in explicitly racial terms. (Not all of his Republican colleagues were so circumspect. In 2010, a state senator named Scott Beason was caught on a wiretap referring to black Alabamans as “aborigines.”) Now, he didn’t need to explicitly invoke race—he only needed to mention Obama. As the state GOP put it in one ad, “After 136 years, the Democrats have brought us Obama, Pelosi, government health care, liberal policies, higher taxes, and wasteful spending.”

Suddenly, even entrenched white Democrats like Lowell Barron, who’d been in the Senate for 28 years, found themselves in trouble. “People weren’t voting against me in 2010, they were voting against that black man in the White House,” says Barron. “They were pretty specific about it, only they didn’t refer to him as a black man.” Some Republicans concede as much. “Anybody who denies that Barack Obama’s unpopularity in Alabama didn’t help Republicans come to power is just not being truthful about it,” Republican State Senator Cam Ward told me.

The transformation of Alabama politics was nearly instantaneous. Prior to the 2010 election, the Alabama House had 60 Democratic members, 34 of them white and 26 black. Afterward, there were 36 Democrats—ten white, 26 black. Meanwhile, in the Alabama Senate, the number of black Democrats remained seven, while the number of white Democrats fell from 13 to four. The casualties included Barron, who lost to a first-time Republican candidate.

All of this was enough to give the GOP supermajorities in both chambers. Hubbard assumed his role as speaker of the House, and Marsh was elected Senate president pro tem. Having wrested control of the statehouse, now they could begin to change the state.

Link via Ed Kilgore, who adds his own thoughts. Let’s see, we’ve got extreme partisan redistricting, targeting of Anglo Democrats, Republican supermajorities post 2010, an influx of possibly illegal outside money affecting the outcome of elections – any of this sound familiar? And with those supermajorities, black legislators – now a minority in more ways than one – have been marginalized in the legislative process, which is what will happen to Democratic Senators here if Dan Patrick gets sworn in as Lt. Governor next year. Let’s hope we don’t look back on this in a few years and see that it was our future as well.

On the death penalty

Most of what you need to know about this story concerning Wendy Davis, the death penalty, and the Governor’s race can be found at the end of it.

Sen. Wendy Davis

Sen. Wendy Davis

In July 2000, when she was a relatively new member of the Fort Worth City Council, Wendy Davis voted for an open-ended moratorium on the death penalty, a move that would have closed the nation’s busiest death chamber in Texas at a time when such a position was a political lightning rod in most of the state.

The resolution never passed.

Now, as the 51-year-old Democrat state senator ramps up her campaign for governor of Texas, her support for the resolution 14 years ago is attracting new attention, even though she publicly supports the death penalty.

Davis says her support for a moratorium in 2000, in a state that has executed more criminals than any other, was presaged on national questions at the time over whether innocent people were dying by lethal injection, at a time when DNA testing that had exonerated several convicts in Texas was just coming into vogue, and over whether juveniles and mentally disabled convicts, even foreign nationals, should face capital punishment.

Through a spokesman, Davis said the questions she had in 2000 have been addressed, by changes in law and by the courts.

“Senator Davis supports the death penalty and as governor will enforce it,” Zac Petkanas, her campaign communications director, said Friday. “In fact, she voted (as a senator in 2011) to expand the death penalty to those who murder children under the age of 10. … Senator Davis remains a proponent of the death penalty as ultimate punishment.”

[…]

In Texas, where overwhelming public support for the death penalty caused three Democrats vying for governor in the 1990s to run attack ads accusing each other of not being tough enough on murderers and other criminals, public support for capital punishment remains strong, though polls show that support has declined in the past 20 years.

“In 2000, as a new Democrat city council person in Fort Worth, given that Texas was far and away the most frequent user of the death penalty in the nation, her vote probably made sense,” said Cal Jillson, a political science professor at Southern Methodist University in Dallas who has followed Texas gubernatorial politics for years. “Now, she’s running for statewide office in a state where the death penalty has support levels 10-12 points above the levels nationally, so it makes sense that she’s supporting the death penalty now. That’s not surprising.”

What will make a difference in whether Davis’ change of heart becomes an issue in her race is whether Abbott can make it one, he said.

“This apparent inconsistency is not a problem, but the problem will be if Abbott turns it into an issue, saying she does not support the death penalty … and that criminals will be running in the streets,” Jillson said. “If you pressed her, you might find there’s a Democrat city council woman still below the surface.”

To William “Rusty” Hubbarth, an Austin lawyer who is vice president of the Houston-based Justice for All victims-rights group, Davis’ view of the death penalty is a curiosity. Twice in January, he said he wrote Davis asking where she stands on the issue. He said she has yet to respond.

“Considering her past position, does she support it or does she support the platform of the Texas Democratic Party that calls for the death penalty to be abolished?” he said. “Will this hurt her? Probably not. People who love her will love her more, and people who don’t probably won’t care what she did in 2000.”

I’d say Mr. Hubbarth is spot on. There are certainly people that wish Davis were forcefully against the death penalty, but that position is clearly at odds with public opinion in Texas and would be quixotic at best given that she couldn’t do anything to change the law as Governor anyway. What she can do is appoint members to the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles that would be more than rubber-stampers, and support legislation that makes the process more just and transparent, which is what her support for a moratorium in 2000 after the execution of Gary Graham was about and which is consistent with her legislative record. For what it’s worth, while Texas remains the capital punishment capital of the world, our death row population has declined rapidly in the last decade and is at its lowest point since 1989. This is due in large part to a steep decline in the number of death sentences being meted out in the past decade. People may support the death penalty in Texas, but they’re getting a bit more reluctant for the state to use it, especially with “life without parole” as a sentencing option. All of this is a longwinded way of saying again that I agree with Rusty Hubbarth on the likely effect of this attempt by Greg Abbott to distract from Davis’ TV ad or whatever else he wants to distract attention from. EoW, Texpatriate, and Erica Greider have more.

HERO repeal hopefuls try another venue

Whatever.

PetitionsInvalid

Conservative opponents of Houston’s equal rights ordinance have asked an appeals court to force the city secretary to certify the signatures on their petitions to force a repeal referendum on the November ballot.

Equal rights ordinance critics filed a request late Monday with Houston’s 14th Court of Appeals for an emergency writ of mandamus that would compel the city secretary to certify their rejected petition.

The filing marks the latest legal wrangling over the group’s lawsuit, already scheduled to be heard in state district court Friday. The suit claims City Attorney David Feldman illegally inserted himself into the petition verification process, throwing out entire pages of signatures based on notary and signature-gathering mistakes.

[…]

Jared Woodfill, one of the plaintiffs, said Russell’s original count should be validated. The writ of mandamus the group is seeking would compel Russell to verify signatures based solely on whether those who signed the petition are registered Houston voters and disregard the notary requirements Feldman considered.

“The people need to decide this as soon as possible,” Woodfill said.

If the group cleared the signature threshold, the ballot language immediately would go before City Council.

Feldman said the group’s filing largely mirrors the suit already pending in state court.

“They’re effectively trying to get two bites at the same apple,” Feldman said. “Substantively, we’re really dealing with the same issues.”

That’s what I think, too, but as always I Am Not A Lawyer, so don’t take my advice. In any event, the writ of mandamus is here, and the case information is here. If you look very closely at the Parties section, you might notice a small misspelling. For the record, this is Anise, and this is Annise. Slight difference.

One more thing:

Woodfill said the group has until the end of the month to get the issue on the November ballot. However, he said he anticipates that even if the court of appeals grants the group’s request, there will be a “battle” to meet that deadline.

I’ve noted this before, but according to the Secretary of State, the deadline for any referendum or measure to be put on a ballot is Monday, August 18, which is 78 days before the election. This is a matter of Texas law. I’m not sure what Woodfill thinks the deadline is or why, but I’m pretty sure it’s August 18.

San Antonio has begun curbside recycling of plastic bags

As of August 1, to be exact.

“We are starting with a new recycling processor that can accept the bags so that allows us to add it to the list of items we can accept,” [Solid Waste Management Department Public Relations Manager Tiffany] Edwards said, adding that the move gives San Antonians another option to recycle the bags, in addition to major grocers and retailers that will typically take the bags back and recycle them.

The new recycler is Recommunity Recycling, which has its corporate headquarters in Charlotte, N.C.

Edwards said residents should take one plastic bag and stuff all the other ones in it until it is about the size of a soccer ball before tossing it in the bin.

But not all plastic bags are accepted.

“We’re telling everybody no black bags, no trash bags,” Edwards said. “We want the translucent ones. We can take dry cleaning bags, sandwich bags and Zip Loc bags, as long as the zip is taken out. Tortilla and bread bags can be recycled, just clean them and get the bread crumbs out.”

And don’t forget to take your receipts out of you grocery bags either, she said.

Black bags aren’t accepted because the bags are a different grade of plastic than the translucent ones and because workers can’t see into the bags, they pose a hazard, Edwards said.

So why start accepting plastic bags now?

“Across the nation, a lot of processors can’t take them because they get stuck in the machinery,” Edwards said.

But the city’s new processor can.

Pretty cool. San Antonio has been on a journey that began in November last year. We first heard about their plan to do curbside recycling of plastic bags in March, but they still ultimately intend to implement a ban of some kind later. They have yet to determine what direction that ban will take, but it’s in the works. You can learn more at SA Recycles and the city’s Solid Waste Management page. Note that they take all forms of plastic plus styrofoam containers in their bins; you can’t put #6 plastic in the city of Houston’s bins, though you can drop of some styrofoam at the various service centers. We need to catch up here, Houston.