It’s that time of the decade again.
Monday’s joint hearing of the House Committees on Redistricting and Judiciary and Civil Jurisprudence — on the University of Texas at San Antonio’s downtown campus — marked the unofficial kickoff for that process. The first Texas redistricting meeting held this year outside of Austin, it attracted some of San Antonio’s heaviest political hitters: Smith, fellow Congressman Charlie Gonzalez, state Sen. Jeff Wentworth, Texas House Speaker Joe Straus and state Rep. Ruth Jones McClendon, not to mention committee members Mike Villarreal and David Leibowitz.
Luis Figueroa, staff attorney for Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, cited Hispanic population growth as the primary reason Texas will gain those seats, arguing that otherwise the state would be looking at only one additional congressional seat. He urged legislators to create new districts that would enhance Hispanic voting power in the state.
Rep. Aaron Peña, D-Edinburg, decried what he called the “fajita strip” approach to map drawing, which he said resulted in long, unwieldy districts.
Rep. Harvey Hilderbran, R-Kerrville, made the strongest push for the GOP cause, saying at least 45 percent of Bexar County voters are Republicans, “but only 20 percent of its (state) representatives are Republicans.”
The simple answer to Hilderbran’s complaint can be seen in the Spanish surname voter registration (SSVR) numbers for Bexar County. In 2002, for example, seven of the ten State Rep districts (SRDs) had SSVR’s between 56 and 59. In other words, the districts were drawn with Hispanic voters spread out more or less evenly in these districts. (You can see the 2006 and 2008 SSVR numbers here; it’s basically the same as it was then.) That worked as intended – six of those seven districts have Latinos representing them, with Democrat David Leibowitz in SRD 117 being the seventh. The three other districts are SRDs 120, 121, and 122. The former is over 30% African-American, with an SSVR of 33.5%, and is held by Democrat Ruth Jones McClendon; the other two have SSVRs of less than 20% and are the two Republican seats.
Point being, to make any changes in Bexar County, you’d have to pack some more Latino voters into one or more SRDs, thus making one or two others less Latino. The almost inevitable result of that would be the election of a white Republican, which I’d bet would be viewed as a retrogression of voting rights by the Justice Department. Alternately, the GOP could find some candidates that can actually appeal to Latino voters. Republicans are forever talking about how conservative Latinos are, though they never seem to be able to translate that into tangible results. It should be noted that Republican Ken Mercer was elected in SRD117 in 2002; Leibowitz knocked him off in 2004. Also, a strong Republican candidate named George Antuna came close to winning SRD118 in 2006 after Carlos Uresti opened it up by running for State Senate. Though it’s likely harder now than it was eight years ago, it could be done if the Republicans really tried.
Finally, if Hilderbran is going to play that game, someone ought to ask him why Dallas and Tarrant counties, which combined to give Barack Obama 52% of their vote in 2008, have all or part of eight Congressional districts within their borders, but only one Democrat representing them. For that matter, if anyone else wants to take a crack at it, give it your best shot.
Anyway. There will be more of these hearings around the state in the coming months, so look for announcements of one near you, and make your voice heard.