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Another look ahead at redistricting

The short version of this Chron story is basically “Republicans would like to control every aspect of the redistricting process, while Democrats would at least like to win the Governor’s office and maintain some semblance of parity in the House”. A few points:

“The governor’s race is critical to redistricting,” declares U.S. Rep. Kevin Brady, R-The Woodlands, a former state legislator whose district is one of the fastest-growing in the nation. “A Republican governor increases the likelihood that the final map will be drawn by elected state representatives. A Democratic governor who vetoes the GOP Legislature’s plan ensures the federal courts will draw the final congressional map for Texas.”

That’s what happened in 2001, when the Democrats still had a majority in the House and Pete Laney was Speaker. The House and Senate could not agree on a redistricting bill, and the Congressional map was ultimately drawn by a three-judge federal panel in Dallas. That was the flimsy justification that Tom DeLay then used to force his re-redistricting scheme in 2003, that since the map wasn’t drawn by the Lege it wasn’t legitimate. A Republican triumvirate would ensure a Lege-drawn map; a Democratic Governor and/or House would likely mean another map job for the judges. This time, a do-over in 2013 would almost certainly not happen, as there isn’t really anyone in the Texas Congressional delegation who would have the juice to make it happen.

Without White in the governor’s chair, the Democrats’ only leverage would be the Justice Department, which has reviewed Texas districts for the past four decades as part of a “pre-clearance” process required in states with legacies of institutionalized racial discrimination.

For the first time since the Voting Rights Act was passed in 1965, the Justice Department is controlled by Democrats – something that makes Texas Republicans a bit nervous.

The GOP’s suspicion of the Obama administration has given birth to a novel legal strategy: Republican leaders in Austin are privately discussing the possibility of bypassing the Justice Department and filing any redistricting plan directly with the U.S. District Court in Washington.

This has come up before, and I confess I’m fuzzy on the details. It would have been nice for the story to explain it a bit more. The bottom line is that the GOP would prefer to take its chances with some activist judges than with a Justice Department that actually takes civil rights enforcement seriously.

Back in Texas, both parties have been gearing up for political combat for a year. Party leaders have convened training sessions for their operatives, legislative redistricting committees have begun holding hearings and congressional Republicans have chosen Rep. Lamar Smith, R-San Antonio, as their point person in the process. The Democratic delegation has not yet picked its redistricting leaders.

But the political calculations are complicated by demographic realities. West Texas, a region dominated by Democrats, is likely to lose power in the legislative and congressional redistricting processes because of the concentration of population growth in the Houston area and along the I-35 corridor from Denton to Laredo.

What’s more, redistricting is just one of the hot-button items on the legislative agenda for 2011, along with a state budget dripping with red ink, education policy and funding, border security, the future of the Texas Department of Transportation and much more.

Here I will note again that the Trib floated the possibility of a redistricting compromise, agreed to in advance, which I believe the Lege would take if it were offered to them. Whether that’s still a live possibility at this point or not, I have no idea. I do know that the Republicans have to be at least a little careful, lest they do to their Congressional delegation what they did to their State House membership, which is to say lose a bunch of ground after initially overreaching. How they try to save Mike Conaway, in a district that was barely justifiable in 2003 and which owes its existence entirely to Tom Craddick’s insistence on separating Midland/Odessa from Abilene and Lubbock will be worth watching in itself. I feel quite confident that the electorate in 2012 will be more Democratic than it was in 2002, which complicates things further for them. Especially if Chet Edwards loses, holding serve and protecting their incumbents may look pretty good to them. But who knows? As Molly Ivins once said, our state motto ought to be “Too much is never enough, and wretched excess is even more fun.” Why should this be any different?

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4 Comments

  1. Jeb says:

    The demographic changes influencing redistricting should be good for Dems.

    The challenge will be that the courts have decided to allow the legislators to freely gerrymander districts and the Legislature has declined to set any standards for redistricting or depoliticize the process.

    The interesting wild card for next spring is that this will be the first time since the passage of the Voting Rights Act that there is a Democratic administration in the Justice Department during redistricting.

  2. Mainstream says:

    Submitting a plan for preclearance directly to a panel of judges in DC is fairly common. In the past the Justice Department has sometimes refused to agree to plans which while fair did not meet the political goals of the department. See Bossier Parish, where basically a set of districts was good enough for the school board but DOJ though they would be racially discriminatory if the same districts were used for a city council.

    I am not sure the GOP “overreached” in drawing districts. We might find out otherwise on Nov. 3. Some wounded candidates might be more to blame than the districts themselves for the turnovers over the past decade.

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