Despite essentially keeping up with the state growth rate, Harris County may lose a legislative seat in the next round of redistricting.
As Texas lawmakers turn their attention to the complex and contentious task of redrawing their own districts, that loss will set in motion a game of musical chairs to determine who has a place among the 150 House seats. That number does not change despite a 20 percent increase in population statewide, which means the kaleidoscope of voters each lawmaker represents will shift. Harris County is expected to go from 25 to 24 state House seats.
Legislative districts, redrawn every 10 years in the wake of federal census results, must be roughly the same size, somewhere near 167,637 people per district. Although Harris County is home to more people than in 2000, its growth lags behind such suburban areas as Fort Bend and Montgomery counties.
Much of the redistricting process is a legalistic one involving adherence to federal law and state redistricting principles, said Trey Trainor, an Austin lawyer who advises Republicans on redistricting.
“From a political standpoint,” Trainor said, “it gets bloody when you start looking at population loss, and you have members of the Legislature who just don’t have the sheer numbers in their district, and you’ve got to go someplace else to get them. You start cutting into core constituencies of other members.”
In Harris County, the question is, who will be the odd man (or woman) out?
“It’s not necessarily that the seat goes away,” Trainor said, “but you’re going to end up with one or two incumbents in the same district having to run against each other, if they decide to do that. Of course, you know a lot of times what happens in these cases is somebody who’s been here awhile decides to retire and makes it easier on everybody else.”
A few thoughts:
- Greg saw this coming months ago. The final Census totals put Harris County right on the knife’s edge of maintaining 25 seats, so I suppose it’s still possible that could happen. We still haven’t heard anything from those that are actually going to draw the maps, and dealmaking is always a possibility. I’m inclined to think that 24 is more likely than 25, however. Remember, for big counties like Harris state law forbids State Rep districts from crossing county boundaries, so sharing a district with Fort Bend or Montgomery is not an option.
- The story suggests that Republicans may target Rep. Scott Hochberg, the only Anglo Democrat currently serving in Harris County, for elimination. I say it’s far too early to write anyone’s political obituary. Hochberg was similarly drawn out of a district in 2001, but found a new home and won there. You just never know.
- Having said that, I might suggest that one person with a reason to be nervous is two-term State Rep. Ken Legler, whose district is centered in Pasadena. While the west, northwest, and north ends of Harris County grew like gangbusters, the eastern portion stagnated or shrunk; what growth there was out that way was mostly non-Anglo. It may be awfully hard to draw two sufficiently Republican districts with enough population out there to support both Legler and Rep. Wayne Smith, whose Baytown area is easily the redder. Again, you never know. My point is that there are a lot of moving parts to this, and you can’t affect one district without affecting all of them.
- Trainor is correct that sometimes these problems solve themselves via a member’s retirement, whether voluntary or not. Retirement isn’t the only way that a member may decide to free up a seat, however. There may be a different office available to them, for instance. Who do you suppose might become Ed Emmett’s bestest buddy in the event that Jerry Eversole gets convicted in his trial, which was actually supposed to begin this past week? Dwayne Bohac has been rumored to be interested in that job; I’m certain he’s not alone in that desire. Keep an eye on this.
- As we’ve seen, electoral results can differ greatly in Presidential and non-Presidential years. If nothing were changing this year, the most endangered incumbent in Harris County would be Jim Murphy, whose track record so far is winning in 2006 and 2010 and losing in 2008. As I said before, figuring out which electoral data to base the boundaries on will be extra challenging this time around, and could lead to some districts whose predisposition is dependent on the year.