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Eric Opiela

Second phase of redistricting trial over

Much like the first phase, with some insults for one of the state’s key players thrown in for effect.

Lawyers with the U.S. Justice Department and minority groups said in closing arguments in federal court Tuesday that state lawmakers illegally targeted Latino and African-American voters when redrawing congressional districts in 2011.

Meanwhile, lawyers for the Texas attorney general reiterated their claims that the 2011 redistricting was the product of political concerns — incumbent protection and attempting to secure Republican seats in the GOP-led Legislature — not intentional discrimination.

However, the state’s attorney making its closing arguments in defense of the Legislature’s congressional redistricting plan, came under heavy questioning from the federal three-judge panel hearing the case, with most of the questions asked by the two judges appointed by Republican presidents.

District Judge Xavier Rodriguez, appointed by President George W. Bush, asked Texas Assistant Solicitor General Matthew Frederick about a string of emails from Eric Opiela, then counsel for U.S. Rep. Lamar Smith, R-San Antonio, which focused on Anglo voters.

Frederick responded that while Opiela had some role in the redistricting process, that role was limited. He went on to describe Opiela as “an endless source of ideas,” adding “most of which were bad.”

Someone write that down so we can haul it out the next time Opiela runs for something. “Endless ideas, most of which were bad”, that’s comedy gold. Anyway, as was the case with Phase One of the trial, this phase was partly about whether or not the maps are lawful or discriminatory, and partly about whether Texas should be subject to preclearance again, this time under Section 3 of the Voting Rights Act. We still have to get through the two-phase trial over the 2013 maps before we can get to a decision and the inevitable appeals. As yet, the next trial has not been scheduled.

What else is at stake in the redistricting trial

It’s about more than just the maps.

Efforts by the Obama administration to wring protections out of a weakened Voting Rights Act begin Monday in Texas over allegations that Republicans intentionally discriminated against minorities when drawing new election maps.

A federal trial in San Antonio comes a year after the U.S. Supreme Court made a landmark ruling that Texas and 14 other states with a history of voting discrimination no longer need permission from Washington before changing the way elections are held.

The Justice Department and minority rights groups now want a three-judge panel to decide that Texas still needs that approval under a historically obscure portion of the Voting Rights Act that has drawn new attention since the heart of the 1964 civil rights law was struck down.

Last year, U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder vowed to use “every tool at our disposal” to preserve voter safeguards after the Supreme Court decision.

“This is a case that will make law,” said Michael Li, redistricting counsel at the New York-based Brennan Center for Justice.

[…]

Republican legislative leaders have long argued the maps were drawn merely to benefit their party’s candidates and have rejected accusations of intentional discrimination.

But if judges find intentional discrimination, Texas could be required to continue seeking federal preclearance under Section 3 of the Voting Rights Act. It has rarely been employed because the same effect was formerly achieved through the more muscular part of the law that is now eliminated.

See here and here for more on what the plaintiffs and the Justice Department are aiming for, and here for more on the state’s response. Section 3 came out of obscurity last year after Section 5 was gutted, and this is its first major test. If it fails here, I suspect it’s unlikely to succeed anywhere else.

Salon fills in some more details on why the plaintiffs and the DOJ are pursuing this course.

On Nov. 17, 2010, Eric Opiela sent an email to Gerard Interiano. A Texas Republican Party associate general counsel, Opiela served at that time as a campaign adviser to the state’s speaker of the House Joe Straus, R-San Antonio; he was about to become the man who state lawmakers understood spoke “on behalf of the Republican Congressmen from Texas,” according to minority voting-rights plaintiffs, who have sued Texas for discriminating against them.

A few weeks before receiving Opiela’s email, Interiano had started as counsel to Straus’ office. He was preparing to assume top responsibility for redrawing the state’s political maps; he would become the “one person” on whom the state’s redistricting “credibility rests,” according to Texas’ brief in voting-rights litigation.

In the Nov. 17, 2010, email, Opelia asked Interiano to look for specific data about Hispanic populations and voting patterns.

“These metrics would be useful to identify the ‘nudge factor’ by which one can analyze which census blocks, when added to a particular district [they] help pull the district’s Total Hispanic pop … to majority status, but leave the Spanish surname RV [registered voters] and TO [turnout] the lowest,” Opiela writes to the mapmaker.

Interiano responded two days later: “I will gladly help with this Eric but you’re going to have to explain to me in layman’s terms.”

Two years and seven months after that email exchange — and one year ago on June 25, 2013 — the U.S. Supreme Court issued a 5-4 ruling in Shelby County v. Holder,which struck down a provision of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 that had allowed the federal government to “pre-clear” redistricting maps proposed by Texas and other states with a history of discriminating against minority voters.

In a follow-up email on Nov. 19, 2010, Opiela explained to Interiano that he called his proposed strategy: “OHRVS” or “Optimal Hispanic Republican Voting Strength.” Opiela defined the acronym-friendly term as, “a measure of how Hispanic, and[,] at the same time[,] Republican we can make a particular census block.”

Lawyers for the African-American and Hispanic voting-rights plaintiffs consider Opiela emails “a smoking gun.” The correspondence will play a starring role at a trial scheduled to start today in a San Antonio federal court in a redistricting case, Perez v. Perry. The litigation pits the plaintiffs, who have been joined by the Obama administration, against Texas and its Republican state leaders, including Gov. Rick Perry in his official capacity.

There’s more, so read the whole thing. The trial is expected to last a week, though the ruling won’t be for months. The one thing I feel confident saying is that this will wind up back before the Supreme Court. PDiddie, Texas Election Law Blog, and Texas Public Radio have more.

UPDATE: From his new perch at the Brennan Center, here’s Michael Li’s preview of the trial and its implications.

Texas Farm Bureau unhappy with anti-immigrant Republicans

It’s an opportunity for Democrats, assuming they actually mean what they’re saying.

When Republican agriculture commissioner candidate Eric Opiela appeared on television sets across Texas recently to declare “No amnesty under any circumstances,” he was no doubt attempting to appeal to the conservative constituency that is expected to turn out in next week’s primary election.

So are his major primary opponents, former state Reps. Sid Miller and Tommy Merritt, and Uvalde Mayor J Allen Carnes, who oppose any pathway to citizenship for undocumented immigrants. Current Agriculture Commissioner Todd Staples, a candidate for lieutenant governor, is also blasting one of his Republican opponents, state Sen. Dan Patrick, over reports that he hired undocumented workers and supported amnesty for one of them decades ago.

But all of the candidates also happen to disagree with one of the country’s most powerful agricultural lobbying groups, which boasts some half a million members in Texas. The American Farm Bureau Federation and its local arm, the Texas Farm Bureau, are strong supporters of a major immigration reform bill the U.S. Senate passed last year that offers a pathway to citizenship for undocumented immigrants. The bill has been heavily criticized by many conservative politicians, both nationwide and in Texas, highlighting a rift between the Republican Party and the agricultural lobby that widened recently during debate over the farm bill.

“Let’s just cut to the chase on this thing: Eighty-five percent of the agricultural labor that goes on in the state of Texas … is done by either undocumented or illegally documented people,” said Steve Pringle, legislative director for the Texas Farm Bureau. “If and when that labor supply is not there, that production simply goes out of business.”

[…]

For Pringle, the Republican Party’s shift to the right in recent years means that the Texas farm lobby may be looking for friends in places that would have seemed unlikely just a few years ago. In the 2012 election cycle, the Texas Farm Bureau donated $10,000 to U.S. Sen. Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., chairwoman of the Senate Agriculture Committee.

“Let’s just put it this way,” Pringle said. “We are finding conservative Republicans less and less supportive of agriculture.”

Like I said, a potential opportunity for Democrats to steal a bit of support from some typically unfavorably places, and not just in the Ag Commissioner race. The TFB has endorsed Carnes, but it’s not clear they’d transfer that support to, say, Eric Opiela or Sid Miller if one of them became the nominee. We’ve heard this sort of talk before, from typically pro-Republican business groups that support immigration reform, such as the Texas Association of Business, but it generally doesn’t translate into any tangible action. TAB in particular has a history of getting good press for saying pro-immigrant things and occasionally calling out some of the worst offenders among the Republicans, but they never follow it up by actively opposing the legislators they identify as the problem, even as the rhetoric has gotten more and more strident. If the TFB wants to be seen as more than just an empty voice for immigration reform, the place they can and should start is in the Lt. Governor’s race. If they fail to support Leticia Van de Putte, especially over Dan Patrick or Todd Staples, we’ll know they didn’t intend to be taken seriously. Just walk the walk, fellas, that’s all I’m asking.

Chron overview of Ag Commissioner race

It’s mostly about Kinky and pot, because what else is there to talk about?

Democrat Kinky Friedman is attempting to add a little spice to the crowded agriculture commissioner race by being the lone candidate to advocate legalizing marijuana and tapping it as a new state cash crop.

Of the eight candidates jostling to replace Republican Todd Staples as agriculture commissioner, only Friedman of Kerrville supports legalizing marijuana and taxing it for state revenue. He wants Texas to move quickly before other states follow Washington and Colorado’s lead and legalize the drug for recreational use, which could deprive the Lone Star State of potential revenue, like the $578 million in tax revenue that Colorado expects from first-year sales.

“Texas will be the dinosaur dragged in by the tail,” Friedman said. “We will be the caboose on the train.”

Friedman’s comments on legalizing marijuana follow those voiced by Democratic gubernatorial candidate Wendy Davis, who called for legalizing the drug for medical use and possibly decriminalizing it.

And Republican Gov. Rick Perry who told the World Economics Forum in Davos, Switzerland, that he signed laws putting the state on the path to decriminalization, and suggested that all states, under the 10th Amendment, have the right to decide how to handle the herb.

But other agricultural commissioner candidates from both major political parties were reluctant to voice those types of sentiments, preferring to focus on top priorities like illegal immigration and improved water infrastructure.

“Pot doesn’t really matter,” said Hugh Asa Fitzsimons III, another Democratic candidate for agriculture commissioner. “What matters is if you have any water.”

Cleburne farmer Jim Hogan, also seeking the Democratic primary nod, said he understands the arguments for legalization, and he said he could favor a shift in emphasis from punishment to rehabilitation for Texas drug users.

“If I was a judge and a woman (charged with possession of marijuana) had three kids, I couldn’t send her to prison,” Hogan said. “I could have her rehabilitated, maybe.”

None of the five Republicans in the race gave support to Perry’s comments or bucked their party’s hard line stance against drug possession or legalization.

I ran interviews last week with Friedman and Fitzsimons. Pot is a worthwhile issue to discuss, and I support Friedman’s position on it, but as Fitzsimons says it’s all secondary to water. Sure would have been nice to have seen what some of the Republican candidates have to say about that in a story like this. It also might have been worthwhile to mention the Republican candidates’ self-interested hypocrisy on receiving federal agriculture subsidies. But hey, no one’s really paying attention to a race like this anyway, am I right?

Endorsement watch: Fitzsimons for Ag Commissioner

The Chron recommends Hugh Fitzsimons as the best choice for Ag Commissioner in the Democratic primary.

Hugh Fitzsimons

Hugh Fitzsimons

A 59-year-old San Antonio native and third-generation rancher, Fitzsimons produces honey and raises grass-fed organic bison on his ranch in Dimmit County. One of the top reasons he’s running for office, though, is water.

Before running for agriculture commissioner’s four-year term, Fitzsimons served on the Wintergarden Water Conservation District. That experience becomes apparent when he discusses ways for Texans to conserve water, balancing the needs of cities, farmers and fracking.

As part of a solution, he says he’ll work to promote water recycling in the fracking process and irrigation systems that prevent evaporation.

He is also the only Democrat to receive the endorsement of the Farm and Ranch Freedom Alliance, a national organization dedicated to supporting independent family farmers.

And while many other candidates speak only in hyperbole about immigration, Fitzsimons speaks with compassion. Instead of horror stories about death along the border, he talks about the time he kayaked down the Rio Grande.

If you care about the future of the Texas Democratic Party, vote for Fitzsimons. If you’re tempted to vote for Kinky, make a donation to the Drug Policy Alliance instead.

The Chron also endorsed Eric Opiela on the Republican side, with a kudo for J. Allen Carnes and a brickbat for former Rep. Sid Miller. They wrote about twice as much for the Dem primary endorsement, beginning with two paragraphs of potshots at Kinky Friedman and his pro-pot campaign. Their objection was more about Kinky and his past history of being more showman than statesman in his campaigns, which I can certainly understand, than it was about marijuana policy. I’ve got interviews with Kinky and Fitzsimons set to run next week, and I’ll have more to say about this primary in a future post. On the merits, this is an unassailable recommendation, and if you aren’t acquainted with Hugh Fitzsimons yet, you really should get to know him.