Watson Says 4-Way Travis Split Unnecessary

Senator submits own map that keeps most of Austin in Dist. 14

Sen. Kirk Watson's counter-proposal map, which would keep Dist. 14 completely contained within Travis County
Sen. Kirk Watson's counter-proposal map, which would keep Dist. 14 completely contained within Travis County (photo by Lee Nichols)

Testimony on the proposed Senate redistricting map broke along partisan lines in this morning’s Redistricting Committee hearing, with Republican chair Kel Seliger saying he met legal requirements, and Democrats warning him he’d better try again. Among them was Austin Sen. Kirk Watson, who said the map’s four-way split of Travis County is unnecessary.

Watson submitted his own proposal that would keep more of Travis County in his Dist. 14.

“This task did not come without challenges,” Seliger told the committee. “I realize fairness is subjective. This map does not satisfy all 31 senators’ preferences. Not all senators are happy. Balancing the subjective with the objective does not achieve perfect harmony.

"I believe this process has been fair," Seliger said, getting agreement from his fellow Republicans.

Sen. Judith Zaffirini, D-Laredo, sharply disagreed.

“I do not believe this map is fair, nor is it legal,” she replied. Her Dist. 21 currently reaches north to San Antonio, but the new map would have her reaching into Travis County, taking southeast Austin away from Watson.

A key question in the map’s legality will be whether there is “retrogression” in the ability of racial minority communities to elect the candidate of their choice. Under the Voting Rights Act, Texas is one of several states that must get either Justice Department or court approval for maps, with an eye to that criterion.

Seliger said he drew the districts with that in mind, but Zaffirini said case law “makes it clear” that retrogression cannot simply be examined on a district-by-district basis, but the effect on the whole state. This map, she said, would reduce such minority opportunity districts from 12 to 11. This is unacceptable, she said, since minorities – particularly Hispanics – were the overwhelming driver in the state’s population growth over the past decade.

Zaffirini also alleged that senators from primarily Anglo districts were consulted well in advance of the map’s unveiling, but those from heavily minority districts were kept in the dark.

Watson testified that carving up his current Dist. 14 is especially problematic, because over the past several years, Travis’ minority community has developed "an effective, cohesive coalition to elect candidates of their choice.” Watson noted that in an earlier redistricting hearing held in Austin, a parade of Austin elected officials supported this contention. That testimony, he said, “has apparently been ignored.”

In fact, Watson said, the Legislative Redistricting Board, in arguing to the Justice Department in favor of the current Senate districts back in 2001, specifically named Dist. 14 as a community that should not be divided so as to uphold VRA requirements.

Watson submitted his own map proposal (see above right) that has only a three-way split and would keep all of Dist. 14 in Travis (Seliger’s proposal would stretch 14 across Bastrop County).

Under Watson’s map, far southern reaches of Travis would fall in San Antonio Republican Jeff Wentworth’s Dist. 25 (similar to current boundaries). The southwest and southeast would stay under Watson, with only some mostly white, mostly Republican precincts to the northwest being ceded to Troy Fraser’s Dist. 24.

I asked Watson if he thought Seliger’s proposal was an attempt to target him for defeat, as Republicans unsuccessfully tried in 2003 (and are rumored to be trying again). Watson said he wasn’t concerned about the electoral question, saying most of the precincts in Seliger’s plan are ones he has long represented as either a senator or mayor of Austin, “and I have strong friendships in Bastrop County. This is a district that if I run, I’ll win.”

Instead, he said, “My priority was to keep the minority community and the minority coalition together. … If you look at [my map], we actually increase the percentage of Hispanics and African-Americans” from the current Dist. 14.

Austin's other senator, Wentworth, used the occasion to again promote his long-standing proposal to take redistricting out of legislators' hands and turn it over to a bipartisan commission.

Until that happens, "This will always be partisan," he told the committee. When the Democrats were in power, they “drew lines that landed us in court, and now the Republicans have drawn lines that Democrats don’t think are fair. … The court ruled we did not draw fair lines in congressional redistricting in 2003.” In states that use bipartisan commissions, “nobody files suit because everybody considers it fair.”

The Redistricting Committee will hear public testimony this afternoon at 1:30pm or upon adjournment of today’s Senate session, in the Capitol Extension auditorium (room E1.004). The committee will also discuss the map again on Friday at 8am in room E1.036.

Seliger said Senators have until 5pm today to submit suggestions for amending the map.

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KEYWORDS FOR THIS POST

82nd Legislature, Redistricting, Kirk Watson, Jeff Wentworth

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