Capitol Chronicle

Congressional Redistricting Opens a Window on the Game of Texas Politics

There is no one quite so pompous as a judge on his high horse. Multiply by a federalized three, and you get the following, delivered by U.S. Circuit Judge Patrick Higginbotham and U.S. District Judges John Hannah Jr. and T. John Ward in their Nov. 14 opinion regarding Texas Congressional Districts:

"Finally, to state what is implicit in all that we have said: political gerrymandering, a purely partisan exercise, is inappropriate for a federal court drawing a congressional redistricting map. Even at the hands of a legislative body, political gerrymandering is much a bloodfeud, in which revenge is exacted by the majority against its rival. We have left it to the political arena, as we must and wisely should. We do so because our role is limited and not because we see gerrymandering as other than what it is: an abuse of power that, at its core, evinces a fundamental distrust of voters, serving the self-interest of the political parties at the expense of the public good."

While we can't begrudge the judges their sense of superiority -- they aren't the first Texans to suspect they've got more cards in their collective decks than the Lege -- we find amusing the notion that what they have done, in issuing their august revision of the state's congressional district lines, is somehow above and beyond the failings of ordinary mortals. The current district plan, the court acknowledged, "is conceded by all parties to be unconstitutional, made so by changes in population disclosed by the decennial census, if not also for other reasons." So the court took this unconstitutional map -- in regards to both absolute population and the relative representation of minority groups -- and pretty much left it alone.

The new map does resolve the supposedly "neutral" question of numerical representation, by adding a new district in Dallas County and another running from Williamson County eastward into northern Harris County. But it oh-so-politely dodges the political hot potato represented by the explosive growth in the state's Hispanic population, opining that "the Latino population is not sufficiently compact or numerous to support another, effective majority Latino citizenship district in Texas, in Dallas County or in South Texas."

That sounds reasonable enough, until you consider the raw numbers. As Nina Perales, attorney for the Mexican-American Legal Defense and Education Fund (MALDEF), told the San Antonio Express-News: "The court declined to draw a new seat for the Latinos, even though they accounted for 60% of the [state population] growth. The Latino growth was 2.3 million persons, and Anglos grew only by 600,000, but they got two congressional seats."

Or as the judges might put it, if they could descend from that high horse for a moment: "Them that has, gets."

Whose Ox Isn't Gored?

Perales wasn't the only one to note that having ostentatiously set "gerrymandering" aside, the judges didn't hesitate to maintain what gerrymandering has already rendered: incumbent protection. "In our effort to steer the required neutral course through this political sea," wrote the court, "we have been assisted by the many distinguished political scientists who have testified in this case." (The judges sadly neglected to note that "political science" is an academic oxymoron.) The opinion cited in particular Rice University professor of political science John Alford, who testified at the request of the GOP. Not surprisingly, the "politically neutral" lines Alford suggested, and the court followed, left most current districts alone, but will likely result in two additional Republican Congressmen.

We should not, however, cry for the Democrats, who will likely retain a 17-15 majority in the Texas delegation -- including such stalwart incumbents as Ralph Hall and Solomon Ortiz, whose negative votes recently helped Tom DeLay and Dick Armey narrowly defeat (218-214) the legislation that would have permanently federalized airport security (a temporary version survived the House-Senate conference committee). Although in theory it has the most to gain from increased minority representation, the Texas Democratic Party has been significantly soft-spoken on that question. The lawsuit that engendered this opinion was instead brought by MALDEF on behalf of Simon Balderas, et al.

In keeping with its now-traditional neglect of statewide base-building and voter registration, the state Democratic Party is all in favor of minority representation -- just not too much.

A Spirit of Bi-Partisanship

In that light, it's amusing to see that both parties recently issued "reports" (i.e., press releases) on the historic accomplishments of their respective teams in promoting Hispanic involvement in state politics. The Republicans pointed to their recent affinity for appointing high-profile Hispanic Americans to statewide office (e.g., Henry Cuellar to Secretary of State, without noting that Cuellar remains a Democrat), barely acknowledging that on statewide issues of interest to Latino voters, the GOP remains largely missing in action. (Caveat: "Like Republicans, Hispanics revere God, country, and family.")

The Dems may be better on the numbers and the concepts, although bragging that Hispanic Democrats chair the Congressional Hispanic Caucus and the Texas House Mexican-American Legislative Caucus is a trifle tautological, if not quite on the level of "some of my best friends are ..." But pretty close. And in all these effusions, the deepening neglect of African-American voters suggests that both parties remain content to give lip service to democracy while institutionally maintaining Texas plantation business as usual.

A cursory look at the Texas population might make a naïve observer wonder how a state so multicultural and multicolor is "represented" by a political process that continues to result -- and now for another decade looks to remain -- the property and policy of the same old good ol' boys, of whatever color. But to citizens with any sense of history at all, it's little wonder so many Texans have turned their backs on the voting booth.

More and more people believe they can't win, they can't get even -- and the Big House owns the game.

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Redistricting, U.S. Congress, Patrick Higginbotham, John Hannah Jr., T. John Ward, minority representation, Nina Perales, John Alford, Ralph Hall, Solomon Ortiz, Tom DeLay, Dick Armey, MALDEF, Texas Democratic Party, Texas Republican Party, Simon Balderas, Henry Cuellar

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