Redistricting: Follow the Bouncing Pols

Redistricting trims Texas Dems and progressives from the Lege ranks. Start worrying.

In the wake of the federal court decision largely affirming the Legislative Redistricting Board's state redistricting maps, the other shoe fell. Then another shoe fell. Then another shoe fell.

If the folks in the downstairs apartment (that's you) are more than a little uncertain about what's going on upstairs, it's not surprising. While the early handicappers are basically describing the score as a Republican shutout -- the GOP will assume the House majority and extend its one-vote lead in the Senate -- the nuts-and-bolts details of that elephantine future are far from clear.

Some big Democratic dominoes toppled last week: San Angelo Rep. and Appropriations Chair Rob Junell, angling for a federal judgeship, announced his retirement from the House, followed shortly thereafter by Henderson's Paul Sadler. Both were powerful figures on funding and education, close allies of Speaker Pete Laney, D-Hale Center, and likely to win if they ran again. Translation: They weren't looking forward to being in the minority (although Sadler nearly resigned before last session, and had personal reasons for moving on). Laney insists he will run for speaker, hoping to put together a coalition of Democrats and Republican mavericks sufficient to hold off challenges from Tom Craddick, R-Midland, or Ed Kuempel, R-Seguin. Enough Republicans may find Craddick so unbearable, and Kuempel so unthinkable, that Laney -- with a decade of favors to trade -- just might pull it off. Whether the game will be worth the candle is another question entirely.

On the Senate side, Beaumont Democrat David Bernsen is running for land commissioner, and the most likely additional Dem casualties are Fort Worth's Mike Moncrief and Dallas' David Cain, both of whose districts now include GOP incumbents. Moncrief will have to beat Flower Mound Republican Jane Nelson in a new GOP-leaning Dist. 9, while Cain opposes John Carona in another swing district. Moncrief has fought tirelessly for education, public health, and other progressive causes -- last session, he even took on capital punishment -- and his loss would be deeply felt. Whether the right will dominate the Senate may depend on two factors: if the Lt. Gov.'s chair is filled by Dem John Sharp or David Dewhurst, and if the two-thirds rule (by which a minority can block the most odious bills) still holds. It's not a happy prospect.

More fallout: Several progressive Democrats are "paired" by the new Republican maps, meaning someone will have to move and run elsewhere or retire. Houston's Fred Bosse, who did journeyman work on TNRCC reform and other matters, was paired with Joe Moreno and decided to step down. A few days later, Galveston Democrat Patricia Gray (a lion on public health) was paired with both Craig Eiland (who will run) and Zeb Zbranek (unannounced) and followed Bosse, as did Portland's Judy Hawley. McAllen's Roberto Gutierrez is paired with (and will apparently run against) Juan Hinojosa; Debra Danburg has been doubled with Scott Hochberg (intentions unannounced at press time). These retirements/evictions represent real losses of not just progressive votes but extensive public experience and influence, the hidden costs of redistricting.

Locally, the most obvious casualty is Austin Rep. Glen Maxey (see "Capital Chronicle," p.13) tripled with fellow Dems Elliott Naishtat and Ann Kitchen. While veteran Naishtat is secure, Kitchen will move to the new Dist. 48 to face Republican Travis Co. Commissioner Todd Baxter in an uncertain race.

There's more uncertainty, and more will follow. Cloudy now are not just record votes or partisanship -- the sort of horse-race politics that is entertaining but ultimately inconsequential -- but what will happen within the already limited possibilities of Texas legislation for the next decade. Asked to speculate about the outlook for the progressive lobby under the new order, longtime Capitol hands were cautious at best.

"Even before today, the Texas Legislature has not been a breeding ground for progressive legislation," said Craig McDonald of Texans for Public Justice, "but in the last session people did a bit better, following the exit of Bush -- on things like the environment, campaign reform, criminal justice, and so on. Right now, the situation looks like it's going to get much worse for progressive organizations, because they won't have as many allies, or at least friends, on the floor."

"Even with a Democratic majority," said Robin Schneider of Texas Campaign for the Environment, "things haven't been all that great. The committees might have narrow Dem majorities, but the chairs would be Republican, or no better. We still have to be creative to get the stuff we want through. It might not be a dramatic change for us, but last session wasn't too bad, considering we might not see many good sessions for a while." The Sierra Club's Ken Kramer echoed Schneider's caution -- "It's seldom we get two good sessions in a row" -- but thought Republican candidates, especially from the new suburban districts, could be educable on environmental issues. "It's too early to tell much," Kramer said, "but in the suburbs we've often found strong support for environmental protection that doesn't necessarily translate into candidates. We've got to educate, publicize, and mobilize."

Longtime public interest lobbyist Tom "Smitty-- Smith of Public Citizen considered the numbers and brooded. "We're going to lose six to 10 of the most progressive members, and it looks like the Republicans will gain the leadership and most of the chairs. Bad bills may be flying out of committees, and if the two-thirds rule in the Senate, and the Calendars [committee] chairmanship in the House, if they both go -- those stops for bad bills will be gone. Without those tools, the environment, women's rights, the fights over the budget, human services will be in trouble -- and we'll go back just to building roads and giving tax breaks to the wealthy.

"Right now, it doesn't look good."

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