Naked City

Redistricting? Again? Why?

Last week saw the first meeting of the House Redistricting Committee -- a panel that normally does nothing in years that don't end with "1." Officially, the committee, and later the full Lege, will address a bill -- HB 3398, by committee Chair Joe Crabb, R-Humble -- to ratify the U.S. congressional district map drawn by a three-judge federal court in 2001. But the courts drew the map in 1991 and 1981 as well, and the Lege never felt compelled to later pass a bill like Crabb's -- thus supporting the long-discussed Capitol gossip that the GOP (and particularly U.S. House Majority Leader Tom DeLay) aims to redraw the congressional map for its own partisan ends.

Texas has 31 state senators, 19 of whom are Republican. Texas has 32 U.S. representatives, but only 15 are GOP, and DeLay is not alone in thinking something is wrong with this picture; it's an open secret that the Bug Man would like 20 or 21 Texans in his Republican majority. The court-drawn 2001 map basically left existing districts untouched and merely crammed in the two seats Texas gained after the 2000 census -- one between Austin and Houston and one in and near Dallas. Both were won by Republicans.

But is the map really to blame, or credit, for the Dems' ability to hold U.S. House seats? At least three, perhaps as many as six, Dems already represent districts that should be at least competitive for the GOP -- people like Ralph Hall of Rockwall or Charlie Stenholm of Abilene hold on purely due to the power of incumbency. The only truly safe Dem seats in Texas are those with significant minority populations: along the border, in Southeast Texas, or in the major cities. This includes DeLay's nemesis, Austin's Lloyd Doggett; while the GOP would no doubt love to redistrict Doggett out of Congress, such a move could either violate the Voting Rights Act or stick a neighboring GOP rep -- Lamar Smith, Ron Paul, or John Carter -- with a huge number of angry Austin Democrats.

In any event, even firmly partisan Texas legislators find it hard to imagine that this Lege, with all the catastrophes it needs to triage, would open up this nasty business. Democrats on Crabb's committee, including Laredo's Richard Raymond and San Antonio's Ruth Jones McClendon, tried to amend his bill to force statewide public hearings on any new map -- but GOP Rep. Geanie Morrison of Victoria left the room and killed the quorum before that could pass.

Any redistricting effort would also need at least two Dems, along with the 19 Republicans, in the state Senate to let it move to the floor of the upper house. Sen. Eddie Lucio, D-Brownsville, has said he'd be willing to get on board -- if the plan created a new district in the Valley that he could represent in D.C.

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