Will DeLay Get His Way?
There were plenty of fireworks over the weekend during the marathon public hearings of the House Redistricting Committee, mostly between the committee members themselves -- who graphically exemplified the polarization found this session throughout the entire House. Democrats, in particular Laredo's Richard Raymond and San Antonio's Ruth Jones McClendon, accused Chairman Joe Crabb, R-Atascocita, and his GOP colleagues of ramrodding an entirely partisan and unnecessary exercise to remap the state's congressional delegation to their advantage. Crabb alternately angrily ruled Raymond out of order or ignored him entirely; other committee Republicans generally dismissed as sour grapes the Dems' complaints about a process they had, reputedly, themselves abused in past years.
The committee began late Friday at about 9:30pm -- only a few minutes after the full House had adjourned following a grueling 12-hour session. The panel continued until 6am Saturday, took a four-hour break, and reconvened at 10am for another full day of testimony, followed by additional testimony late Sunday afternoon and evening, another meeting on Monday night, and a final session on Tuesday where the committee voted to send its final map to the House floor. Many of the witnesses were Austinites (reportedly nearly 800) who testified (without any visible effect) against any changes to the current map, in particular to District 10, home to Austin Democrat Lloyd Doggett. A handful of Doggett's colleagues made the pilgrimage to testify for and against the plan, along strict party lines: Houston's John Culberson (R) and Sheila Jackson Lee (D), Marshall's Max Sandlin (D), and San Antonio's Charles Gonzalez (D).
The most important congressional player was not in the room: House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, R-Sugar Land, had his aide, Jim Ellis, working on new maps in the back, as acknowledged by Weatherford Republican Phil King. Through nearly 24 hours of testimony, no new map was officially under discussion; DeLay himself had said that Crabb's initial plan was just one of several proposed maps, and most everybody in the room dismissed Crabb's map as little more than a placeholder. King finally released his version late Sunday night; it was this version, with only minor changes, that was approved by the committee early Wednesday morning. While Crabb's map eliminated Doggett's district entirely, King's redraws it into a GOP stronghold and splits Austin's Democratic core four ways.
Despite being told over and over and over for three days not to proceed, the Republicans have both the votes and the intention, on the committee and the House floor, to do whatever they and DeLay want. The only formal vote taken Saturday was on a motion by Raymond to hold public hearings around the state. It failed 6-3, with Houston Democrat Ron Wilson voting with the majority. Crabb had earlier rejected holding field hearings in predominantly Spanish-speaking areas because "only two members of the committee speak Spanish."
Asked about the GOP charges that this is deserved payback for past Democratic outrages, Sandlin responded, "At no time, either in 1991 or any other time, did the Democratic majority attempt to eliminate current districts or current congressional incumbents. DeLay and the majority don't want 'competitive' districts; they want slam-dunk districts for Republican candidates." Sandlin admitted that the majority has the votes to redistrict in the committee or on the House floor but said, "We hope that the Senate will prove to be a more thoughtful and deliberative body." And indeed it appears that, at least for the moment, the GOP hasn't quite gotten the votes to bring redistricting to the Senate floor. Sen. Gonzalo Barrientos, D-Austin, announced Monday that he felt confident he had the 11 votes needed to forestall redistricting in the upper House.
On Monday, Austin leaders voiced their understandable outrage at re-redistricting in general and King's map in particular. "Now that I'm going to be out of work," joked Mayor Gus Garcia, "I would be glad to be named in the lawsuit to challenge this proposed redistricting -- I don't have anything else to do." Garcia was joined by Doggett, Mayor-elect Will Wynn, former Mayor Kirk Watson, several Texas House members, and a host of other local officials.
Doggett briefly described what the new map would do to Travis Co. and charged that it would silence the community's representative voice in Congress. "We take pride in calling this place home," said Doggett, "and in speaking together as one community." He congratulated the Austinites who had testified against the bill, which he said was based on "fanatical desire" of a few Republicans "to split up this district."
Noted state Rep. Dawnna Dukes, "Redistricting is not a crisis for anyone but Tom DeLay;" she accused the Hammer of "playing a partisan game with Texas lives" while many more important crises face state government. Rep. Elliott Naishtat noted that "people new to power" -- that is, the new GOP leadership in the statehouse -- "often abuse that power" and asked that the "divisive and diversionary" process be set aside. Mayor Garcia noted that under the proposal every other major Texas city would retain at least one congressman and that to dismember Austin's political representation is "not the American way." Greater Austin Chamber of Commerce Chairman Charles Barnett emphasized that opposition to redistricting is not a partisan issue -- the King plan would damage regional economic development and undermine federal support for local needs in such areas as education.
Doggett declined to speculate if a Democrat could win one of the new districts, responding instead that no House member could hope to represent such sprawling and disconnected communities. Instead of "four voices" in Congress, said Dukes, Central Texas would have "four whispers." Despite Republican claims, Doggett said no previous redistricting by Democrats did this much damage. Dukes sharply dismissed notions that minority communities would gain additional seats under the GOP plan, calling it instead a "divide-and-conquer plan that would add one or two minority representatives at the risk of losing everything we stand for." (Actually, it's questionable whether the King plan would add any new minority members to the delegation; it actually eliminates one majority-minority district.)
The Dems said they haven't given up on the House but acknowledged that Republicans have the votes to do whatever they wish. Asked if he thought Senate Republicans could find the two Democratic votes they would need to bring redistricting before the Senate -- or if the Democrats could stop them from doing so -- Doggett said, "There are going to be a lot of conversations going on."