Redistricting Hard Ball

Redistricting Hard Ball
Illustration By Doug Potter

It's full speed ahead for congressional redistricting at the Lege. Field hearings of the House Redistricting Committee -- divided into three five-member subcommittees -- are being held today (Thursday) in Lubbock, San Antonio, and Brownsville and on Saturday in Dallas, Houston, and Nacogdoches. The special session called by Gov. Rick Perry to address re-redistricting -- or "perrymandering" -- begins Monday.

When the House committee first proposed a new congressional map in May, Democrats complained that no hearings were scheduled outside Austin or in Spanish-speaking regions of the state -- not only bad karma for the GOP, but a potential violation of the federal Voting Rights Act. State Rep. Richard Raymond, D-Laredo, filed a formal complaint with the U.S. Dept. of Justice and then a lawsuit (still pending) charging that the process has already violated the VRA.

Raymond, along with San Antonio Democrats Ruth Jones McClendon and Mike Villarreal (who is theoretically vice-chairman of the committee) are not much happier with the hearing schedule devised by House Speaker Tom Craddick, which sends all three out of their shared congressional district -- that of U.S. Rep. Ciro Rodriguez, D-San Antonio -- to Lubbock (Raymond and McClendon) and Brownsville (Villarreal) for Thursday's hearings. In a letter to committee Chair Joe Crabb, R-Atascocita, the trio complains that committee members who support redistricting were assigned to hearings in their own districts. "We are concerned that our assignments may result from our being the three committee members who have most vigorously opposed this unprecedented mid-decade redistricting effort." Indeed.

Not that these field hearings are expected to have much impact on whatever map finally emerges from the House. The nominal sponsor of the map approved in May, Rep. Phil King, R-Weatherford -- designated water carrier for U.S. House Majority Leader Tom DeLay -- said last week that, in response to local opposition, he's considering dividing Travis Co. into only three districts instead of four. (The 800-plus Austinites who pilloried the committee at its sole public hearing May 3 apparently had some effect.) The real action is expected to be in the Senate, where the swing Democratic senators -- Eddie Lucio of Brownsville, Ken Armbrister of Victoria, and Frank Madla of San Antonio -- are under heavy pressure to deliver the two votes Republicans need to bring a map to the floor. Lucio (who had a mild heart attack last week but is expected to attend the session) says he is opposed, but both Armbrister and Madla have suggested that the right local incentives might persuade them to jump. (The Senate Jurisprudence Committee, chaired by Robert Duncan, R-Lubbock, will hold its own field hearings beginning next week and running through July 7 in Laredo, McAllen, San Angelo, Houston, and Dallas.)

However, the two waffling D's could be offset by two balking R's, Sens. Bill Ratliff of Mount Pleasant and Jeff Wentworth of San Antonio. Ratliff, who publicly complained about King's map's treatment of his Northeast Texas district, has gotten a personal presidential arm-twist via Karl Rove. Wentworth, who chaired the Senate Redistricting Committee in 2001, is filing his own map, along with his perennial proposal that redistricting be taken away from the Lege and given to an independent nonpartisan commission. But the Capitol buzz is that Perry would not have issued the call if Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst had not guaranteed the Senate votes to do the deed. In his call, Perry explicitly linked redistricting to (already promised) funding for border health care -- a direct threat lobbed at Lucio and Madla, evoking the charge of "political blackmail" from Raymond.

One experienced Capitol observer told Naked City, "I expect they'll come out of the Senate committee with a revised map that can be sold as 'moderate' -- giving the GOP three or four new seats instead of the five or six DeLay wants -- and that will provide the cover for at least two of the Dems to drop their opposition."

For the complete list and schedule of redistricting field hearings, see the Texas Legislature Online at www.capitol.state.tx.us.

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