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Chapter Two: The Re-Redistricting Hearings Produce Much Heat, Little Light

By Michael King, July 4, 2003, News

Last week, the House Redistricting Committee held six "field hearings" around the state, ostensibly to gather testimony on the proposed congressional re-redistricting that is the subject of the special legislative session that opened Monday, June 30. The 15-member committee was split into subcommittees for three all-day hearings on Thursday (Brownsville, San Antonio, Lubbock) and three more on Saturday (Houston, Dallas, Nacogdoches). At least, that was the theory. The system broke down immediately, as the three committee Dems who oppose redistricting (Laredo's Richard Raymond and San Antonio's Mike Villarreal and Ruth Jones McClendon) refused their assignments-in-exile (Speaker Tom Craddick had assigned Raymond and McClendon to Lubbock and Villarreal to Brownsville) and instead attended the hearings closest to their own districts.

All six sessions were reportedly raucous affairs -- dominated by hundreds of Democrats who came to denounce the hearings as a sham and the process as a Republican "power grab" orchestrated by U.S. House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, R-Sugar Land. By all accounts, Thursday's Brownsville session was the rowdiest; the subcommittee never formally convened after Chairman Joe Crabb, R-Atascocita, was unable to establish a quorum. With Villarreal in San Antonio, and Waxahachie Republican Jim Pitts absent, all Mission Democrat Kino Flores had to do was walk away before the meeting was called to order, and that was that. Applauded by fellow Democratic officeholders (including Raymond, playing hooky from Lubbock), Flores (who had helped break the House quorum in May, although he had not gone to Oklahoma) told reporters that in opposing the GOP map for South Texas, he was "standing tall" for Hidalgo Co.

Crabb and Mike Krusee, R-Round Rock, briefly attempted to accept testimony informally but instead spent much of the day listening to protesters -- organized primarily by Corpus Christi chapters of the Hispanic civil rights organization the American GI Forum -- shouting, "Shut it down; this meeting is illegal," or serenading them with "The Eyes of Texas." When the protesters broke into "God Bless America," Crabb stood and joined them.

Throughout the weekend, there was no shortage of hyperbole. One protester told Quorum Report, "This was our Pearl Harbor; they bombed us, but we have woken up."

One in the Hand

The preferred analogies leading up to Saturday's session at Texas Southern University in Houston were even more pointed: the Aryan Nation and the Ku Klux Klan. U.S. Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, D-Houston, angrily denounced a Harris Co. GOP e-mailing to Republican faithful that featured only Jackson Lee's (unidentified) picture and the invitation, "She'll be there to express her views -- Will you?" GOP Chair Jared Woodfill dismissed Jackson Lee's charges as "race-baiting," but neither Jackson Lee nor her Democratic colleagues were placated. The day's testimony -- before a subcommittee of Reps. Geanie Morrison, R-Victoria; Phil King, R-Weatherford; Ron Wilson, D-Houston; Robert Talton, R-Pasadena; and Vilma Luna, D-Corpus Christi -- bristled with charges of "racism," "tyranny," even "Nazism." And whatever the intent of the GOP's appeal, it didn't work -- one of the small handful of Republicans in the room complained, "I thought I was coming to a committee hearing, not a Democratic rally." By late afternoon more Republicans -- in particular a group of elected officials from Killeen hoping to protect U.S. Rep. Chet Edwards' Dist. 11 -- had testified against redistricting than in favor of it.

But the noisiest fireworks occurred between Houston Democratic Reps. Garnet Coleman (who opposes redistricting) and Ron Wilson (who supports it), as Coleman faced the dais and said simply, "Ron, I'm disappointed in you." Wilson angrily demanded that Coleman "come clean" concerning his personal financial interest as a Democratic Party political consultant who handles "millions of dollars in congressional campaign funds." Coleman responded, "I'm not the one who drove to the hearing in a Lamborghini ..." and accused Wilson of "shilling for the Republicans."

Speaker Pro Tem (and Houston mayoral candidate) Sylvester Turner, also on the dais, quickly broke in and calmed the combatants. Coleman apologized for his outburst but continued to denounce redistricting, describing the day's hearing as just "checking the legal boxes so that you can do something that is illegitimate."

Outside the hearing room, Wilson said he wasn't accusing Coleman of anything illegal, just pressing him to "let people know" that through his Houston consulting firm (Coleman Strategies) he has a personal interest in the redistricting battle. "I don't have any personal interest in this," Wilson insisted, dismissing rumors that he himself wants to run for Congress. "I can't afford it," he said. "I've got a kid in college and a family to support."

Later, Coleman said that Wilson is simply wrong about Coleman's business dealings -- that he has coordinated Democratic campaigns in Harris Co., but not at a profit -- and that he is simply "disappointed" in Wilson's position on redistricting "because it does not represent the interests of the African-American, Hispanic, or rural Texans. He is complicit in a Republican attempt to remove that representation."

"My position is that we have the African-American population [in Houston] to justify an additional congressional district," Wilson said, "and we ought to have that seat at the table." Asked his response to earlier testimony by Rep. Joe Deshotel, D-Beaumont, and U.S. Rep. Jackson Lee (and eventually many other Democratic officials and supporters) that gaining one additional minority seat while losing six or seven Anglo Democrats who support minority interests was not "an even trade," Wilson answered, "By their logic, we should split the one district we have and elect two white Democrats."

"Life or Death"

Wilson says he would rather have "one Barbara Jordan" in Congress than a half-dozen white Democratic allies. I asked him if he thought any current black representative fit that bill. "Eddie Bernice Johnson," he said, referring to the Dallas Democrat. On that same Saturday morning, Johnson was at the Dallas hearing telling another subcommittee, "It's life or death for us. We wouldn't have a decent quality of life if we elected all Republicans. All you would have is a lot of talk, and you would still have a government controlled by corporations." Asked why Johnson didn't share his opinion of redistricting, Wilson shrugged, "She wants to protect her district."

From the dais, Wilson argued that the Republicans have the upper hand, and the best his colleagues can do is roll with it. "A redistricting plan is going to pass," he told Joe Deshotel. "Should we not try to empower our communities?"

Wilson was unwilling to acknowledge that a sizable and active portion of his own community had turned up to oppose his curious notion of empowerment and determined instead to "Deny DeLay" -- the current favorite among Democratic T-shirt slogans. "This is a coup," declared Houston's Dist. D Council Member and longtime local activist Ada Edwards. "What Tom DeLay is doing is Chapter Two of what happened in Florida." end story

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