The House Gives DeLay His Map

Republicans push redistricting through, public opinion be damned

A few minutes after midnight Wednesday morning, the Texas House voted 83-62 to approve an unprecedented mid-decade congressional redistricting map and send it to the Senate. The final, third-reading vote brought a brief note of levity -- only a few minutes before, after nearly 10 hours of debate, the chamber had adjourned after a second-reading vote that had already sealed the deal. Asked to close once again, Rep. Phil King, R-Weatherford -- who in his assigned role of author of the plan (HB 3 of the special session) had imperturbably endured weeks of bitterly angry testimony from Democratic officials and witnesses -- said only, "Members, this is the bill we heard yesterday. I move passage."

There was very little amusing about the debate that preceded the final vote.

Dozens of Democrats, many who seldom take the floor, proceeded to the front mic to denounce the bill, calling it devastating to rights of minority and rural Texans; an unjustified GOP "power grab" personally directed by U.S. House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, R-Sugar Land; a leap toward D.C.-style partisanship in a Legislature that had once been proudly cooperative and moderate, and an offense against the federal Voting Rights Act of 1965 -- perhaps even a brazen attempt to ensure that Congress will not re-authorize the VRA in 2006. "What happens today does set a precedent for what happens down the road," declared Speaker Pro Tem Sylvester Turner of Houston just before midnight, "and the result will truly be 'a House divided.' ... If we move forward with this plan, and the Senate does not hold back the reins, we will do irreparable harm to this institution."

Turner and his colleagues acknowledged they were speaking for the record and to the Senate -- they had no chance of winning the House vote against what Houston's Senfronia Thompson termed "political apartheid." Republican members barely responded at all -- partly to shorten the debate, and partly to avoid giving the Democrats evidence to introduce in the inevitable court case to come. Waco's Jim Dunnam asked wryly for a show of hands -- "Has anybody changed their mind yet?" -- before noting that nearly every major vote this session was cast on party lines, unlike in past sessions when, "What we said on the floor of the people's chamber mattered." Austin's Eddie Rodriguez analyzed the devastation that eliminating six or seven Anglo Democrats will do to minority influence in Congress, and his colleague Elliott Naishtat quietly listed the health care and social service programs that could be funded with the $7 million to be spent -- in session and on litigation -- on re-redistricting.

In the end only two Democrats -- Ron Wilson of Houston and Vilma Luna of Corpus Christi -- voted for the bill, while four rural Republicans whose districts would be tattered by DeLay's ambitions -- Delwin Jones (Lubbock), Bob Hunter (Abilene), Mike Hamilton (Mauriceville), and Bryan Hughes (Mineola) -- voted against. Craddick and Tommy Merritt, R-Longview, abstained.

The previous weeks of "hearings" had been dominated by opposition to the entire game -- San Antonio Democrat Mike Villarreal, theoretically the vice-chair of the House Redistricting Committee, brought to the House floor a foot-high stack of witness statements opposing redistricting, compared to about an inch of those in support. The map that passed Tuesday had only been unveiled on July 5, by Kent Grusendorf, R-Arlington; at that meeting, the committee accepted no public testimony on the new map, briefly heard and immediately rejected two amendments by rural Republicans, and then passed out the bill. Committee chairman Joe Crabb, R-Atascosita, refused even to recognize Richard Raymond, D-Laredo, for a substitute motion before taking the vote. Raymond has been a constant thorn in Crabb's side, accusing the chair and his GOP colleagues of racist disrespect of minority citizens.

On the floor, motions to go back to committee (Villarreal) or even to postpone the vote for two days so members could actually review the map and testimony (Dunnam) failed along party lines. Republicans were so committed to speed that they had already refused to wait until transcripts of the field hearings were ready; the railroad job evoked a blunt assessment from Ruth Jones McClendon, D-San Antonio -- "This process has been fatally flawed, and it cannot be repaired."

In response, all Phil King would occasionally offer is that the Texas Legislature, not federal judges, should draw congressional districts. "The courts have run our schools and our prisons," said King, "and I don't think that's right." Democrats noted that the courts had stepped in because the Legislature had historically and intentionally botched those jobs. (Indeed, in the 2001 redistricting session, Republican Senators forced the courts to intervene.) But Houston's Al Edwards offered the last word on that score. "George W. Bush is president because the Supreme Court selected him," Edwards noted. "What's good enough for President Bush should be good enough for Texas."

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