Capitol Chronicle

Minority Report: Beneath the partisan rancor on re-redistricting boils a fight with racial overtones

"They cannot do what they want to do -- send more Republicans to Congress -- without disenfranchising minority voters all across the state." -- Rep. Ruth Jones McClendon

That argument was made more than once last week by McClendon, D-San Antonio, as she and several Democratic colleagues fought a losing battle with the GOP majority on the House Redistricting Committee that is determined to remake the Texas congressional delegation in its own image -- roughly 65% Republican. Under the map voted out of committee on Saturday and the House on Tuesday, the Texas delegation could swing by as many as six seats -- from 17-15 Democratic to 21-12 Republican. McClendon, who is African-American, is an intense but polite woman, polite enough to defer to her Republican colleagues when they insist that disenfranchising African-American and Hispanic voters is not their "intent."

"I am not suggesting it is intentional," she would respond quietly. "But you cannot do what you are doing -- move large numbers of minority voters into overwhelmingly Republican districts -- without removing any effective power of those voters to elect a candidate of their choice. The winner of the general election will be determined in the Republican primary, and most African-American and Hispanic voters will have no opportunity to elect, nor even to influence, a candidate of their own choice."

The argument over redistricting may seem to many people an essentially partisan debate, in which the new Republican legislative majority attempts to "do to the Democrats what they've been doing to us for 100 years." But the Republican map-drawers repeating that mantra have been explicitly wary of violating the Voting Rights Act and continue to argue, in the words of Weatherford Rep. Phil King, "I just want to send more Republicans to Washington to help President Bush in his endeavors, and I believe we can do that without negatively affecting minority voters."

King revised his first map after he was convinced by public testimony, he said, that certain "errors" might make it run afoul of the VRA. He no longer maintains (as he did at first) that his map, as eventually amended by Arlington Rep. Kent Grusendorf, would create at least one new minority-opportunity district. Now the Republicans claim there will simply be no "retrogression" -- that is, minority voters will enjoy the same opportunity to elect or influence the state's congressional delegation as they currently do.

What's the Score?

The argument is not academic.

As McClendon also pointed out, the current map in fact already reflects 20 Republican "opportunity" districts -- districts containing substantial majorities of Republican voters. But to the chagrin of U.S. House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, R-Sugar Land, and his legislative supporters, recalcitrant Republicans in six of those districts continue to elect incumbent Democrats to Congress. So, in order to make those incumbent Democrats -- such unreconstructed left-wingers as Ralph Hall and Charles Stenholm -- go away, a half-dozen districts must be made overwhelmingly Republican or else redrawn to eliminate the power of incumbency. And in order to do that, minority communities, primarily in East and Southeast Texas, must be diluted into districts dominated by suburban Republican voters.

What's at stake? At hearings in Austin and around the state, numerous witnesses cited "congressional scorecards" issued by nonpartisan Hispanic and African-American advocacy groups demonstrating the dramatic differences in voting records between Republican congressional incumbents and even the most conservative Democrats. The scorecards track key votes on issues of particular importance to minority voters: civil and voting rights, education, health care, economic policy, minimum wage, school vouchers, community policing, and so on.

On one representative scorecard, issued last year by a coalition of organizations called the National Hispanic Leadership Agenda, among Texas Democrats only Hall (at a dismal 18%) scored lower than 64% on issues of importance to the Hispanic community; most scored in the 80s and 90s. Among Texas Republicans, Ron Paul's 27% was the highest score, and seven Republicans (including Tom DeLay) scored zero. (The lone Hispanic Republican, San Antonio's Henry Bonilla, scored 18%.) On a similar scorecard issued by the Texas NAACP, every single Texas Republican was graded "F," but only Democrats Hall and Stenholm failed -- and they still voted better on black issues than every single Republican.

Return to Jim Crow

Those elementary but real distinctions help explain why the debate in the House has become so rancorous, and why minority Democratic reps with less polite temperaments than McClendon -- notably Laredo's Richard Raymond and Houston's Garnet Coleman -- have repeatedly raked the Republican plan as fundamentally discriminatory and "racist" in both intention and design. While the visible targets of the GOP's redistricting plan are incumbent Anglo Democrats, it will be the state's black and Latino communities that will be utterly marginalized as collateral damage: "They cannot do what they want to do ... without disenfranchising minority voters all across the state."

Not every minority Democrat is persuaded by McClendon's argument. Houston Rep. Ron Wilson argues that it is far more important to elect additional African-American candidates than to protect white Democrats: "We have been oppressed by Republicans and Democrats alike," says Wilson. That is certainly undeniable -- yet even after the Republicans themselves admitted that their new map will not meet Wilson's standard, and will in fact create no new minority districts, he helped vote it out of committee.

"Do I want additional black congressional districts?" an angry Coleman asked as the special session opened. "Of course. Is this the way to get them? No. ... This is a sham process, and the leadership in the black community has overwhelmingly rejected this process. ... It presumes 'black people are stupid,' because it asks them to support a plan that is detrimental to their interests."

"And that is racist," Coleman continued. "It pushes all the racist buttons. Just as they're trying to do in the House, if this works, the Republican Party will be the 'white' party, and the Democratic Party will be the party of minorities. Just like Jim Crow -- they want to isolate and defeat any white Democrat who supports minority interests by telling them, in effect, 'You're a nigger-lover.'"

"This entire process," Coleman concluded, "is illegitimate." n

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redistricting, 78th Legislature, Ruth Jones McClendon, Voting Rights Act, Phil King, Kent Grusendorf, Tom DeLay, Ralph Hall, Charles Stenholm, National Hispanic Leadership Agenda, Henry Bonilla, NAACP, Richard Raymond, Garnet Coleman, Jim Crow, Republican Party, Democratic Party

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