Capitol Chronicle

'The Race Card': When the Deck Is Stacked, You Play the Hand You're Dealt

Last week, faced with imminent defeat in this round by the Senate Democrats, and increasingly battered on the public-relations front (all the state's major dailies sang another chorus of "Yes, We Don't Need Redistricting"), Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst rolled out the GOP's Hispanic heavy artillery: U.S. Rep. Henry Bonilla, R-San Antonio. Stung by the Texas 11 allegations (still pending before a federal court) that abandoning the Senate's two-thirds rule and enacting sanctions against them constitutes (among other things) racial discrimination, Dewhurst insisted that the attorney general has assured him that such a charge is only applicable if the Republicans had intentionally made decisions based on "race, creed, or color." Any other conclusion, Dewhurst argues, is nothing but "partisan Democrat spin."

Bonilla seconded Dewhurst con mucho gusto, although he was careful to remain stolidly monolingual. He said that by staying in Albuquerque the Democrats were violating the family values and work ethic of Hispanics and setting a bad example for the children. "When immigrants come to this country," said Bonilla, "they come here because they want to be Texans, they want to be Americans, and they want to assimilate, with this great opportunity that we have in this country, and take advantage for it with their children and grandchildren. ... Racially divisive debates are not welcome in this state by any ethnic group."

Bonilla also dismissed what he called "professional minority groups," singling out for criticism the League of United Latin American Citizens (which opposes re-redistricting). "At least 99% of Hispanics are not associated with LULAC or any of the Hispanic groups," Bonilla insisted, and pointed to himself and his District 23 (which stretches south to Laredo and west to El Paso) as testimony that not all Hispanics are Democrats. He continued that the important issues -- education, economic development, health care -- are neither Republican nor Democratic. "The great myth that ... the shade or the color of your skin determines your political philosophy," Bonilla continued, "is a great disservice to minorities."

Holy Frijoles

It all sounded reasonable enough. Alas for Dewhurst and Bonilla, even as they spoke, the Texas Republican Party was airing an attack radio ad in South Texas aimed at one of the missing Democrats, McAllen Sen. Juan "Chuy" Hinojosa. As described by the McAllen Monitor, the ad reported Hinojosa's voting record in misleading terms, but its delivery was more significant: "The radio spot features two unidentified actors -- one female, the other an older male -- speaking in cartoonish, thickly Mexican-accented English." Juan Maldonado, chair of the Tejano Democrats, told the Monitor, "That's the mentality that the Republicans have of our part of the state. They think we're still sleeping under a cactus with a big sombrero and don't know how to speak English."

From Albuquerque, Hinojosa said he had thought that the days of portraying Latinos as "Frito Banditos" were over. Dewhurst and his spokesman Dave Beckwith disclaimed any knowledge of the ad, but Party spokesman Ted Royer stepped into the breach, saying Hinojosa and the others should know better than to describe the radio actors as "too Hispanic." Perhaps Royer is seeking the nomination for "Too Thick." (On Monday, party Chair Susan Weddington apologized for the ad.)

So far as the Chronicle knows, Henry Bonilla -- whose previous professions were in television and public relations -- hasn't weighed in on the radio controversy, but it nicely exemplifies the predicament Texas Republicans have devised for themselves. They want to denounce the absent Democrats on political grounds, but in wooing Anglo voters, they can't seem to help reaching reflexively for the ethnic weaponry. They insist they want to reach out to Hispanic American and African-American voters -- yet they persist in the pretense that it is simply a coincidence that all of the state's minority senators, and all of the senators who represent majority-minority districts, broke the Senate quorum and fled to New Mexico rather than submit to the imposition of new congressional districts. The Dems insist those districts will effectively disenfranchise more than a million minority Texans, by eliminating any substantive influence they now have on the outcome of the congressional elections in half a dozen districts.

That remains the central issue of the re-redistricting controversy. It is not a question whether Anglo Republican senators -- or the Anglo Republican governor, lieutenant governor, and House speaker -- personally like or dislike their minority colleagues, nor if their affections are returned in kind. What matters is whether the leadership's official actions -- and by extension, the actions of the state of Texas -- serve to reinforce or aggravate racial disparities in the state and to marginalize the votes and interests of minority voters.

Justice or Just Us?

Those are the questions before the federal court in Laredo. The Democrats are arguing that by taking up redistricting in a nondecennial year, and by abandoning the Senate's traditional two-thirds rule to get it done, the Republicans are arbitrarily imposing a new voting "standard, practice or procedure" as those terms are used in the federal Voting Rights Act. Put more simply, as the VRA is written, the dominant party can't "change the rules in the middle of the game." Imposing fines and sanctions on the minority representatives only compounds the violation. "Under current circumstances," the Democrats told the court, "to compel the senators to attend the special session and be 'present' there so that a quorum exists would be tantamount to compelling the senators to vote [for redistricting]."

Maybe it will take minority senators returned in handcuffs to the Capitol to convince some people that redistricting is a civil rights issue. Last week, the same Republicans who insist that the rule changes do not require VRA "preclearance" from the U.S. Department of Justice privately asked the DOJ for an expedited preclearance. (The feds on Tuesday said this wasn't necessary.) The Democratic senators are well aware that in recent years the federal courts no longer have invariably championed voting rights, and that the path through Attorney General John Ashcroft's Justice Department may be anything but straight. "The Justice Department can also change the rules," said Sen. Royce West, D-Dallas, in the first week of exile. "I repeat: The Justice Department can also change the rules." end story

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David Dewhurst, Henry Bonilla, 78th Legislature, League of United Latin American Citizens, LULAC, Juan Hinojosa, McAllen Monitor, Juan Maldonado, Ted Royer, Voting Rights Act, Royce West, Dept. of Justice, John Ashcroft

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