Capitol Chronicle

Senators, Go to Your Rooms: First Fines, Then Probation, and Next -- Detention and Curfew?

Austin state Sen. Gonzalo Barrientos
Austin state Sen. Gonzalo Barrientos (Photo By Jana Birchum)

Racism is as racism does.

This elementary principle of moral action does not seem to have occurred to Senate Republicans, outraged as they are that anyone might even suggest that their actions in the re-redistricting controversy are tainted by any implication of racial discrimination. The latest occasion for this melodramatic defensiveness was the Sept. 18 imposition of "a state of probation" on the prodigal Texas 11. Sen. Kyle Janek, R-Houston, proposed a "motion in writing" to reaffirm the sanctions voted in August, but to suspend further execution pending any unexcused absence of 72 hours or more by those senators already sanctioned, said "probation" to expire Jan. 11, 2005. (The motion was mysteriously coy about the names of the senators under probation, perhaps finessing the problem of how to distinguish turncoat Sen. John Whitmire from the rest of his Democratic colleagues.)

Both Janek and Dewhurst suggested that the Republicans were in fact being magnanimous in not maintaining some or all of the sanctions outright -- Jeff Wentworth of San Antonio was the sole Republican to vote against the motion, precisely for that reason. So when the sanctioned Democrats (Whitmire always excepted) pointed out the obvious -- that all of the sanctions, like the congressional redistricting plans, took their direct effect on all those senators who are either themselves Hispanic or African-American or else represent majority-minority districts -- the Republican howls were long and loud. "This has nothing to do with race," said Dewhurst. "The mention of race all along has been a desperate attempt by the Democrat national party to hold on to a few seats."

Arlington Republican Chris Harris was enraged at reporters for even asking the obvious question. "I personally, and I mean this from the deepest part of my soul," Harris said, "I personally take extreme, extreme offense at that reference [to race] or even that question being raised. I am going on 14 years in this body, and I can honestly say that many of my closest friends constitute that category of senator."

Accidentally Anglo

Among "that category of senator" is Frank Madla -- who also might even be one of those anointed Friends of Harris. The San Antonio Democrat has certainly been around long enough; he hardly has a reputation as a racial firebrand; and he was the last of the Democrats to throw in his lot with the others to oppose redistricting and break the Senate quorum. But Madla didn't swallow the Republicans' pretensions to fairness.

In the aftermath of the vote for "probation" (does every Republican -- or only the 14 present for the vote -- have a tin ear when it comes to the condescending implications of that language?) it was Madla who recalled, "The last time I was treated the way we were today on the Senate floor was when I was about 6 years old when I first entered the first grade, and I was just a little Mexican boy who had his first taste of what white supremacy was like. I think what you saw on the Senate floor was just that today."

Austin's Gonzalo Barrientos was equally livid. "Is it coincidence, is it happenstance, is it luck, that this occasion has Republican Anglos punishing African-American and Mexican-American senators?" He was echoed by Laredo's Judith Zaffirini, who said, "The political impact cannot be denied. If you look at us and look at them, the difference is clear. They have created second-class senators."

Houston's Rodney Ellis recalled that this battle has a long history, and that for many years the official Texas defenders of Anglo power were not Republicans. He might have added that many of those former Texas Dixiecrats coincidentally turned Republican after segregation was finally broken and minority Texans got the vote -- the current battle persists over whether that vote will have any meaning. In matters of redistricting, Ellis said, racial issues have inevitably been part of the discussion, "especially in states that have a legacy of racial discrimination. If it hurts their feelings, tough. We've had to give these speeches when we were fighting Democrats, and now we're giving the same speeches when the people we're fighting happen to be Republicans."

San Antonio's Leticia Van de Putte summed it up concisely. "We are not second-class senators," she said, "and we do not represent second-class citizens."

The Republicans refuse to acknowledge that in punishing the representatives of minority Texans, they are disproportionately punishing those minority citizens as well. The Republican defense dodges the issue at hand -- the discriminatory effect of congressional redistricting on minority citizens -- and replaces it with the racial equivalent of, "Are you calling me a liar?" Whether a given Republican senator personally holds racist sentiments is essentially irrelevant -- what matters is whether his or her official actions result in institutionalized discrimination against minority voters.

Sen. Harris, for example, has made it clear that his personal goal in redistricting is to rid the Texas delegation of District 24 Rep. Martin Frost. The inconvenient fact is, Harris cannot accomplish his heartfelt desire without effectively disenfranchising the mostly minority citizens of District 24, who have repeatedly elected Frost to Congress, and did so again last year under the current lines. All the Republicans' personal protestations of impartiality are meaningless when their only possible means of redrawing the map in favor of the GOP is to eliminate the voting strength of millions of minority Texans.

Words and Deeds

Harris and several of his fellows left the floor Thursday rather than listen to Barrientos deliver a personal privilege speech against the sanctions, and Dewhurst dismissed Ellis' question whether the absentees should be subject to a quorum call. The lieutenant governor has occasionally suggested that senators might be barred from raising issues of "race" or "ethnicity" on the floor -- as if not talking about the subject will make it go away.

Yet some of the same senators who insist that they are above racial considerations are among those who in the past regularly kept hate crimes legislation from consideration -- by use of the very two-thirds rule now denied to minority senators. It was left to Van de Putte to note that the Republicans' 2001 legislative redistricting successfully targeted for elimination the districts of white Senate Democrats, and now the Republicans insist it is just a coincidence that the proposed congressional maps specifically target for elimination those Anglo Democrats who rely on minority voters for their margins of victory.

Coincidence, happenstance, luck? Rather, actions speaking more loudly and truly than words. end story

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78th Legislature, congressional redistricting, Kyle Janek, David Dewhurst, Chris Harris, Frank Madla, Gonzalo Barrientos, Rodney Ellis, Leticia Van de Putte, Martin Frost

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