The Austin Chronicle

Cracking Austin Democracy

By Lee Nichols, July 30, 2004, News

Unless you rolled into Texas just last week, you're probably well-versed in the "re-redistricting" controversy of 2003. We'll recap briefly here, to set the scene for the congressional dismemberment of Austin addressed by "The Dark Horses."

After a long siege, in the 2002 election the Republicans gained control of the Texas Legislature for the first time since Reconstruction. Since the Legislature initiates congressional redistricting, U.S. Rep. and House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, R-Sugar Land, was determined to also bring the state's congressional delegation under GOP domination.

In legal theory, DeLay had missed his chance in 2001, when a Lege deadlocked by GOP hard-liners punted the decennial task to the federal courts. But the Bug Man didn't feel like waiting another eight years for the next census, so he hatched a plan with Gov. Rick Perry, Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst, and Speaker of the Texas House Tom Craddick to do something unprecedented in absence of a court order – another round of congressional redistricting.

Despite more than 90% opposition from those who testified before redistricting committees, including a majority of Republican witnesses – and a fierce public, interstate fight from Democrats – the plan was strong-armed through the Lege and rubber-stamped by the courts. In a personal DeLay touch, this re-redistricting specifically targeted incumbents, unlike the 1991 gerrymandering committed by Democrats. DeLay was especially committed to pushing white male Democrats out of his Congress, in order to leave the Texas Democratic Party identified as a literally "minority" party.

While the new map hit hardest at rural, conservative Democrats in East and Southeast Texas, the liberal Lloyd Doggett of Austin and the moderate Chet Edwards of Waco were also high on DeLay's hit list.

Doggett's CD 10 – basically, Austin and eastern Travis County – was ripped into three parts. The northeastern part moved into the new 10, which now meanders to the northwest Houston suburbs. The western side was cut into sharply by the redesigned CD 21, which remains anchored in the northern San Antonio suburbs, incumbent Republican Lamar Smith's base. And the southeast section, the most grotesque slice of all, now belongs to the new CD 25, a long, twisting snake that wiggles its way literally to Mexico.

Edwards' CD 11 was similarly ripped asunder, and much of his loyal constituency – in this case, the Fort Hood area – was taken away from the Waco Democratic incumbent and moved into Republican incumbent John Carter's new 31, which now stretches from Williamson, Milam, Robertson counties, around Waco and up to Erath Co., southwest of Fort Worth.

DeLay's script was conceived thusly: Doggett and Edwards would be forced into retirement; CD 25 would be by a Hispanic Democrat from the Rio Grande Valley; the new 21 and 31 would be easily won by incumbent Republicans Lamar Smith of San Antonio and John Carter of Round Rock; 10 would also go Republican, possibly to one of DeLay's suburban Harris County neighbors – and lefty Austin would stand alone among Texas municipalities without a truly representative voice in the federal government.

Slight revisions have been made to DeLay's fantasy – Doggett moved across town and won the Dem nomination in CD 25 and will almost certainly stay in D.C., and Edwards decided to fight for the new CD 17 against state Rep. (and rabid right-winger) Arlene Wohlgemuth. But the conventional wisdom says things are mostly on track for DeLay: CD 10's Republican nomination went to Austinite Michael McCaul, a committed George W. Bush foot soldier, and a betting man wouldn't lay odds against him, Carter, or Lamar Smith.

It is within this new, radically reformulated Republican universe that the neophyte Central Texas Democratic challengers have taken up the challenge – and they'll need every vote, and every bit of luck, they can get.

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