Painting by Numbers
It's redistricting time again! Wherein we recall how we got here ... and contemplate the baleful map-drawing future.
With all due respect to the restaurant chain's kitchen staff, it seems highly unlikely that anyone in Austin right now is thinking, "Damn, I wish I could go eat at the Denny's in Ardmore, Oklahoma."
Before this session of the Texas Legislature ends, however, there could be at least 49 people under the Capitol dome wishing very much that such a road trip were an option. That's the number of House Democrats currently serving in the 82nd session of the Lege – an almost completely powerless minority of the 150-member body. It's not even enough to break the quorum – the tactic used by the House Dems the last time Lone Star lawmakers took up the hot-button chore of redistricting. The Dems fled the state to Ardmore (and later, from the Senate, to Albuquerque, N.M.).
The decade has turned, so it's time once again to take up redistricting. As always, the process will be contentious, but this time, there's little that Texas Dems can do to halt the Republican railroad – if a hero comes to their rescue, he or she will have to ride in from Washington, D.C.
And once again, Austin could be the epicenter of the fight – both literally, under the Capitol dome, and figuratively, on the maps. Our blue island in the red ocean of Texas was a target last time around, and for the Republicans, sticking it to the state's most liberal city never gets old.
|District||2009 ACS |
*Deviation from the ideal district size of 701,901 per 36 districts, calculated with inclusion of overseas/out-of-state Texans.
The Census Bureau has determined that, in order to adhere as closely as possible to the notion of one person, one vote, Texas' population growth necessitates that the Lone Star State expand from 32 congressional districts to 36.
The bureau has determined that the ideal size of each of the 36 districts would be 701,901 residents, and the chart above shows how much the population of each of the current 32 districts deviates from that ideal (the bolded districts are those that contain parts of Austin). Based on this, we can get an idea of which areas will be most heavily impacted – of the 10 most overpopulated districts, four represent Austin and another four represent the northern Dallas-Fort Worth area, so those would be good candidates to cram in to the four new districts. The most overpopulated is Michael McCaul's District 10, which runs from West Lake Hills, through North Austin, and east to suburban Houston, and the population growth likely came from both ends of that district. Clearly District 10, and likely other area districts, will have to give away some ground.
A big disclaimer about these numbers: They are flawed because they mix two different sets of data. The population numbers per district come not from the 2010 Census (a full breakdown of which has not been released yet; it should arrive as early as mid-February), but from the Census Bureau's 2009 American Community Survey estimates. Most likely, the 2010 population numbers will be slightly higher. Meanwhile, the ideal district size does come from the 2010 total Texas population.
How did we get here?
Texas redistricting in the past decade (or two, depending on your perspective) has an ugly history. If you're new to Travis County – and according to the U.S. Census Bureau and the State Data Center, about 200,000 of you are – you might find useful a retrospective of what went down back in 2001 and 2003, and why the bad blood and political repercussions still linger.
In theory, redistricting – the periodic redrawing of political boundaries within each state to equalize representation – ought to be simple. In practice, it's a complex task through which politicians and political parties try to preserve their power while simultaneously avoiding running afoul of the Voting Rights Act – which in states with historical patterns of discrimination (e.g., Texas) forbids drawing districts that will weaken the electoral strength of racial minorities.
This is normally accomplished every 10 years after Census data is released, and the lines were duly redrawn in 2001, albeit by a court after the Lege failed to agree on any maps. But in 2003, then-U.S. House Majority Leader Tom DeLay decided Texas' congressional districts needed more redistricting – an unprecedented maneuver – and he convinced GOP Lege leaders to accommodate him. It was the second stage of a plot that recently earned him a prison sentence – stage one (the illegal part) involved laundering corporate money through a political action committee and funneling it to legislative candidates in 2002, which gave the GOP the majority in the House and made the 2003 re-redistricting possible.
DeLay's beef was that, although the state mostly voted Republican in statewide races, the Texas congressional delegation leaned Democratic, 17-15. He wanted districts redrawn to increase the number of Republicans in Congress. Election results indeed reflected that in several Texas districts, majorities voted for Bush – but they also preferred their (usually conservative) Democratic congressmen. (Polls also showed that most Texans of either party regarded re-redistricting as a waste of time.)
The process quickly turned nasty. For example, a major target of DeLay's line-drawing was white Democrats, to polarize the parties racially. As University of Texas adjunct law professor Steve Bickerstaff put it in his book Lines in the Sand: Congressional Redistricting in Texas and the Downfall of Tom DeLay, the long-term Republican strategy was "to marginalize the Democrats as a party exclusively for losers, liberals, and racial minorities." Conservative Democrats had to be forced either out of Congress or into the Republican fold – GOP ideologue Grover Norquist infamously declared, "no Texan need grow up thinking that being a Democrat is acceptable behavior."
Heavily outnumbered, House Democrats decided the only way to kill the re-redistricting was to break quorum, a move that required 51 of them to leave not only the floor but also the state, or at least the clutches of Texas law enforcement. As then-Speaker Tom Craddick attempted to force their return, 47 Dems secretly boarded a chartered bus and slipped away at night to Ardmore; six more simply disappeared for four days until Craddick relented and dropped the redistricting bill.
The tactic worked initially but ultimately proved to be in vain. Gov. Rick Perry called a special session to continue redistricting; House Dems decided another walkout was politically untenable, so the fight shifted to the Senate. Democrats, with the help of moderate Republican Bill Ratliff, used Senate rules to kill it again, so Perry called yet another special session. This time, 11 of the 12 Democratic senators went to Albuquerque, for more than a month, until frustrated Houston Sen. John Whitmire declared there was no effective "endgame" and returned.
The resulting map was politically devastating to Democrats generally, but to Austin in particular. Previously, most of liberal Austin had been contained in Lloyd Doggett's compact District 10, comprising the eastern half of Travis County, while the western (and more conservative) half happily fell into the District 21 of San Antonio Republican Lamar Smith. The GOP sought to neuter Travis County by chopping it into three pieces. Smith's district was pulled deeper into West Austin. District 10's compactness (an official goal of redistricting) was abandoned for a monstrosity that reached from West Lake Hills, through north Travis, and all the way to the suburbs of Houston. And that was nothing compared to the new District 25, a freakish thing that stretched from southeast Travis to the border of Mexico and was derisively nicknamed "the fajita strip."
The intention was to force Doggett from Congress – Districts 21 and 10 would be too conservative for him to win, while Republicans hoped District 25 would be too Hispanic to elect an Anglo. Doggett moved to East Austin and won District 25 in 2004 anyway. In 2006, the U.S. Supreme Court said District 23 in South Texas violated the Voting Rights Act, forcing the redrawing of the adjacent District 25 to its current configuration: still anchored in southeast Travis but now including several Central Texas rural counties and no longer reaching to the Rio Grande.
The new boundaries still accomplished the other GOP goals. Despite Austin consistently voting Democratic, no one has seriously challenged Republican Michael McCaul's grip on District 10 since he first won election in 2004. Statewide, the GOP took a 21-11 majority (including party-switcher Ralph Hall in the northwest Dallas suburbs). November's backlash against Obama bumped that up to 23-9.
Same Politics, More People
In 2011, Texas isn't that different politically than it was in 2003: Rick Perry remains governor, and the statewide officeholders all Republican; the GOP still holds about the same number of Senate seats and is much stronger in the House.
On the other hand, the Texas population has changed quite a bit. Already the second-most-populous state behind California, we've grown another 20.6%. Since Congress is limited to 435 members and Texas added more population than any other state by far, that means seats will be taken away from slower-growing states (only depression-hit Michigan actually lost population) before the 2012 election, and Texas will gain four – bringing our delegation from 32 members to 36.
The noisiest scrap likely will be over those four new seats and where to draw them in. But new lines also must be drawn for the state House, Senate, and State Board of Education, and the boundaries will be anything but static because the population has also shifted – the I-35 corridor grew tremendously, while rural West Texas barely changed.
Texas also became browner and blacker. Depending which set of numbers one uses (the state's or the Census Bureau's), around 2008-09 the Hispanic population grew by between 33% and 42% and the African-American population between 16% and 21%. The white population grew by only about 4% or 5%, and while Caucasians remain the largest single ethnic group, they no longer constitute a majority of Texans. If the minority residents continue to vote Democratic, then the question won't be if the Republicans can hold on to power but for how long. Until that changes, they'll surely try to draw lines in a way that maintains dominance for as long as possible.
All sides publicly agree that the numbers dictate at least some of those four new congressional seats be "minority opportunity districts" – districts that give racial minorities the opportunity to elect a candidate of their choice (note: not necessarily a nonwhite candidate). In fact, federal law dictates that if such a district can be created, then it must. But how many?
"I don't foresee anything at this point," says Amarillo Republican Kel Seliger, chair of the Senate Select Committee on Redistricting in the last Lege. He declined to speculate without harder numbers (the block-by-block data won't be available until at least mid-February) but said: "It wouldn't surprise me to find that it's the case that we can create two minority districts, three minority districts, [or] conversion of existing districts that are something else to minority opportunity districts. There's just no way to make some sort of empirical judgment. All we can do is allude to those numbers we know – and we know that 60 percent of the increase in Texas is Latino. That would lead us to believe right now that surely we're going to see a greater Latino presence."
San Antonio Republican Sen. Jeff Wentworth was a bit more specific. The congressional delegation's "goal, they tell me, this year, is for all the Republican and Democratic congressmen in the Texas delegation to come up with a map they can all agree on, that would protect every incumbent congressman regardless of party, and then divide the four new districts 2-2," says Sen. Wentworth. "Whether or not that actually happens remains to be seen. If it does, it will be the first time."
Two or three would not be good enough, argues Democratic consultant Matt Angle. "All four of the new Congressional districts in Texas should be used to restore minority voting strength and to reflect the growing Hispanic and African-American populations," Angle wrote in a post on the Lone Star Project, his pro-Democratic research website. "The only reason Texas is gaining any new Congressional seats is because of the high rate of growth in the Hispanic and African-American populations. ... [I]f the entire population of Texas had grown at only the rate of Anglos, then Texas would not be receiving any new Congressional seats."
As noted above, the Supreme Court ruled that the original 2003 map undermined minority voter strength, but even the court replacement doesn't remedy that, Angle wrote. "In fact, the most striking feature of the current Congressional map is not its overt partisanship, but rather its dramatic under-representation of Hispanic and African-American voting strength."
|2000 Census||2009 Estimates||Growth||% Change||% of Total Growth|
Angle reiterated that argument in an interview with the Chronicle. "All this talk about two [Democratic seats] and two [Republican], or three and one, all of that would be a map that disproportionately favors Republicans by undermining the voting strength of minorities. Any map in which Republicans net out more districts than they currently have, and quite frankly, any map that nets out more than they had before the 2010 election, would be a map that undermines the voting strength of blacks and Hispanics. It's not that it helps or hurts Democrats – it's that black and Hispanics would be harmed with those kinds of maps."
Many Democrats think this possibility would be blocked eventually by the Obama administration's Justice Department. Texas is one of several (mostly Southern) states with a history of racial discrimination that are required under the Voting Rights Act to have their plans precleared by either the Justice Department or the D.C. federal district courts. "For the first time since the 1960s, we have a Democratic Justice Department to review the lines through the Voting Rights Act," said Karl-Thomas Musselman, publisher of Dem blog the Burnt Orange Report, at a gathering of the party faithful back in November 2010. This "will make a big difference."
Other knowledgeable observers disagree and believe the Republicans won't even bother with the Justice Department and will go directly to the courts. "I think what will happen is Republicans will say [the review process] is unfair," Steve Bickerstaff told the same gathering. "If [the GOP redistricting] is aggressive, you go to the court."
Wentworth, whose district includes part of South Austin, told the Chronicle the same thing. "I don't believe it would be in Texas' interest to even go the route of trying to get precleared by the Department of Justice," Wentworth said. "We've always had the option of going to a three-judge federal court in the District of Columbia. We've never taken that route; we've always gone the preclearance route through the Voting Rights division of the DOJ. But I think that would be a waste of time in 2011, and I don't believe we're planning on doing that."
Wentworth advises avoiding the DOJ because "they're not only Democrats, they're partisan Democrats. Before, you had a professional, career Voting Rights division [staff] at the Department of Justice. Now, you have a partisan Democratic Voting Rights division. Many of us, including me, are convinced that there's not a map that we can draw that they would approve, so it's a waste of time and money." He says the Voting Rights division became more partisan "with this administration." (In 2003, Democrats leveled similar charges at the Bush DOJ, noting that the career professionals in the Voting Rights division balked at the map but were overruled by Bush political appointees and then-Attorney General John Ashcroft. As Bickerstaff noted, in 2005 The Washington Post uncovered a memo by the head of the division that supported these allegations. The Supreme Court indeed overruled one district in 2006 on VRA grounds, forcing the current map.)
There does seem to be consensus that the four new seats should be somewhere along I-35. According to a report produced by the Texas Legislative Council, an advisory body to the Lege, 57% of the decade's growth (based on the 2009 estimates) occurred along the I-35 corridor. Another 39% occurred east of that line, and only 4% in West Texas.
"I think the big controversy will be the battle between Hispanics and Republicans over several areas, in particular the area between Tarrant County and Dallas," Bickerstaff says. "The issue is whether there is a sufficient Hispanic population there now to create a Hispanic opportunity district under the Voting Rights Act. [The Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund] has wanted that for two decades now; this is the third decade. Each time the Hispanic percentage has grown but not reached the legal requirements. I think there will be considerable attention given that this time." Bickerstaff thinks a similar battle could occur in redrawing the state Senate.
"Clearly, the distribution is going to be along the I-35 corridor and the Rio Grande Valley," says Sen. Seliger. For the Valley, recent Capitol buzz has strongly suggested that Republicans will try to draw a district that could elect to Congress newly turncoat state House Republican Aaron Peña.
Another Fine Mess
So what might all this mean for Travis County? On the congressional level, could the districts get even more warped?
Bickerstaff says no. "It's already done," he says of the ultimately unsuccessful attempts to remove Doggett. "I just don't see a similar effort this time. But I also don't see them restoring Travis County to [a single district]. I think they'll keep Travis County divided, and you'll be left with McCaul, Smith, and Doggett. They'll have to balance population, but the basic structure will stay the same."
Doggett, ever wary of GOP machinations against him, is not so sure. Two of the other main white Dem targets have been picked off – Fort Worth's Martin Frost in 2004 and Waco's Chet Edwards, finally, in 2010 – and he says the GOP regards him as unfinished business. "I've had more than one person tell me that the governor and several legislators have said that any map that provides a district that would allow me to continue in Congress would not be acceptable to them," Doggett says. "About the only way they can achieve that objective ... is to split the county into more pieces. And I'm sure they're contemplating that."
On the legislative level, it seems likely that Austin Sen. Kirk Watson's District 14 – which is most of Travis County, except for the aforementioned sliver of South Austin apportioned to Wentworth – will have to shrink geographically because it's "currently overpopulated by about 90,000 to 100,000 people," says Watson. But Republicans will have to be careful how they chop. "I represent a Senate district that under the Voting Rights Act has a significant minority population, that plays a decisive role in the election of public officials," Watson says. "As a result of that, great care will have to be taken by anybody that is trying to do redistricting. We need to make sure that we protect the minority voting strength and not do anything that would cause a retrogression."
In the House, early speculation that Travis might grow from six districts to seven has largely been discounted. However, Republicans will definitely want to shuffle some voters around to recapture the western districts that they see as rightfully theirs. In 2001, when Travis grew from five districts to six, the Republican-dominated Legislative Redistricting Board (the lieutenant governor, speaker of the house, attorney general, comptroller, and land commissioner, which took over after the House failed to agree on a map) tried to make Districts 47, 48, and 50 as Republican as possible. That effort produced GOP victories in 2004, but Republican incompetence at the national level and locally eventually turned Travis all blue again.
Republicans seem to have given up on rooting Mark Strama out of District 50, but Paul Workman solidly defeated Valinda Bolton in District 47, and the GOP came within an agonizing 12 votes of defeating Donna Howard in District 48 (defeated Republican Dan Neil is still challenging the results in the House). With just a little shifting around, those votes could be found. In a conversation at the Capitol, Howard speculated that Republicans might try the old tactic of pairing incumbents, moving her residence into Strama's district.
It's a battle that could get ugly, and one of which Wentworth is weary, even with his party now firmly in power. Known as one of the less partisan of statehouse Republicans – which has drawn him primary challenges in the past – he has long advocated for doing things differently.
"I'm not very optimistic that we'll do anything different in 2011 than we did in 2001," he says, noting that the LRB gets legal control over the process if the Lege fails, and the LRB would now be all-Republican. "For partisan Republicans in the majority ... there's not a lot of incentive to sit down and work out a fair map with the Democratic minority, when they know if they just do nothing and adjourn [at the beginning of June], five Republicans will draw the map, and they can be more partisan than the Legislature.
"I had always hoped when the Democrats were drawing maps to the disadvantage of Republicans, that when we got in power, we would be principled and fair," Wentworth continues. "And we have not been. The U.S. Supreme Court has said we haven't. And that's why I have tried since 1993 to have this responsibility transferred to an evenly divided body of citizens who don't have a personal stake or personal interest outside the public interest ....
"It's pretty certain it will be another mess," he says. "Neither party handles this well."
Based on 2000 Census numbers and 2009 state estimates, Texas' population probably grew by more than 4 million people in the past decade. Somewhere around 70% of those new residents were Hispanic. Exact numbers for 2010 should be released in mid-February.