The Austin Chronicle

The Shape of Things to Come

By Lee Nichols, April 15, 2011, News

The redistricting of Texas political districts, required after every federal census, is finally starting to take shape. In fact, it has thus far taken at least 15 shapes, and now work is beginning on another 36 shapes.

The former is the number of State Board of Education districts that must be reconfigured to meet 2010 census population data, and the latter is the number of congression­al districts Texas will have beginning in 2012, up by four seats from the current number. After that, the House will draw new lines for its 150 seats and the Senate for its 31.

The drawing of these boundaries greatly concerns the politically interested citizens of Austin. As you may recall, our Democratic-leaning city was a major target for Repub­lic­ans back in 2003 when then-House major­ity leader and now convicted felon Tom DeLay pushed the Legislature into an unprecedented mid-decade re-redistricting in order to elect more Republicans to Cong­ress. He particularly targeted Rep. Lloyd Dog­gett, tearing Doggett's formerly compact District 10 to shreds and chopping up Austin among three districts – requiring some absolutely absurd configurations – and leaving most Austinites under Republican representation. (Doggett himself survived, moving into and getting elected to the new District 25.)

Last week, a delegation of Austinites, including state Rep. Dawnna Dukes, former Mayor Gus Garcia, and current City Council Member Sheryl Cole, pleaded with the House Committee on Redistricting to undo DeLay's handiwork. "I'm here to advocate for the reunification of Travis County," Dukes told the committee.

Other constituencies testified before the committee in defense of their interests. Latino and African-American groups and leaders urged committee members to be mindful of the requirements of the Voting Rights Act, and even some Republicans who have found themselves lumped into Democratic districts urged that they be drawn into more conservative ones. Some Hispanic and Dem­o­cratic activists have urged that, because of explosive growth in the state's Latino population, possibly all four of the new congression­al districts be drawn as "Hispanic opportunity districts" – which, under the VRA, doesn't necessarily mean that a Hispanic would be elected but that the person elected most likely would reflect the preferences of Latino voters.

Those goals could put Austinites and state Latino groups at odds. The Mexican Amer­ican Legal Defense and Education Fund proposed a couple of maps limited to drawing just nine Hispanic opportunity districts. One of those would have a district running from southeast Travis County (currently part of Doggett's District 25), down the east side of I-35, and into east and south Bexar County. The other MALDEF map did not include Travis County.

The proposed map likely to make Austin­ites happiest was one endorsed by, ironically enough, a group that has some tea party support. (No legislators have yet submitted their own maps.) A map labeled in the state's database as Plan C106 was drawn up by longtime redistricting activist A.J. Pate, a retired certified public accountant from Houston, and received enthusiastic support from Texans for Redistricting Reform. While the group apparently has the support of the King Street Patriots – who were accused of intimidating minority voters in Houston during the 2010 elections – a cursory look at the map seems to support Pate's contention that he drew it by trying to lump together "communities of interest," including cities, counties, and recognized neighborhoods. The districts are certainly more compact and sensible than many current ones. (Pate, by the way, identifies himself as a conservative Republican but says he is not a KSP member. Rather than try to help elect conservatives, he says his map-drawing is "incumbent neutral.")

At least one Democrat seemed to like the product. "It appears just by taking an approach focused on communities of interest, you yourself have drawn nine Hispanic districts, the same number that MALDEF has drawn, and you didn't go about trying to draw Hispanic districts," said Rep. Mike Villar­re­al, D-San Antonio. "This has been eye-opening. It confirms that it is possible to take two different folks, one that is trying to draw the minimum required under the Voting Rights Act and your approach, [and] ... you've both come to the same conclusion."

While Travis County has grown too populous to be contained entirely within a single district, Pate did propose a District 10 that would contain most of Austin (and presumably would favor Doggett). Far North Austin and Pflugerville would be drawn into Congressman John Carter's District 31, presumably pleasing suburban voters who may feel they have more in common with Williamson County. West Travis would still be in District 21, although possibly no longer represented by Congressman Lamar Smith, as San Antonio would no longer be included.

That latter point is what will keep Pate's map from being summarily adopted. Repub­lican congressmen will advocate to keep themselves in districts favoring their re-elections – but Pate said he drew the maps without regard for partisan data or incumbents' residences. "The districts belong to the people of Texas," he said. "They don't belong to the incumbents."

"But what if the people that live in those districts want to have that person that they think has been representing them well and they no longer can because they have been put in a completely different district?" asked state Rep. Larry Phillips, R-Sherman.

Texans can see these and other proposed maps (including the SBOE one) at the Texas Legislative Council's website, They can also get training on the state's software to draw their maps by contacting the TLC.

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