Riding the Pinwheel
The GOP redraws the map of Texas – brazenly sidestepping most of the state's newest voters
Outside a committee hearing room during the 82nd Texas Legislature, I ran into Austin political consultant (and staunch Democrat) Alfred Stanley. He was waiting to testify against a really bad state Senate redistricting map that would unnecessarily carve up Travis County four ways.
"Are you here to ask for a five-way split?" I joked. Equally tongue in cheek, Stanley replied, "I'm going to suggest a 31-way split, with every district converging on the Capitol rotunda like a giant pinwheel."
"Shhh," I chided. "The Republicans might hear you. You'll give them ideas."
As it turned out, the GOP map drawers might have heard me, instead. While they stuck with four in the Senate plan, in their U.S. congressional map they did in fact carve up Travis five ways. And the districts, as they splay out from Austin and reach out to other parts of the state, do indeed resemble a pinwheel. If it would have served their purposes and senses of humor, one suspects the Republicans might have drawn Travis' districts in concentric circles – to better resemble a target. Because for them, that's exactly what we are.
So is one of our congressional representatives, Lloyd Doggett. And this isn't his first go-round in Republican crosshairs – the infamous re-redistricting of 2003 was partly designed to boot the Democrat from office, which was ultimately unsuccessful. This time around, the map drawers have effectively taken Doggett's district away from him and will require him to move into a new one if he wants to continue his tenure in Washington. And once again, they've gotten more imaginative than ever in taking away Austin's congressional voice.
Whether their craftiness actually bears fruit will be determined soon in federal court, in both Washington, D.C., and San Antonio. In those decisions, Texans will find out not only where map lines fall but also just how far the boundaries of race and partisanship can reach.
Slicing and Dicing
When the 2010 census results were announced, Texas received some good electoral news. Our exploding population meant Texas' allotment of congressional seats would expand from 32 to 36. That means more power in Congress and a bigger chunk of the Electoral College in presidential elections.
Immediately, of course, everyone involved in Texas politics wanted to make sure those four extra seats benefited them. The growth had been driven almost exclusively by racial minorities, especially Hispanics. Latino advocacy groups insisted that all four new seats should go to create Hispanic opportunity districts as defined under the federal Voting Rights Act – districts in which Latinos would have a high probability of electing the candidate of their choice. (It's worth emphasizing that the VRA choice is about voters, not candidates: the "candidate of the voters' choice," not necessarily a Hispanic candidate.)
Politically involved Austinites, the Democratic majority at least, had their own, partially conflicting aims. They hoped that the GOP would finally abandon its attempts to oust Doggett and that the city would return to being mostly united in a single district. Many Austinites testified to that effect in redistricting hearings. Both of those hopes proved entirely in vain. Republicans had other thoughts on what to do with the four new seats: namely, to use them, as far as the law would allow, to preserve and extend Republican power for as long as possible against the demographic tide. Depending on which analysis of the new map one uses, Hispanics gained somewhere between little and nothing – perhaps even lost ground. As for Austin? Four additional seats only provided Republicans more tools for vivisection.
Most disturbing for Travis County residents: Not one of its five districts would actually be anchored in Travis under the current map, known as Plan C185. Local voters would be the minority in each of them: minorities ranging from 35% of the district population in District 10, down to 19% in District 17. This creates the theoretical possibility that no Austin resident would be in the U.S. House. (A very strong possibility if rumors that District 10 incumbent and West Austin resident Michael McCaul is considering a run for U.S. Senate prove true. And even with McCaul in the house, the Republican reflects typical Austin political sentiment about as poorly as Rick Perry.)
As seen in the above map, Doggett's district was essentially yanked from underneath him – his residence remains in the new District 25, but rather than running east and picking up large numbers of Hispanics and African-Americans, it now runs west, then far north through Burnet and Lampasas counties, finally stopping at Burleson in southern Tarrant County. (To give some context, that's the Burleson that former archconservative state Rep. Arlene Wohlgemuth calls home.) Former Railroad Commissioner Michael Williams recently announced he'll run for that seat. If the courts uphold the new District 25, it will be one in which 74% of the voting-age population is Anglo and in which 55% voted for Rick Perry in 2010. In 2008, despite the huge nationwide dissatisfaction with George W. Bush, these voters went 69% for John McCain over Barack Obama.
Three of the other four districts are similarly Republican: District 21 runs from Southwest Austin out to Kerrville and northern San Antonio, and conservative incumbent Lamar Smith is firmly entrenched; District 10, where no Democrat has ever come close to knocking off McCaul, would be fairly similar to its current boundaries, reaching from Northwest Austin to suburban Houston; District 17 takes in far North Austin and Pflugerville before reaching into rural Central Texas and Waco.
That essentially leaves Doggett with only one option: the blatantly gerrymandered District 35, which takes in much of Doggett's old southeast Travis County constituency (excluding his house) before reaching a long, skinny finger down I-35 to east and central San Antonio, where it is now anchored. It is, unquestionably, a district that would vote Democratic – Bill White took 60% here against Perry for governor in 2010. But here's the catch: 58% of its voters are Hispanic. It was drawn to meet requirements of the Voting Rights Act and create one of the aforementioned Hispanic opportunity districts. That doesn't mean Doggett can't win – this isn't his first rodeo. In the 2003 re-redistricting, a skinny, absurdly shaped District 25 was drawn, stretching from southeast Travis to the Mexican border, under the presumption it would be too Hispanic to elect him. Instead, he easily defeated a Latina challenger from the Rio Grande Valley in the 2004 Democratic primary, and he's still in Congress. (In 2006, the adjacent District 23 was ruled illegal by the Supreme Court, forcing District 25 to be changed to its current configuration, still including southeast Travis but only reaching into several south-central rural counties.)
But this time for Doggett, there's a difference. Then, he was an experienced incumbent against a low-profile former district judge. Now, he's getting a challenge from San Antonio state Rep. Joaquin Castro, a 36-year-old Democratic star on the rise with great name recognition in San Antonio – his twin brother, Julián, is mayor. Despite Doggett's huge campaign war chest, political observers are calling Doggett the underdog. "Castro should win, all other things being equal," says local Democratic strategist Harold Cook. "But never count out Lloyd Doggett. If an Anglo Democrat can win this race, it's Lloyd Doggett."
War of the Maps
But this episode of Texas politics won't necessarily become the "Castro vs. Doggett" story. Not yet. First, we have to find out if that race will even happen.
Half a dozen lawsuits over redistricting have been consolidated into a single case in San Antonio, and the city of Austin and Travis County are parties to one of them. The case is scheduled to be heard by a three-judge panel of the U.S. District Court (Western District of Texas) on Sept. 6. All six charge that Texas' redistricting maps – not just the U.S. congressional maps but those for the state Senate, House, and Board of Education – violate the voting rights of minorities statewide.
That's the greater context of this whole discussion. Austinites may be upset that the current map divides us too many ways, but if the map is overturned, it's likely to be because of what it does to minorities elsewhere in the state – among the many plaintiffs are the Mexican American Legislative Caucus, the Texas Latino Redistricting Task Force, and African-American state Reps. Harold Dutton of Houston and Marc Veasey of Dallas.
Also, there is action in Washington, D.C. Texas is one of several jurisdictions, mostly Southern states, that under the Voting Rights Act must get "preclearance" from either the Justice Department or federal court before it makes any changes to election laws, including redistricting. Fearing it wouldn't get a fair deal from the Obama administration, the state Attorney General's Office went straight to the Washington, D.C., court for the preclearance, asserting in its filing that the plan "does not retrogress racial or language minorities' ability to effectively exercise their electoral franchise." The D.C. court will likely not rule until the fall, which caused some (but not all) of the San Antonio plaintiffs to request a delay in their case. The A.G.'s Office declined to comment for this article, but its filing says that the new congressional map maintains seven Hispanic opportunity districts and creates a new one and that it has three districts with significant black populations.
Democrats and minority advocates question at least one of the supposed opportunity districts and say the state at best is maintaining the status quo or maybe even reducing opportunity districts by one. When there are four new Texas seats available, that isn't sufficient, they say. Of that population growth that produced the four seats, 65% came from Latinos and 89% came from non-Anglos; in that context, Plan C185 appears to result in a substantial retrogression of minority voting strength.
We are "a state that gained four seats and gained them only because of blacks and Hispanics. If the entire state had grown only at the rate of Anglos, Texas would not have gotten a single new seat and we might have lost a seat. Given that scenario, then the Republicans not only draw four additional Anglo, Republican-controlled districts, but they add another one, too," says another Democratic strategist, Matt Angle of the Lone Star Project. "We go from 11 districts where minorities have the opportunity to elect the candidate of their choice to only 10. That itself kind of defines statewide retrogression."
Dems, along with the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund, banged the drum loudly for a Hispanic opportunity district in the Dallas-Fort Worth area. "There's a pent-up concentration of Hispanics that clearly warrants" such a district, Angle says. The state argues that the results were unavoidable, that more districts simply couldn't be found, including that desired DFW district. "No plans were publicly submitted for consideration that successfully created a compact Hispanic-majority district for Dallas/Fort Worth," the state counters in its D.C. filing. "The Hispanic population in the region is too scattered to accommodate a compact district. Additionally, the area's Hispanic population suffers from low citizenship numbers and low voter registration."
Poppycock, say the state's opponents. MALDEF attorney Nina Perales pointed to a map her organization drew up, and Veasey drew a map he calls the Fair Texas Plan, both of which have a district that snakes through the cores of Fort Worth and Dallas to pull together the Hispanic vote. MALDEF's district includes 64% of the Hispanic voting age population, while Veasey's reaches 66%.
Admittedly, both districts have the spiderlike appearance that makes some anti-gerrymandering advocates cringe, but at least one of those advocates – redistricting gadfly A.J. Pate – drew a very un-gerrymandered map with a Dallas County district that is 64% Hispanic and a Tarrant/Dallas district that is a combined 74% minority. In any case, Angle says compactness doesn't necessarily mean prettiness – what's important is pulling together a "community of interest" under the VRA, and in this case, that's Metroplex Hispanics. "We're not talking about a district going to Waco or Houston; it's all in Dallas-Fort Worth." Angle also points out that plenty of the districts that Republicans came up with to divide minorities look just as bad.
Maybe the problem is that Republicans weren't looking hard enough, says Cook. "When the state says, 'We ran out of Hispanic households,' what they mean is, 'After dividing up Democrats and Hispanics and African-Americans such that we made sure all of our [Republican] incumbents would win and made sure the Democrats wouldn't get any more seats, then we couldn't find any more Hispanics after that.'" The Republicans essentially admit as much, although indirectly. In an April 26 press release regarding the Texas House redistricting map, House Redistricting Committee Chair Burt Solomons trumpets the support his map received from conservative groups, quoting Texans for Lawsuit Reform as saying, "Our judgment is that alternative statewide maps that have been proffered publicly recently are not likely to result in sustainable conservative majorities."
Crossing the Lines
Part of the discrepancy between the state's numbers and Angle's is that he and other Dems assert that Austin and eastern Travis County constitute a "minority-coalition district" – one where Hispanics and blacks are not in sufficient numbers to elect candidates of their choice on their own, but where they could elect their candidates by forming coalitions either with each other or with like-minded whites.
That's a point that Austinites, especially elected officials, hammered on – to no avail – in this spring's redistricting hearings. Unlike the rest of the state – where white typically means Republican and nonwhite means Democrat – heavily Democratic Austin has been different. Numerous countywide or citywide elected officials are black or Hispanic, such as Travis County Judge Sam Biscoe or former Mayor Gus Garcia, or current City Council members Sheryl Cole and Mike Martinez; all four of those officials, along with many others, have spoken out against the GOP redistricting. Also, that same coalition has come together to elect whites such as Doggett and state Sen. Kirk Watson. Bringing this contention to life, during redistricting hearings African-American state Rep. Dawnna Dukes testified that, shortly after first being elected, she rode horseback in a Juneteenth parade with Doggett, and "All the African-Americans and Hispanics kept screaming: 'Congressman Doggett! Congressman Doggett!'" She laughed, "I wanted to knock him off that horse."
Perales of MALDEF, for her part, disagrees. "With the exception of one recent primary election (Land Commissioner Hector Uribe) non-Latinos in Travis County do not provide the majority of their support to Latino-preferred candidates in the Democratic primary," she said in an email. Perales also says that MALDEF does not object to the new District 35, although it opposes the statewide map as a whole. "It is legal and acceptable to our clients," she writes (MALDEF is actually a law firm representing some of the plaintiffs). In fact, MALDEF's map proposed a similar – if not quite as strained in its gerrymandering – Austin-to-San Antonio district that "is required by the federal Voting Rights Act of 1965," according to Perales.
Indeed, if District 35 ends up getting changed, it probably will be because other, adjacent districts have to be changed. "I kind of doubt 35 is illegal," says Cook, "but if others are illegal, it creates a domino effect."
Nonetheless, Rodriguez v. Perry – the suit filed by Austin state Rep. Eddie Rodriguez and others, including the city and county – will argue that the coalition district was illegally divided. Renea Hicks, one of the Rodriguez attorneys, says the case will hinge on a passage written by Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy in a 2009 redistricting decision. In Bartlett v. Strickland, the state of North Carolina argued that it was necessary to create a coalition district in order to comply with the Voting Rights Act, even though it meant violating a state law forbidding districts that divide counties. The court ruled against North Carolina, basically saying that the VRA's protections for minorities do not extend to the right to form coalitions and thus did not require creation of coalition districts. However, Kennedy left open the question of coalition districts that already exist: "[I]f there were a showing that a State intentionally drew district lines in order to destroy otherwise effective crossover districts, that would raise serious questions under both the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments."
Hicks' burden will be to prove that intent. "The Legislature knows how Travis County works," he says. "They're familiar with voting patterns here. People testified to the House and Senate committees about it. There were maps proposed that would have maintained this area without chopping up the effective crossover district area. They were quite aware of it and decided to just run over the body, so to speak."
So stay tuned – nothing is set in stone. All of the above could completely change over the next couple of months – the boundaries, the electoral matchups, the candidates – although presumably the courts will wrap things up early enough to meet election filing deadlines. Early in the process, when it became obvious Doggett would (yet again) be drawn out of his district, he declared, "I'm ready to live in a Winnebago if that's what it takes." He should keep it gassed up.
'Fair Texas': Plan C121
This section of the "Fair Texas" congressional redistricting map proposed by state Rep. Marc Veasey, D-Fort Worth, shows that it's possible to have a Central Texas Hispanic opportunity district (District 23) and also have a district contained entirely within Travis County (District 25). Why not do it? Because District 25, even without the heavily black and Hispanic neighborhoods of Southeast and North Central Austin, would still be solidly Democratic – and Republican map drawers wanted to squeeze out as many seats as possible to create, in the words of Texans for Lawsuit Reform, "sustainable conservative majorities." (A map designed by the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund would have created a similar Austin-to-San Antonio district but did not address what to do with the remainder of the county.)
The State (and GOP) Map: Plan C185
Here's how you diminish a liberal city's voice in an otherwise conservative state. Create a congressional district (35) that runs from Austin down to central San Antonio, making it tough for the incumbent Anglo Austinite (Lloyd Doggett) to win, and mix the rest of Austin's population with conservative rural voters in districts that reach out to Houston (10), Kerrville (21), Waco (17), and most stunningly, Fort Worth (25). The result: not one single district that has Travis County as its population anchor. See chart, below.
Cutting the Coalition: Plan C185 by Ethnicity
This map shows the higher concentrations of blacks and Hispanics on the eastern side of Travis County – and how the Republicans' proposed redistricting map divides those communities into five different districts. Lawyers opposing this plan say that while a district contained entirely within the county might not have sufficient population for a Hispanic or African-American opportunity district, it could create a minority-coalition district where like-minded Latinos, blacks, and whites could elect the preferred candidate of minority voters. They argue that by intentionally splitting up this coalition, GOP map-drawers illegally diluted the voice of Travis' minority voters.
The Pate Map: Plan C106
Even the nonprofessionals showed that fair maps can be drawn without gerrymandering. Redistricting gadfly A.J. Pate drew this map, based largely on the principle of not dividing counties, cities, and neighborhoods unless absolutely necessary, and came up with a district that keeps most of Austin whole.
The redistricting section of Attorney General Greg Abbott's website, with links to documents, maps, and reams of data on both the current and proposed maps
The Texas Legislative Council's website, with just about everything one needs to know about current and past Texas redistricting, including really great interactive maps
Private, nonpartisan site run by Dallas attorney Michael Li, with daily news updates and apparently every single document filed in the two cases