Travis County Border Conflict Smolders On

Commissioners work precinct boundaries with politics in mind

Commissioners Sarah Eckhardt (pictured) and Ron Davis clashed over the redrawing of precinct boundaries.
Commissioners Sarah Eckhardt (pictured) and Ron Davis clashed over the redrawing of precinct boundaries. (Photo by John Anderson)

Alfred Stanley is a well-known local Dem­o­cratic activist and political consultant who's worked on campaigns for a host of area candidates, including numerous judges and former Austin mayor and now state Sen. Kirk Watson. He was also involved in the partially successful lawsuit brought to overturn Tom DeLay's re-redistricting plan the last time the Texas GOP tried to eradicate the state Democratic Party. "Alfred T. Stanley is one of the most accomplished political fund-raisers in Texas," reads the bio on his website. "For 32 years he's helped candidates surpass expectations and win in challenging districts."

Last Tuesday at the Travis County Commissioners Court, Stanley spoke in support of Precinct 1 Commissioner Ron Davis. He laid out one last minor suggestion in what has been a protracted redistricting squabble among Travis' four geographically elected representatives, setting off a minor tempest that briefly opened a window into the role of consultants in the redistricting process.

Davis had stumbled through a brief explanation of his and Stanley's latest proposal. He wisely cut that short and called directly on Stanley, a statistics wiz, to break it down for the court. Throughout the process, Stanley had been a visible aide-de-camp for Davis and played a key role in rearranging county lines. Most notably, Stanley, Davis, and Precinct 4 Commissioner Margaret Gómez brokered a deal over the hotly contested border between Gómez's district and Karen Huber's Precinct 3. As a result, Huber, who had looked to shed some of her wide geographic expanse while tinging the county's purplest precinct a bit more blue, achieved neither goal (see "New Map Poses Challenges for Huber," Sept. 2).

Stanley's influence over the redistricting process is neither new nor singular. (Austin Democratic insider Peck Young has worked on every county redistricting effort, aside from this last one, since 1973, and word has it that other political machinists were lurking in the background.) But only Stanley had sufficient gumption to show his face on county television, and, on Tuesday, after much of the map had already been set, he had the cojones to try to collect one more precinct for his client.

The new lines presented county staff with something of a reconciliation problem. Roughly 60 adjustments were still necessary to match county districts with the new boxes drawn by state officials during this past legislative session, lest tiny voting precincts dot the Travis landscape.

Commissioner Ron Davis
Commissioner Ron Davis (Photo by John Anderson)

Stanley proposed that one part of the solution would be to move a section of the Wells Branch neighborhood into Davis' Precinct 1. The precinct is 24% African-American, and with that population still dispersing, Davis has been struggling to maintain a large enough percentage to satisfy the Voting Rights Act (under which minority voters must maintain the "opportunity" to elect a candidate of their choice). Moreover, Stanley argued that population deviation numbers (between precincts) – one of the statistics used by the U.S. Depart­ment of Justice to help decide whether a redistricting effort constitutes illegal gerrymandering – would be lower with a section of Wells Branch in Davis' district. "The idea – and it's just an idea – of moving [this section] to Precinct 1 would result in a deviation in Precinct 1 and Precinct 2, populationwise, of less than .1 percent," he said.

"It struck me," he explained later, "that if we're moving population ... there's nothing that says the final result has to be in Precinct 2."

Although clearly self-interested, Stanley's proposal wasn't illogical. Indeed, Precinct 2 Commissioner Sarah Eckhardt had put up a steady argument for arranging the map in such a way as to keep population deviations to a minimum. The trouble was that, throughout the process, Wells Branch residents had been vehement about staying together in one district – and its corollary, that they should be represented by Eckhardt.

Stanley's suggestion seemed to represent something of a tipping point for Eckhardt. By Tuesday, she had already lost the entirety of Pflugerville to Davis, and in the process gained a redder chunk of Huber's district. Further, Eckhardt had been the only commissioner to offer Huber any kind of salve (in the form of sections of Downtown Austin) when Davis and Gómez stood firm on the borders of their respective precincts.

As a result, Eckhardt's deference was audibly exhausted, and her irritation came crashing down on Stanley – and, by association, on Davis. "For the record, although [that precinct] does have a high percentage of African-Americans, I have already moved a huge chunk of the African-American population from Precinct 2 to Precinct 1 in the move of the entire municipality of Pfluger­ville," she said from the dais. She emphasized the point: "We've already progressed considerably in improving the African-American percentage in Precinct 1 from the movement of an entire municipality – 50,000 people."

"My precinct has changed more than any of the other precincts in this redistricting," she added later. "The shape of my precinct is radically different from what it was a month ago. The content of my constituency is radically different. ... I would very much like to keep Wells Branch whole, and I believe that the citizens of Wells Branch ... also want to remain whole."

Later that afternoon, Stanley and (presumably) Davis decided to withdraw the proposal. "I'm not surprised by anything," said Stanley of Eckhardt's reaction. "I thought she might be pleased by it; on the other hand, I thought she might object."

Eckhardt's statement may have been informed by more than what had happened as she and her colleagues parceled out sections of the county. In May, with the commissioners court just beginning to draft the guidelines by which it would conduct this round of redistricting, Eckhardt tried and failed to remove a provision effectively intended to draw lines that would benefit incumbent commissioners. Eliminating that provision would have given outside political operatives less standing to organize new districts around single incumbents. Whether it would have hindered the partnership of Davis and Stanley remains an open question.

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KEYWORDS FOR THIS STORY

political consultants, Commissioners Court, redistricting, Alfred Stanley, Ron Davis, Sarah Eckhardt, Karen Huber

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