Point Austin: Primary Lessons
Doggett win bracing in an otherwise gerrymandered day
"It's been a wonderful day."
That was the brief summation offered by longtime and re-elected (sort of) Austin Democratic Congressman Lloyd Doggett at about 11pm Tuesday night, after he happily faced a battery of TV cameras in San Antonio and drove straight up the highway to face another battery of cameras, among a tightly packed and sweltering crowd of celebrating supporters at his East Seventh Street campaign headquarters. I say "sort of" not only because he will face a Republican opponent in November (former San Marcos Mayor Susan Narvaiz), but because the redistricting wars have had him jumping from neighborhood to neighborhood to adjust to the redrawn Travis County districts designed by the GOP mapmakers to write him out of Congress. So his recent "re-elections" have also been based on new campaigns, to new constituents, and to the perplexity of old ones – standing in line to vote in Windsor Park, in what is now CD 25, I met yet another voter who presumed he was going to vote for Doggett, "like always" – surprised to discover he was no longer in Doggett's district.
The odyssey's not done, of course. Since the maps used in the primaries are still conditional and under court appeal, Doggett doesn't even know yet where to move to be "in his district." His Austin campaign headquarters, in the 1700 block of East Seventh, is in the new CD 35, and looks directly across the street to Huston-Tillotson University – which is not in CD 35. Neither is Doggett's homestead, up the block past the university – and until the courts rule on or direct the final district lines, he and his family can't determine where to live next.
That's the personally absurd aspect of the redistricting wars, but of course at its heart is the Republican attempt to undermine the very notion of representation, at least as it concerns the citizens of Travis County. "We've told Rick Perry we can pick our own member of Congress," Doggett told the cheering crowd. Despite GOP claims to the contrary, he noted that redistricting is not just about partisanship, but also about "communities of interest" – and the need for elected officials to be "accessible and accountable" to their constituents.
It's worth recalling that despite Doggett's well-earned victory – featuring a remarkable 93% of Travis County votes, reflecting the depth of his local support – no matter what finally happens in November, some 79% of Travis County citizens will be "represented" by Republican congressmen, based elsewhere, who share little or nothing in common with most of their Central Texas constituents. "Our values are at stake," Doggett told the crowd. "They don't want to protect our retirement security, they want to cut even very popular social-service programs like Meals on Wheels, and they have no interest in reducing student debt."
Later, Doggett talked with me about the consequences of that disenfranchisement, in which four-fifths of the district will have little substantive recourse in appealing to their representatives who will be, as a matter of course and principle, anti-immigrant, anti-environmentalist, anti-choice. And Doggett himself will have stretched, if not divided, loyalties, representing a district distorted into a barbell with Travis on one end and Bexar on the other. "I will still consider myself to be serving all of this community," he said, "but my constituents will have to understand that I have to serve all of CD 35 at the same time."
Congressman by Proxy
While we waited for the nominee to arrive, Mayor Pro Tem Sheryl Cole reminded me how much Doggett had done for education generally and Huston-Tillotson in particular, and neither of us expects that support will end simply because partisan mapmakers drew Huston-Tillotson out of Doggett's district. But those lines are simply a microcosm of what's happened all over the state, as a mostly Anglo GOP has tried to hold on to Texas political dominance by packing minority voters into single districts (as is true of CD 35) and drawing jigsaw Republican districts to enable widely separated populations (North Austin and northwest Houston, or North Austin and southeast Fort Worth) to determine our congressional representation. Does anybody really believe that either corporate used-car salesman Roger Williams or rabid tea partier Wes Riddle – the GOP run-off candidates in CD 25 – will be much interested in the problems or opinions of their Northeast Austin constituents? Or that Lamar Smith, when he disposes of his token Dem opponent in CD 21, will be any more responsive to Austin-based concerns than he's shown in the past? Or be any more restrained in his attacks on immigrants?
After November, when we contact a congressman, those of us who now live outside CD 35 will more than likely make sure we at least copy Congressman Doggett on the correspondence. I guess we can point to that 93% Travis County support to suggest he owes us a little bit of thanks. "Ninety-three percent of the home folks," he noted, "is pretty good." Should the courts rule in our favor, maybe at least a few more Austinites can hope to be represented by someone who shares our democratic values.