New Districts Set the Stage for the Politics of the 2020s

The city and state begin to show their work

Attendees review draft maps at the ICRC's public forum on Sept. 18

After a prolonged wait, the committees of lawmakers and (in Austin) extraordinary citizens in charge of redistricting have begun to show their work. The city Independent Citizens Redistricting Commission has released its preliminary map of Austin's council districts for the next decade – the first revision of the lines drawn in 2013 to inaugurate the 10-1 district system (see that map below). While the ICRC has a deadline in the City Charter of Nov. 1 to complete this work, filing for the nonpartisan City Hall offices doesn't even begin until next August. There's plenty of time!

At the Texas Capitol, the Senate Special Committee on Redistricting, chaired by Sen. Joan Huffman, R-Houston, has released its draft maps for the Senate and the State Board of Education; we're still, as of press time on Sept. 22, waiting for a draft U.S. House district map, adding two new seats gained by Texas in reapportionment, for a total of 38. Huffman's House counterpart, Rep. Todd Hunter, R-Corpus Christi, is expected to release the draft Texas House map next week.

Those last two – U.S. House and Texas House – hold the most interest for observers eager to get the 2022 campaign season started in earnest, which can still happen on schedule if the 87th Texas Legislature adopts maps by Nov. 15, which is several weeks beyond the end of this third(!) special session. Senate Bill 13, passed in the second special, allows for postponing the March 1 primaries – either to April 5 or May 24, depending on how much more time the Lege needs to get it together.

Or the courts can intervene, as often happens. There's already one federal lawsuit (whose plaintiffs include Sen. Sarah Eckhardt, D-Austin) asking that the current Lege process be halted, the courts draw new maps, and the next Lege take up redistricting at its regular session in 2023, as the Texas Constitution may require. More legal action to come has already been intimated regarding Huffman's Senate map, which is mostly designed as an incumbent protection scheme but includes some really blatant messing with both emerging and established communities of color in Texas.

Assuming the Republicans in charge of the Lege do the same with the U.S. and Texas House maps, there will be much litigating in our future, perhaps continuing long after the 2022 election cycle. Simply put, the problem for the GOP is thus: Texas grew faster than any other state, hence the two new congressional seats. All of that growth – literally 95% of it – came among Texans of color, and most of the new Texans of all colors are to be found in the state's three urban megaregions. The long Texas border region, including El Paso, where the GOP once again sees potential "faith and family" Hispanic voters, will likely lose representation in the new maps, as it simply did not grow as fast as Austin and San Antonio (and notably the counties between them), Houston and its suburbs (especially Fort Bend County), and the Metroplex. The smaller cities and rural counties that now vote 80% Republican at every election continue to shrink.

It's one thing to pretend to be race-blind when simply rebalancing a fixed number of voters and seats for partisan advantage, as both parties have done for a long time in all states and as the federal courts have allowed (some state constitutions prohibit blatant partisan gerrymandering, but not ours). It's far more dubious to claim Texas' redistricting decisions, along with all of its voting and elections laws, are race-neutral when a population gain of more than 3 million Black, Hispanic, and Asian Texans translates into no new opportunities for those communities to elect candidates of their choice, solely because those candidates would probably be Democrats. There's not much left to the federal Voting Rights Act in its current form, but that kind of mapmaking is still illegal.

The U.S. House map is the least forgiving in terms of district size; each of the 38 seats need to contain 766,987 people, plus or minus one or two. (You'll see voting precincts in Texas with one or two residents; often these were created to equalize congressional districts.) The Texas Senate is the most forgiving, allowing for a 10% range between the largest and smallest district, with no other geographical limitations. This is also the standard the ICRC is using for Austin council districts, using the existing ones as an explicit starting point for new mapmaking. Redistricting principles such as compactness and the preservation of communities of interest, cited by advocates and the courts (and the City Charter), are easier to achieve with this wiggle room.

The Texas House also allows for a 10% range from smallest to largest, but with an additional requirement that would make this game more fun if people's rights weren't at stake. Per the Texas Con­sti­tu­tion, each of the 150 House districts must either be wholly contained within one of the state's 254 counties, or contain one or more counties in their entirety. For a demonstration of how this works on the Texas House map, witness Williamson County, which contains two districts (HD 52 and HD 136) entirely within it, both including portions of the city of Austin and represented by Democrats John Bucy and James Talarico. The remainder of WilCo, which is solidly Republican, is joined with the entirety of Milam and Burnet counties.

The Texas Senate: Huffman’s Handiwork

We at your friendly neighborhood Chronicle will mostly be focused on the Central Texas portions of the new maps as they emerge from the House and Senate Redistricting Committees; trust us, the continued antidemocratic and anti-Democratic maneuvers of the Texas ruling regime writ large will get plenty of attention from other reporters, pundits, activists, and political operatives. But we'd like to call to your attention the miraculous execution of the gerrymandering dark arts crafted by Senate Redistricting Chair Joan Huffman, R-Houston, to reshape her own district, Senate District 17. What the fuck, lady? Huffman's current district is already pretty labored, scooping up random bits of western Harris County that her colleagues didn't want and then stretching down toward Brazoria; the new one is yet more attenuated within HTX but now sprawls west halfway to Austin and Corpus Christi. Chef's kiss!

The point here is to crack the booming nonwhite suburbs of Waller and Fort Bend counties, in particular, between Huffman and her SD 18 neighbor Lois Kolkhorst, R-Brenham. It's also to leave the three Houston Democrats whose districts nest within each other like Russian dolls – Borris Miles (SD 13), Carol Alvarado (SD 6), and John Whitmire (SD 15) – unmolested in safe seats packed with Dem voters. Similar business is afoot in the Metroplex, where Sen. Beverly Powell, D-Burleson, gets cracked in SD 10, exchanging Ft. Worth communities of color for the white suburbs, and her neighbor Nathan Johnson, D-Dallas, gets packed into an SD 16 that's nearly 70% non-Anglo. Both Powell and Johnson have made noises about running for lieutenant governor in 2022 instead.

Here at home in Travis County, the only place in the state where one can draw a safe Dem Senate seat that's also majority Anglo, Huffman has delivered exactly that to SD 14's Sarah Eckhardt, D-Austin, while simplifying the county's current four-way split. The majority-Latinx southeast will continue to be represented in the upper chamber by Judith Zaffirini, D-Laredo, which is basically fine with local Dems, while the white GOP boxes in the west will be consolidated for wing nut doyenne Donna Campbell, R-New Braunfels.

And what of the large chunk of the county currently within SD 24, whose incumbent, Dawn Buckingham, R-Lakeway, is running for land commissioner? Huff­man's map reconfigures that district to include none of Travis, but a big chunk of Williamson (Cedar Park and Leander), along with an arc of Hill Country real estate and all of Bell County, whose sizable communities of color can look forward to being "represented" in the Senate by Ellen Troxclair, Bucking­ham's all-but-anointed successor who only three years ago "represented" an Austin City Council district that now lies wholly outside the new SD 24.

Texas House and U.S. House: Make Room for Dems?

By the time you read this, we may already have a draft U.S. House map; while we wait for that meshuggaas, along with the Texas House map from House Redistrict­ing Chair Todd Hunter, R-Corpus Christi, we want to hip you to what, in a just and sensible world, should happen to Central Texas in these remaps, based on the 2020 census data. Right now, the five-county Austin metro area, the fastest-growing in the nation over the last decade, is split seven ways in Congress, though Rep. Michael Cloud, R-Victoria, only has about 60,000 Bastrop and Caldwell county constituents in his TX 27. Austin's One True Congressman, Democrat Lloyd Doggett, currently represents a TX 35 that's evenly split between the Austin and San Antonio metros and is more than 70% non-Anglo (mostly Hispanic). That district is only modestly (8.5%) larger than it needs to be in the new map, but Doggett will likely be gifted lots of the Democratic voters that made the last two cycles challenging for suburban GOP incumbents. Both Michael McCaul's TX 10 and John Carter's TX 31 are more than 20% overweight; Chip Roy's TX 21 just under 11%. Earlier this year, we produced a hypothetical map that would protect McCaul, Roy, and Doggett; banish Roger Williams back to North Texas; and anchor a new Dem seat in Travis County. That scenario seems less likely now but isn't off the table entirely.

While the GOP wants to pick up congressional seats through redistricting to unseat House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, the opposite dynamic may obtain the Texas House. Back in 2011, the post-tea party map that produced a 95-55 R-D split in the lower chamber was criticized by Future MAGAs who thought they deserved more. The House is now split 83-67, as those marginal suburban seats changed parties; despite the Texas Dems' failure to pick up the nine more needed to flip the House in 2020, the GOP also failed to win any of their seats back, and have few options for doing so now. Travis, Williamson, and Hays counties are each likely to gain a House seat, at the expense either of the rurals or the border. Hunter may try to rerun the 2011 playbook and crack Central Texas Dems into several marginally red districts, making incumbents Vikki Goodwin, James Talarico, and Erin Zwiener vulnerable in 2022 but almost certainly losing those seats by decade's end. The alternative would be to forge at least one bloodred new district among the three counties.

Austin City Council: From West to East

The Independent Citizens Redistricting Commission was created by the folks who brought you the 10-1 district system as the antithesis of the ugly sausage-making that had just happened at the Lege in 2011. Since 10-1 backers couldn't put proposed council district maps on the 2012 ballot, they figured (accurately) that an unimpeachable and apolitical process with many layers of protections was the next best way to seal the deal. When the ICRC convened in 2013, it started with Districts 1-4 to provide Black and Hispanic Austinites with opportunities to elect candidates of their choice; it then moved to the suburban fringe in Northwest and Southwest Austin to build Districts 6 and 8; then sketched out the central District 9; then parceled out the remainder. This time around, the new ICRC followed the City Charter's guidance to start with the existing lines and only adjust as needed. That's primarily led to a subtle shift in populations from west to east, as D6 had the most voters to lose, and D4 the most to gain to equalize at around 96,000 people each.

The biggest move relocates D6 voters on the western edge of town into D10, including River Place – the neighborhood whose white-hot rage at former CM Jimmy Flannigan translated into victory last December for his successor Mackenzie Kelly. This sets dominoes in motion that move Balcones Woods from D10 to D7, the Wooten neighborhood from D7 to D4, and the portion of Windsor Park that's currently in D1 back with the rest of the neighborhood in D4. The remaining changes of note are all to D9, which claims part but not all of the Downtown and UT blocks currently in D1, gives up blocks east of I-35 and around St. Edward's University to D3, and picks up the northern end of South Lamar, or the western edge of Bouldin, or the eastern edge of Zilker – Precinct 340 – from D5.

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