Legislators believe congressional and legislative districts will be decided in the courts
DAVID TAFFET | Staff Writer
Although plans for new congressional and state house and senate districts are not complete, minority groups are already criticizing the plans.
Rep. Garnet Coleman of Houston sent a letter to the Justice Department this week about the plan passed by the Texas House of Representatives for the state House. That plan has not yet passed the state Senate.
“Republicans cracked and packed communities of color into districts in order to dilute their voting rights,” Coleman said in a statement. “Close to 90 percent of the population growth in Texas was non-Anglo, yet this map reduces the number of districts where communities of color can elect their candidate of choice.”
Chuck Smith at Equality Texas said that his organization has not been keeping a close eye on redistricting because they have to work with whoever gets elected. He said his organization’s assumption was that whatever this legislature passed, it would be challenged in court.
Every redistricting plan passed by the Texas Legislature since 1980 has been challenged in court. After the 2000 census, Speaker of the House Tom DeLay intervened; those maps were redrawn several times and not settled until the 2006 election.
The office of Rep. Roberto Alonzo agreed with Equality Texas. Alonzo serves on the House Redistricting Committee.
Alonzo’s legislative aide, Cole Howard, said, “It looks like both sides sat back and determined the courts can decide the districts,” Howard said.
He called the map retrogressive and said it does not account for growth of minority communities.
Rep. Marc Veasey of Fort Worth who serves on the redistricting committee, said there were a number of different scenarios that could happen. He said that if the Senate does not pass the House map or if the governor vetoes the map, it would be drawn by the Legislative Redistricting Board.
That group is made up of five Republicans appointed by the governor.
“The strategy is to pack districts,” Veasey said.
But he said that the plans are not legal. Republicans are attacking Fort Worth’s urban core especially in Senate redistricting, he said.
“They’re going after Wendy Davis,” Veasey said.
He said that the plan for the Senate is to divide Davis’ district into as many as five pieces that would be assigned to suburban or rural districts.
“That would leave Fort Worth out in the cold,” he said. In a similar move in Dallas, he said state Sen. Royce West could be the only voice in Dallas.
He said he expects congressional seats to be left to the courts.
“No one has seen any plans yet,” he said.
Several maps have been drawn, but nothing discussed by the committee.
U.S. Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson already serves a packed district that includes most of the city’s heavily LGBT neighborhoods as well as most minority communities. Districts are supposed to be evenly divided in population but her district is one of the largest in the state. One of the four new congressional districts would have to be carved from her district.
In one plan, Johnson retains much of her district south of I-30. Oak Lawn would fall into a new district created to attempt to swing that new seat to a Republican candidate.
Veasey said that if House members do draw the map, they will attempt to carve a Republican seat from Johnson’s district, but he said he wasn’t sure how that would be possible or if it would even be legal.
Republican Rep. Pete Sessions’ current district was created to carve up former Democratic Rep. Martin Frost’s former district.
The tactic worked and Frost lost re-election after 13 terms in office.
In most plans, Sessions’ new district would become more safely Republican, taking the Oak Cliff portion of the area away from him.
“Our delegation should look more like Houston’s,” Veasey said.
Houston has more diverse representation in Congress. He said Dallas has the fastest growing Hispanic population in the country and the second-fastest growing African-American population.
In the plan passed by the House for the state House of Representatives, adjustments to the map would not seriously impact the chances of any incumbents in Dallas. State Rep. Rafael Anchia’s district would push further into Oak Lawn taking away some of Rep. Dan Branch’s district. Branch’s area would become more safely Republican.
Seats in North Dallas that recently swung from Democrat to Republican would also become more safely Republican by pushing out further into the suburbs.
In Fort Worth, Rep. Lon Burnham’s district would push into Veasey’s, whose district would be packed with even more minority residents. Veasey said both he and Burnham would be safe. Both have been strong LGBT community allies.
But Veasey said he didn’t think that part of the plan would be legal.
Under current Texas House rules, May 12 is the last day to pass bills, although the rules may change before this Thursday’s deadline.
The legislature adjourns on May 30. By that date, the Senate must pass its redistricting plan and reconcile their plan with the House.
However, according to the Texas Legislative Council, a nonpartisan organization that provides technical and legal support to the legislature for redistricting, a planned schedule doesn’t expect the Legislature to finish its work by the end of the session.
From May 31 through Aug. 27, the Legislative Redistricting Board will meet if the House and Senate fail to agree on a plan.
Once their work is done, the governor would call a special session of the Legislature to adopt the plan.
Since Jan. 2, 2012 is the last day for candidates to file for the November 2012 elections, all challenges must be settled by the end of December.
The Justice Department must also approve redistricting in Texas. This will be the first time since 1961 that Democrats controlled the Justice Department during redistricting.