Redistricting: Revenge Next?

Posted May 14, 2003 at 6:17pm

Emboldened by the hardball tactics of their Republican counterparts in Texas and Colorado, Democratic legislative leaders in New Mexico and Oklahoma told Roll Call on Wednesday that they too may revisit the issue of Congressional redistricting in the months ahead.

Both Democratic-controlled legislatures had the chance to draw new Congressional maps during their regular legislative sessions this year but held back — in part because they feared GOP retaliation in other states.

Now that Republicans are attempting to draw new boundaries in Texas and Colorado anyway, Democrats say they may follow suit during special legislative sessions.

“Normally I don’t look to Texas for guidance because they are a football-inferior state, a basketball-inferior state and an academically inferior state,” said Stratton Taylor (D), President Pro Tem emeritus of the Oklahoma Senate. “This time, Texas Republicans may be on to something.”

In New Mexico, the Legislature is already scheduled to meet in a special session this fall to discuss tax reform and health care policy. Senate President Richard Romero (D) said that Texas Republicans’ attempts to redraw Lone Star State Congressional lines increases the likelihood that redistricting will happen in the Land of Enchantment then.

“They’re so close to us, it’s infectious,” Romero said.

Whether these are mere fighting words or actual Democratic strategy remains to be seen, however. The Democratic National Committee has quietly urged Democratic-controlled legislatures not to engage in any sort of “tit for tat” on redistricting, party leaders said, despite what is transpiring in Colorado and Texas.

“It allows us to remain on the high road,” said one key House Democratic strategist.

But House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) told reporters this week that Democrats can’t help but look at Texas and Colorado and thirst for revenge.

“What’s good for the goose is good for the gander,” he said.

Last week, in the final hours of their session, Republican legislators in Colorado rammed through a new redistricting proposal that solidified the GOP’s hold on two swing House districts. Gov. Bill Owens (R) signed the bill on Friday, and Democrats instantly sued to overturn it.

Meanwhile, a comic opera has been taking place this week in the Texas Legislature — and in neighboring Oklahoma, where 51 Texas House Democrats were holed up at a Holiday Inn to prevent a GOP-fashioned redistricting bill from hitting the House floor. That bill, promoted by House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Texas), would cost Democrats anywhere from three to seven House seats.

On redistricting, Texas, Colorado, New Mexico and Oklahoma have two things in common: All held their 2002 Congressional elections using new House boundaries that were chosen by the courts rather than the Legislature. And all saw their state governments switch last November to one-party rule after being divided between Democrats and Republicans.

Because the Colorado map was drawn by a state court, Republican legislators argued that they were simply fulfilling their constitutional duty to reset Congressional boundaries once a decade.

“It’s very defensible,” said Jack Stansbery, executive director of the Colorado Republican Party.

Similarly, DeLay has been carrying a copy of the Constitution around the Capitol this week in an attempt to show that GOP lawmakers in Texas are well within their rights to tackle redistricting now.

But Democrats in those states accuse the GOP of attempting to change the redistricting rules after the game has been played, and argue that the courts acted only after the legislatures and governors could not reach an agreement — meaning the legislatures essentially forfeited their opportunity to create district lines. Democrats see the hands of DeLay and White House political adviser Karl Rove in both states — something Republican leaders have not denied.

“Karl Rove has in essence tried to redefine the way we practice politics in America,” said Chris Gates, chairman of the Colorado Democratic Party.

In Colorado, the GOP succeeded in adding 27,000 Republican voters to the 7th district in the Denver suburbs — a new swing seat that freshman Rep. Bob Beauprez (R) won by just 121 votes. And more Republican voters were shifted into the 3rd district on the Western Slope, which Rep. Scott McInnis (R) has held easily since 1992 but is likely to be competitive when he retires.

In Texas, the Republican redistricting plan could jeopardize the seats of Democratic Reps. Chris Bell, Lloyd Doggett, Chet Edwards, Martin Frost, Charlie Gonzalez, Sheila Jackson Lee, Max Sandlin, Charlie Stenholm and Jim Turner. The latest drama has also produced an intense round of sniping between DeLay and Frost, who are longtime antagonists.

While it is unclear how the Texas fight will be resolved — at press time, the state House was expected to adjourn until Friday — many Republicans privately concede that even if the measure were to pass in the House, it would have a tough time getting through the state Senate, where a four-fifths vote is required to send a bill to committee when it is introduced this late in the legislative session. The GOP holds a 19-12 advantage in the state Senate.

Still, Democrats in Oklahoma and New Mexico may be taking an “if you can’t beat ’em, join ’em” approach on redistricting.

In Oklahoma, Taylor said Democratic leaders feared that redrawing the lines during the regular legislative session, which ends later this month, would be “a brazen act” that would not sell politically. But now that Texas is trying to redraw Congressional lines, Oklahoma Democrats could try the same at a likely special session later this year.

Taylor said the Republican-drawn plan approved by the courts before the 2002 elections packs too many Democrats and American Indians into the 2nd district in the eastern portion of the state, which is represented by the Congressional delegation’s lone Democrat, Rep. Brad Carson. Taylor said Democrats would like to create a second competitive district in the southern part of the state and would like to change the contours of the 3rd district, which extends from the New Mexico border to 90 miles away from the Arkansas line.

If there is a special session, new Gov. Brad Henry (D) would set the agenda. A top aide to Henry said the governor has not officially considered whether redistricting should be on the agenda, but Democratic sources believe he would be willing to listen.

In New Mexico, the Senate considered a redistricting measure during the regular legislative session this year but put it aside because of the potential political fallout. The bill would have extended the 1st district, now held by Rep. Heather Wilson (R), into heavily Hispanic — and Democratic — territory north and east of Albuquerque.

Romero, the Senate president, said “there’s great interest” in revisiting redistricting during the upcoming special session. But Gov. Bill Richardson (D) has not said whether he would try to put the Congressional map on the special session agenda.

Not coincidentally, Romero was Wilson’s unsuccessful challenger last year, and he said he is weighing whether to try again.

While the numbers seem to favor Democrats in the 1st district, they have not held it for decades.

Nicole Duran and Ben Pershing contributed to this report.