Texas to Hold Special Session on Redistricting

Posted June 18, 2003 at 5:35pm

In the latest installment of an ongoing political soap opera, Texas Gov. Rick Perry (R) announced Wednesday that the state Legislature will meet June 30 in a special session to reconsider Congressional redistricting.

Republicans hope to push through a new map that could yield the GOP between two and six seats in the next Congress.

The session will last 30 days and will feature between four and six hearings around the state on redistricting while the legislation moves through the Republican-controlled Legislature, according to GOP sources familiar with the process.

Although the map Republicans will introduce in hopes of redrawing the state’s 32 Congressional districts has not been finalized, knowledgeable GOPers believe it will bear a close resemblance to the maps proposed by state Sen. Chris Harris (R) and state Rep. Phil King (R) in the regular legislative session that ended earlier this month. That plan is seen as the favorite of House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Texas), who has been pushing the Legislature to adopt a plan that is more favorable to Republicans.

Under both of those maps, which are nearly identical to one another, two sets of incumbents would be paired against one another — Democratic Reps. Jim Turner and Max Sandlin in an East Texas seat as well as Reps. Charlie Stenholm (D) and Randy Neugebauer (R) in a West-Central district.

Republicans would shore up Rep. Henry Bonilla (R), who narrowly won re-election in 2002, by condensing his vast West Texas district into Bexar County. An open seat would be created out of much of Bonilla’s old territory, which would strongly favor a Hispanic Democratic candidate.

The Democrat most affected by the GOP plan would appear to be Rep. Martin Frost, whose district would grow roughly 20 percent more vulnerable, according to GOP sources. Districts held by Reps. Chet Edwards (D) and Lloyd Doggett (D) would also become more Republican under the map. Edwards’ district already leans Republican, while Doggett’s Austin-area seat has been fairly safe for Democrats.

Frost has been the lead strategist behind Democrats’ redistricting efforts both in Texas and nationally for the past two decades.

In a statement Wednesday, Frost called Perry “the most overtly partisan governor in Texas history,” adding, “never before has a Texas governor chosen to waste taxpayer dollars on a special session to voluntarily replay redistricting.” The session’s cost is estimated at $1.7 million.

Freshman Rep. Chris Bell (D) called the governor’s announcement “Perrymandering.”

In his letter to the lieutenant governor and state House Speaker declaring the special session, Perry cited his belief that legislators and not the courts should redraw the state’s lines.

After the Legislature could not agree on the lines, a federal court drew the districts that were used in the 2002 elections.

“I am confident that Democrats and Republicans can likewise work together to develop a map that is fair, compact and protects communities of interest,” Perry wrote.

The map is likely to be first introduced in the state House, where Republicans hold a comfortable 88-to-62 majority. In the state Senate, Republicans are two seats short of the two-thirds majority (21) needed to pass the bill.

Perry’s announcement comes less than a month after 51 Democratic legislators fled to Oklahoma to eliminate the chances of Republicans passing a Congressional redistricting bill.

That move led to Republicans calling in officials from the Homeland Security Department to attempt to track the wayward lawmakers.

Democrats expressed considerable outrage at this chain of events, but the Homeland Security Department’s inspector general cleared the officers of any wrongdoing in a report released Monday.

Although the revolt by Democrats led to national press coverage of redistricting in the Lone Star State, Frost and DeLay have been engaged in trench warfare over the map for the better part of the past two years.

Frost was generally seen as the victor in their latest skirmish, as Democrats were able to control all 17 of their seats in 2002. Republicans hold 15 Congressional districts.

Democratic-controlled legislatures in New Mexico and Oklahoma have threatened to hold special sessions on redistricting if Texas passes a new plan weighted in favor of the GOP. Those states, however, have far fewer Congressional seats than the Lone Star State.