The Big Texas Distraction

Redistricting Splits Members’ Attention

Posted July 8, 2003 at 6:45pm

Lone Star State lawmakers are struggling to keep one hand back home and one hand in Washington as the battle over Texas redistricting boils over in both the Texas state House and the U.S. House of Representatives.

During last week’s July Fourth recess, Congressional Democrats descended on their home state in an attempt to prevent the state Legislature from drawing Texas Democratic Reps. Charlie Stenholm, Nick Lampson, Chet Edwards, Max Sandlin, Jim Turner, Ralph Hall and other incumbents into districts they would likely lose.

Meanwhile in Washington this week, House Republican leaders sent notice to three chairmen to deal quickly with three privileged resolutions introduced by Texas Democrats that would probe whether federal resources were improperly used to track the whereabouts of 53 Texas state House Democrats when they fled to Ardmore, Okla., in May during their successful effort to block the GOP’s redistricting plan.

“They probably will report [the resolutions] unfavorably, because most people recognize this is a political issue,” said Speaker Dennis Hastert’s spokesman, John Feehery.

Today, the House Judiciary Committee is expected to kill a resolution demanding that the Justice Department hand over to Congress all of its records on any involvement by Justice officials in the search for the missing lawmakers.

“I expect a lot of Members will view [the resolution] as unnecessary given that the inspector general is already investigating,” Judiciary spokesman Jeff Lundgren said of the Justice Department’s internal investigation.

House Transportation and Infrastructure Chairman Don Young (R-Alaska), meanwhile, announced Tuesday that his panel will act next week on a similar resolution demanding information on the involvement of the Federal Aviation Administration.

House Homeland Security Chairman Christopher Cox (R-Calif.) is likely to perform a similar task on a resolution requesting information from the Homeland Security Department, but the panel has not yet set a date.

If the committees do not kill the privileged resolutions within 14 days, any House Member can bring it up on the House floor.

The committee fight is just one facet of what has become one of the hottest political fights in Texas’ history over whether to radically alter Congressional district lines that were drawn by a three-judge court nearly three years ago and flip the state’s current 17-15

Democratic-dominated Congressional delegation to 21 or 22 Republican seats.

“It has become sort of a circus, and you have Martin Frost and the Democrats to thank for that,” said Jonathan Grella, a spokesman for House Majority Leader Tom DeLay

(R-Texas).

Democrats blame DeLay for igniting the fight by first convincing state lawmakers to bring it up this spring, then persuading Republican Gov. Rick Perry to call a special summer legislative session after a week-long state House Democratic walkout prevented the Legislature from dealing with the issue during its regular session.

“Anything our Members do would pale in comparison to what DeLay has done,” said one senior Texas Democratic aide. “This

isn’t politics as usual. This is unprecedented. It’s pretty arrogant, and it’s an abuse of power.”

Members in both parties are furiously working every angle they can to influence the situation back home.

“We’re using every technique possible,” Rep. Martin Frost (D-Texas) said of the Democratic opposition.

“Politics in Texas is a contact sport,” Frost added. “It’s important to remember that.”

Through daily conference calls, the Democratic delegation and key state Democratic leaders have been able to coordinate statewide opposition while keeping abreast of the fast-moving redistricting plan, which passed the overwhelmingly Republican state House early Tuesday morning.

Though Democrats are heavily outnumbered in both the state House and Senate, Senate rules require a two-thirds vote to bring up legislation — a process that requires Republicans to woo the votes of at least two undecided Democratic Senators.

Both Turner and Lampson said they would try to draw on their friendships with many state Senators to try to talk them out of voting to bring the plan up.

“I hope to be on the floor of the Texas Senate when that vote comes up, because I want to let people know how I feel about it,” Lampson said.

Congressional Republicans are also girding for a fight. With the help of political advisers to DeLay, state GOP leaders plan to draw a new map designed to appeal to skeptical Senators. The plan could come before the Texas Senate as early as next week, said Texas state Sen. Kip Averitt (R), who opposes the House map but supports redistricting in general.

Congressional Republicans have not built a coordinated effort to advocate redistricting. But they may ramp up their lobbying of state Senators now that a map has passed the state House, said Jim Ellis, who heads

DeLay’s PAC, Americans for a Republican Majority.

Even state House Republicans spent little time defending their map against Democratic claims that it diluted minority and rural voters’ power when it came to the House floor on Monday.

And according to Ellis, the man who spawned the whole process has so far had little contact with state lawmakers during the special session.

“At this point, because there’s been so much publicity surrounding this, there’s no one who doesn’t know where Tom DeLay stands on redistricting,” said Ellis, who also denied that DeLay’s influence convinced the governor to call the special legislative session.

“When the Democrats ran away and challenged the authority of the governor and the Speaker [of the Texas House], I think they sealed their own fate,” said Ellis. “There

didn’t need to be any coaxing of the governor.”

Still, a few GOP Members of Congress, such as Rep. John Culberson (Texas), have testified in favor of redistricting at public hearings.

But most members of the GOP Texas delegation seem to be more concerned about the effect redistricting will have on their seats.

Culberson’s chief of staff, Bill Crow, said his boss was testifying for two reasons.

“Our first priority is to tell everyone that, yes, redistricting is needed, but second, we should keep district 7 looking pretty much the same,” Crow said.

Rep. Henry Bonilla (R-Texas) is also primarily working to retain his district.

“We have staff down there checking in to make sure we keep as much of our original district as possible,” said Bonilla spokeswoman Taryn Fritz.

Ellis said the Republican Congressional delegation had been very cooperative with the redistricting efforts but acknowledged a low level of grumbling from some Members.

“Nobody wants to give up constituents you already have,” Ellis explained. “Everybody expressed concern that the core of their districts remain intact.”

On the other hand, Congressional Democrats are hoping that their united front against redistricting may convince state Senators to do the same. In fact, Frost said 16 members of the delegation had agreed not to make any side deals with Republicans to preserve their seats.

Hall, whose district was not originally targeted by Republicans, does not appear to have made such an agreement with his Democratic colleagues. Calls to Hall’s office were not returned.

“Ralph Hall is the most conservative Democrat in Congress. It’s kind of been a gentlemen’s agreement in the delegation that Ralph does what he has to do,” Frost said.

Noting that Hall recently turned 80, Frost said the state House map that eviscerates Hall’s district could cause him to retire.

“If that were to pass, I’m not sure he would even run for re-election,” Frost said.