Texas GOP at Odds

Posted September 17, 2003 at 5:14pm

Even as Texas Republicans inched closer to redrawing the state’s Congressional lines this week, intraparty disagreements over the shape of the districts in the western part of the state threatened to derail the process.

The Republican-controlled state House passed a plan Tuesday that would severely endanger Democratic Reps. Max Sandlin, Jim Turner, Ralph Hall, Nick Lampson, Chet Edwards and Charlie Stenholm, several of whom already represent districts that lean strongly toward Republicans.

“We are encouraged that the House has taken action again and look forward to the Senate following suit,” said Jonathan Grella, a spokesman for House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Texas), who has been intimately involved in the proceedings.

But even Republicans acknowledge that the House map is a nonstarter in the state Senate, where they also hold a majority. The Senate is expected to pass a map of its own by week’s end.

The special session of the Legislature, under way since Monday, can last as long as 30 days.

The big dispute among Republicans is how best to carve up West Texas, specifically the areas currently represented by Stenholm and Rep. Randy Neugebauer (R).

Under the House plan, Neugebauer’s district, which he won in a May 2003 special election, would be divided in half and extended eastward to create two distinct seats.

One would contain the population centers of Lubbock and Abilene, while the other would twin Midland and San Angelo.

That scenario would pit Stenholm and Neugebauer against one another while leaving the new southern seat open.

In an interview Wednesday, Neugebauer said he was “aware of the constant changes in the redistricting maps” and was “watching the process.” He declined to comment about a possible faceoff with Stenholm.

Presumably, Midland accountant Mike Conaway (R), a close friend of President Bush, would be the odds-on favorite in the new seat. Conaway narrowly lost a runoff to Neugebauer in the special election.

This plan was pushed heavily by Texas House Speaker Tom Craddick (R), who hails from Midland and has said publicly he believes his hometown deserves a district of its own.

Unfortunately for Craddick, state Sen. Robert Duncan (R) of Lubbock opposes the move, saying his constituents do not want the change. This throws a major roadblock in Republican’ attempts to bring the third special legislative session concerning redistricting to a quick and decisive end.

DeLay convened a meeting earlier this month between Craddick, Duncan and state Sen. Todd Staples (R), the designated Senate mapdrawer, in hopes of working out a compromise but failed to do so.

Duncan even reached out to Stenholm with the plum of an endowed chairmanship at Texas Tech University if he would retire, according to the Austin American-Statesman, but the Texas Democrat, who is the ranking member of the Agriculture Committee, rejected the overture.

It is unclear how the dispute will be settled.

Republicans believe the differences between the House and Senate maps will be resolved in a conference committee likely to take place early next week.

Democrats counter that Republicans’ inability to agree among themselves about the maps speaks to the folly of trying to re-redistrict at all.

“This is emblematic of the larger problem facing Republicans, which is that Texans oppose redoing redistricting,” said an aide to Rep. Martin Frost (D-Texas), who has been a Democratic point man on redistricting at the state and national levels. “[Voters] think the current map is fair and serves them well.”

Both parties have become more and more entrenched as the process has developed over the past two years.

After Texas legislators deadlocked in their attempts to redraw the lines in 2001, a federal court adopted a plan that upheld the status quo in the 2002 elections. All 17 Democratic incumbents won while Republicans added two new seats, bringing their numbers to 15.

In the 2002 elections, however, Republicans won a majority in the state House, which gave them control over all the levers of the state government.

Urged on by DeLay, state Republicans attempted to redraw the lines earlier this year during the Legislature’s regular session but were thwarted when state House Democrats fled to Oklahoma, robbing the GOP of the necessary quorum to bring up legislation.

A first special session met June 30, but using parliamentary tactics, Democrats were able to bring the redistricting plan to a halt.

Gov. Rick Perry (R) quickly called a second special session, but the Senate Democrats vacated the state July 28, taking up residence in Albuquerque, N.M., and again keeping Republicans from a quorum.

That standoff was broken by state Sen. John Whitmire’s (D) decision to return to the state after nearly six weeks away. Whitmire cited a concern that the impasse would poison the Legislature’s bipartisan comity as his prime reason for returning.