Hammer Falls in Texas; Democrats in Jeopardy

Posted October 10, 2003 at 6:12pm

After months of partisan wrangling, Republicans in the Texas Legislature appear to have agreed on a go-for-broke Congressional redistricting plan Friday that would radically alter the makeup of the state’s House delegation.

“We are very encouraged that we are going to have a Congressional delegation reflective of Texas voting patterns,” said Jonathan Grella, a spokesman for House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Texas).

Allies of DeLay, the prime mover behind the redistricting effort, are privately predicting that a six- or seven-seat Republican pickup is not out of the question. A number of knowledgeable GOP strategists say, however, that a smaller gain is more likely.

“A more realistic immediate outcome would be two or three seats with the more long-term potential for greater pickups,” predicted one Republican strategist, who spoke on the condition of anonymity.

Democrats refuse to even broach the possibility that this map will be in place for the 2004 election, arguing that it violates the Voting Rights Act and promising to sue if it becomes law.

“This is a conversation piece, not a map that is going to see the light of day,” said Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee spokesman Greg Speed. “It is the gravest assault on the rights of minorities in the 38-year history of the Voting Rights Act.”

The passage of the new map brings to a temporary close a process that began in 2001 when the state Legislature deadlocked in its efforts to redraw the state’s lines. The plan now heads to the Justice Department for pre- clearance under the Voting Rights Act, which could take up to 60 days. Democrats are expected to file suit shortly after the map emerges from the Justice Department.

The Democrat most affected by the new map is Rep. Martin Frost, who headed his party’s redistricting efforts in Texas and nationwide in 2001 and is seen by Republicans as enemy No. 1 in this latest fracas.

Frost’s Dallas-Fort Worth district becomes a solidly Republican seat, as much of the black population in his current district is shifted into Rep. Michael Burgess’ (R) district.

Frost decried the new district as a blatant violation of the Voting Rights Act because his minority opportunity district would essentially be eliminated. Fifty-five percent of the old 24th was made up of black and Hispanic voters; the new 24th is just 26 percent black and Hispanic.

That shift makes the district significantly more Republican. In 2002 statewide races GOP candidates would have taken 64 percent of the vote in the new 24th; in Frost’s current district, Republicans would have taken just 42 percent.

In fact, Frost’s home in Arlington is actually drawn outside the lines of the 24th, putting him in the new 6th district with Reps. Joe Barton (R) and Jim Turner (D).

Under these proposed lines, Turner could run against Rep. Kevin Brady (R) in the 8th district as it includes much of his East Texas base.

Observers believe the lines of the new 24th were drawn to elect state Rep. Kenny Marchant (R), a member of the House redistricting committee, who represents a portion of Dallas County. It remained unclear at press time whether Frost would attempt to run in the new 24th or look for a district better suited for him.

Next on the Republican chopping block is Rep. Charlie Stenholm (D), who would be forced into a race against Rep. Randy Neugebauer (R) in a district centered on Lubbock in the west and Abilene in the east.

The composition of West Texas districts was the major stumbling block among Republicans during the past several weeks as GOP leaders tried to hammer out a compromise between the plans passed in the state House and the state Senate.

State House Speaker Tom Craddick (R) wanted a seat centered on Midland, which necessitated putting Stenholm and Neugebauer in a Member-versus-Member race.

The state Senate — led by Lubbock Sen. Robert Duncan (R) — fought the idea but eventually acceded under pressure from DeLay.

The Midland-based seat — the new 11th district — is expected to be won by accountant Mike Conaway (R), who narrowly lost a June special election to Neugebauer in the old 19th district. Conaway is a former business partner of President Bush.

The 19th district has new territory for both Neugebauer and Stenholm; the freshman Republican represents roughly half of the new district, while Stenholm represents roughly one-third.

On its face, the district demographics heavily favor Neugebauer. Statewide Republicans in 2002 would have received almost 70 percent of the vote in the new 19th; Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst (R), who won the tightest statewide race in 2002 (52 percent), would have taken 60 percent there.

But some Republicans remain concerned about the seat, given the contrast between Neugebauer, elected just four months ago, and Stenholm, a 13-term Member who is the highest-ranking Democrat on the Agriculture Committee.

Stenholm, one of the most conservative Democrats in the House, has regularly run and won in a Republican-leaning district and has pledged to seek re-election in 2004 regardless of the district lines.

“Let there be no doubt that I will run for re-election next year and I will run to win,” he said.

In an unexpected — and risky — move, Republicans also went after Rep. Lloyd Doggett (D), the most liberal white Democrat in the Texas delegation and a regular thorn in the ideological side of House Republicans.

Doggett’s current 10th district is based almost entirely in Austin, with nearly 40 percent of the population either black or Hispanic. The new seat is roughly one-quarter black and Hispanic.

In the 2002 statewide contests, the seat went from one carried by the Democratic candidates with 60 percent to one won by Republicans with 64 percent.

This was accomplished by splitting Travis County, which contains Austin, into three parts, parceling much of the Hispanic vote into a new, majority minority district that snakes from Austin all the way south to the border with Mexico. That new seat has a more than 60 percent Hispanic population.

Several other pairs of incumbents are placed together in new districts, although it seems unlikely the Members will ultimately square off.

Democratic Reps. Gene Green and Nick Lampson are pushed together in the new 2nd district, but Green is likely to run in the open 29th district, which carries strong similarities to his current 29th district.

Lampson would then be free to run in the new 2nd district, although it would be Republican-leaning territory.

While the district would have given statewide Republicans 61 percent of the vote in 2002, past races indicate that it would be more competitive. In the 1998 lieutenant governor’s race, which now-Gov. Rick Perry (R) won with 50 percent of the vote, he took 52 percent in the new 2nd district.

Reps. Chris Bell (D) and John Culberson (R) are also paired in the strongly Republican 7th district in the new map. Bell would likely run in the new 9th district, a rough approximation of his 25th district based in Houston.

Democratic Reps. Max Sandlin and Chet Edwards are endangered under the new map as well.

Sandlin would remain in an East Texas 1st district made roughly 5 percent more Republican. Edwards, already a perennial target, would be the lone incumbent in the new 17th district that would be slightly more Republican. One name mentioned as a potential challenger is state Sen. Steve Ogden (R).

The new plan is simply the latest plot line in the ongoing soap opera that is Texas redistricting.

It began in 2001 when a three-judge federal panel drew a map that largely preserved the status quo, electing 17 Democrats and 15 Republicans to Congress in 2002.

After taking control of all three levers of state government last cycle, Republicans tried during their normal legislative session earlier in the year to redraw the state’s lines. They were thwarted when House Democrats fled to Oklahoma to prevent Republicans from bringing the bill up for a vote.

Gov. Rick Perry (R) immediately called a special session that ended in a deadlock. A second session failed to produce a map after state Senate Democrats holed up in New Mexico to prevent a quorum.

That standoff was broken when a Democratic state Senator returned to Texas, citing concerns over the lingering effects on the body of the partisan warfare.