Texas-style redistricting vexes voters, puts map boundaries in perpetual motion


Rep. Lloyd Doggett (D-Texas). (Harry Hamburg/Associated Press)
May 27, 2012

More than in any other state in the union, the redrawing of congressional district lines in Texas is a partisan blood feud that turns the once-a-decade event of redistricting into a protracted, almost continuous, political and legal battle, sometimes with dire consequences.

Take the small example of Tuesday’s Democratic primary in the new 35th House District. Sylvia Romo, the tax collector in Bexar County, has had trouble convincing voters here that she really is in a primary contest against the nine-term Democratic incumbent, Rep. Lloyd Doggett.

As far as many of these voters are concerned, Doggett is not their congressman — he’s the guy from Austin, 80 miles away. But the primary race here is, in fact, between the congressman from Austin and the tax collector from San Antonio.

“This has been a weird election, the timing, the confusion,” said Romo, tracing her hands along the strange map of the new congressional district. “It is so weird the way this thing just kind of developed. What were they drinking?”

But weirdness and confusion are the hallmarks of redistricting in Texas.

This year’s upheaval, for example, meant that the primary election day scheduled for March 6 had to be postponed until May 29. That delay crushed the presidential hopes of Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum, both of whom thought a win in Texas would reenergize their bid for the GOP presidential nomination against Mitt Romney. Romney will finally win enough delegates in Texas on Tuesday to wrap up the nomination.

The delayed primary also allowed former state solicitor general Ted Cruz, a tea party favorite, to mount an insurgent bid for the U.S. Senate against Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst, the prohibitive establishment favorite to replace the retiring Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison. Now, it looks as if Cruz will force Dewhurst into a late-July runoff for the GOP nomination.

Instead of pitched battles followed by compromise and a single map for the next decade, as happens in the other 49 states, Texans gird for a longer fight. The result is that districts sometimes get redrawn more than once after each official census, often leaving voters unsure who their representative is or in which district they reside.

First the congressional delegation offers its map, then the state legislature draws its own, then lower-level federal courts weigh in before, finally, the Supreme Court tries to settle the matter.

Doggett, for example, is seeking reelection in his fifth differently drawn district over the past 12 years, including a two-year stint last decade representing a district that stretched 350 miles from Austin to the Mexico border.

“I’ve had an opportunity to represent a great deal of Texas, just not at the same time,” Doggett joked Sunday in a telephone interview during one of his countless treks up Interstate 35 from a campaign stop in San Antonio.

The new 35th District has been described as a “dumbbell” because it is formed by two ball-shaped chunks, one in east Austin and the other in east San Antonio, connected by a thin strip along I-35.

Nearly 60 percent of the voters in this district are Latino, and most of the voters are down in Bexar County. Doggett believes that the decision to split apart his old district is the result of his ongoing feud with Republican Gov. Rick Perry.

When a federal court finalized the map for the 2012 elections, Doggett announced his intention to run in the 35th and cast it as a stand against Perry. Yet he has not moved into the new district, because it is still possible the courts and legislature will re-configure the lines again next year.

Part of the redistricting mess in Texas has been driven by the state’s sheer growth, 20.6 percent over the past decade. Travis County, home to Austin, grew by more than 26 percent. So after gaining two additional House seats after the 2000 Census, Texas grabbed four more after 2010.

After the 2000 elections, Texas had a congressional delegation of 17 Democrats and 13 Republicans, a disparity that GOP leaders at the time, such as Tom DeLay, set out to flip. DeLay was later found guilty of laundering money into the 2002 state elections in an effort to swing the legislature to Republicans. He is awaiting an appeal.

In 2003, an epic battle ensued in which Democratic legislators fled to other states trying to deny an official quorum for the legislature to approve the new map.

The plan eventually won approval for the 2004 elections, and after those contests Republicans controlled the delegation by a 21-11 margin. A 2006 Supreme Court ruling upheld most of the DeLay-led redistricting but required a handful of districts, including Doggett’s, to be redrawn for a third straight time heading into the 2006 elections.

In order to maximize their gains here, Republicans packed more minority voters into fewer Democratic districts, hoping to meet federal voting-rights laws while also diluting Democratic opportunities. The result has been more black and Latino Texas Democrats in Congress over the past decade while white Texas Democrats have all but disappeared. Doggett and Rep. Gene Green are the last white Texas Democrats in the House.

After the 2010 elections gave the state’s GOP delegation a 23-9 edge, many Republicans entered this redistricting cycle hoping to shore up their districts and divide up the four new districts evenly.

But nothing is ever that simple in Texas.

An initial map was rejected by the federal court in San Antonio, which drew its own lines that favored Democrats. This placed the 35th District around San Antonio and heading south, leading Romo to jump into the race believing she would not face an incumbent in the heavily Latino district.

Then the Supreme Court — issuing its second ruling on Texas’s congressional lines in less than six years — said the lower court had overreached and ordered another map. The lower court finally settled on a compromise that drew up two of the four seats as favoring Latinos, while giving a Republican tilt to the other seats and helping many other GOP incumbents.

That’s when Romo realized that her district now went north, up to east Austin, and that Doggett — with his $3 million campaign war chest — was now her opponent.

“He made the decision to challenge me, not the other way around,” she said recently during an interview in her home.

Having raised just $25,000 for the race, Romo is now a long shot to stop Doggett.

Ultimately, the incumbent said, voters are the biggest losers in the redistricting scramble.

“It will be a real challenge to be everywhere at once,” Doggett said, pondering representing two major cities 80 miles apart. “The more you stretch out and have less compacted districts, the less-effective members you have.”

Paul Kane covers Congress and politics for the Washington Post.
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