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Democrats Not Eager to Emulate Texas's Redistricting

By Charles Babington
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, July 5, 2006

Democrats cried foul three years ago when Texas Republicans rammed through a highly partisan redistricting to gain an advantage in several House races. Now, a recent Supreme Court ruling that blessed the Texas plan gives Democrats a chance to show that turnabout is fair play.

But early indications are that Democrats will probably resist the temptation to do unto Republicans as Republicans did unto them.

Under the prodding of then-House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Tex.), Texas state lawmakers abandoned custom by redrawing district lines without waiting for the next decennial census. The move effectively added at least five seats to the GOP's House majority.

A state-by-state analysis, however, finds that Democrats' ability and apparent willingness to seize the opportunity left by the high court ruling in favor of the Texas plan are slim.

"I don't see much evidence that Democratic partisans around the country are salivating to do this," said Rep. David E. Price (D-N.C.), a former professor who has written several books about Congress.

The Supreme Court's June 28 ruling let stand the main elements of DeLay's audacious plan. It began in 2002 with adding Republican control of the Texas legislature to the governorship, which gave the party full rein over the redistricting process. Then, over Democrats' objections, Texas Republicans immediately redrew the U.S. congressional district boundaries in ways designed to maximize their gains, only two years after the traditional once-a-decade redistricting had taken place.

Having previously stepped down from his House leadership post, DeLay left office after being indicted on charges related to raising money to promote the plan. But the GOP's dramatic gains remain, serving as a blueprint or an enticement to Democrats, if they decide to be so bold. Party leaders say there is not enough time to redistrict states for the November elections, but that a successful effort next year could give them a big boost in 2008 and 2010.

First, Democrats must compile a list of states where a DeLay-like strategy is feasible. It will be remarkably short. Several states assign the redistricting task to commissions, shielding the process from partisan control. Some states, such as Texas, are controlled by Republicans. Many others have divided government, in which neither party controls both the governorship and the two legislative chambers, making blatantly partisan redistricting impossible. Finally, some Democratic-controlled states have already carved out all the Democratic-leaning House districts they can, leaving no room for gains.

The result, redistricting experts say, yields perhaps four states where Democrats conceivably could try a mid-decade gerrymander comparable to that of Texas's: Illinois, North Carolina, New Mexico and Louisiana. In each one, however, such a move seems unlikely because of factors that include racial politics, Democratic cautiousness and even a hurricane's impact.

In Illinois, as in many other states, the current congressional map is the product of a bipartisan agreement to protect incumbents of both parties, election after election. Democrats, who hold 10 of the state's 19 House seats, control the legislature and hope to reelect Gov. Rod Blagojevich this fall. They possibly could gain another House seat or two in the 2008 elections by packing Republican voters into overwhelmingly GOP-leaning districts, the tactic that DeLay used against Texas Democrats.

But recent history suggests that they will demur. The current district lines have strong support in both parties, and Rep. Rahm Emanuel (D-Ill.) got nowhere last year with a bid to redraw them in retaliation for what happened in Texas. "I couldn't get enough fellow Democrats to see the benefits of that," said Emanuel, who chairs his party's campaign to elect more House members.

The story is similar in New Mexico, where some Democrats think an aggressive redistricting effort could reverse the GOP's 2-to-1 advantage in the three-member House delegation. The state's Democratic Senate president called for such a move in 2003, but Gov. Bill Richardson (D) seemed cool to the idea, and it never took flight.

In North Carolina, some Democratic partisans have urged party leaders to use their redistricting powers to reverse the GOP's 7-to-6 advantage in the House delegation. But several political currents seem to be running against that notion. Democrats hold a slim majority in the state House, and their speaker faces ethics allegations that reportedly leave him little stomach for a fiercely partisan showdown.

The push for more assertive gerrymandering "was viewed as something they didn't want to do politically," Price said. Moreover, any map revisions that might threaten North Carolina's two African American House members would likely upset black voters -- a key party constituency -- and run afoul of the Voting Rights Act. The 1965 law, designed to protect minority participation in politics, "is a real constraint" on redistricting options, Price said. "It doesn't impact the Republican Party the way it does Democrats."

The situation in Louisiana, also covered by the Voting Rights Act, is further complicated because Hurricane Katrina dislocated thousands of residents. Any effort to redraw House district lines before the 2010 Census would surely face court challenges, analysts say.

Democrats' greatest hopes could lie in a few large states where they could gain full control of the government this fall. California would be the giant prize, but Democrats would have to oust Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger (R), an uphill battle. Moreover, the state has a strong bipartisan tradition of protecting both parties' House incumbents.

In New York, Democrats are poised to claim the governorship, and could possibly take over the state Senate after years of GOP control. But gubernatorial candidate Eliot Spitzer (D) is running on a clean-government platform, and approving a blatantly gerrymandered map might contradict that message.

Of course, Republicans could follow DeLay's blueprint in other states that they control. But they appear to have maximized their opportunities in the biggest targets, including Texas, Florida, Georgia and South Carolina, said Tim Storey, a redistricting expert for the nonpartisan National Conference of State Legislatures.

Even with the Supreme Court flashing a green light last month, Storey said, "I really don't foresee a big groundswell for redistricting" before 2011. The Texas plan survived, but many people saw it as an outrage, and DeLay paid a high price, he said.

Politicians nationwide saw "the controversy that rained down on Texas," Storey said. "They are very wary of that voter outrage."

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