Party or the people? State redistricting efforts kick off

Hey Texans, raise your hand if you've recently been frustrated with all the heated partisan debate in this country ... frustrated that we're not seeing enough of it here in the Lone Star state what with our part-time legislature being recessed until 2011. Our great state senators and reps have largely been sidelined from such charming GOP v. Dem debates like immigration law, public school dogma, and celebrating Sarah Palin's birthday with a statewide wild game hunt. Well, cool your jets, or maybe start firing them up, because as state Rep. Mike Villarreal reminded us yesterday, 2011 is a redistricting year. For those of you who can't or won't remember what fun the Lege had in 2001 and 2003, lets just say redistricting is a magical fount of confusion and rancor that springs forth only once every 10 years, more frequently when visited by kingmaker/salsa dancer Tom Delay. At its most basic, redistricting helps allocate government representatives based on new U.S. Census data. At its most convoluted, the state Legislature carves districts into zig-zags in an attempt to pack or dilute voters thought to be oriented toward one party or another. Rather than properly responding to the thousands of bills that pass through each legislative cycle, representatives on either side of the aisle go into CYA-mode even more than usual. Instead of just trying to convince voters they were for this before it was that, or they hate Obama but not in a racist way, or that they will definitely balance the budget right after that new community pool gets installed, they actually try to predict their future based on demographic estimates and then haggle like hell to create district boundaries most beneficial to them first, and their party second, and the people last. In Texas, where an elated Republican-controlled congress tried to re-configure districts to ensure continued majority in the House during the last redistricting, things got ugly fast, and eventually included a flight of 52 state House Democrats to Oklahoma, a correlated field trip by 11 state senate Democrats to New Mexico, and a U.S. Supreme Court ruling that at least one district, (23 and by extension 25) were gerrymandered and a violation of Hispanic voter's rights under the federal Voting Rights Act. San Antonio got U.S. representative Ciro Rodriguez (D-23) out of the deal, representing a district that begins in San Antonio and stretches west to El Paso.

Now the state is at it again, preparing to redistrict with the 2010 census results. With a population the state demographer estimates at over 25 million, Texas is poised to pick up as many as four U.S. congressional seats. For comparison, most other states may pick up one.

Currently, state reps on the redistricting and Judiciary and Civil Jurisprudence committee are taking public testimony to consider between now and December, when states discover how many federal congressional representatives they win or lose, and carry through to February, when they get more detailed demographic information. If everything goes as planned, the redistricting committee will present new district maps by the end of next year's legislative session. One of SA's state representatives, Mike Villarreal (D-123), sits as vice chair of the redistricting committee, which joined the Judiciary and Civil Jurisprudence committee in kicking off a redistricting roadshow at UTSA's downtown campus yesterday morning. Members of both committees, including David Leibowitz (D-Bexar),Bryan Hughes (R-Marshall), Mando Martinez (D-Hidalgo), Jerry Madden (R-Plano), Todd Hunter (R-Corpus Christie), Delwin Jones (R-Lubbock), Carol Alvarado (D-Houston), Harvey Hildebran (R-Kerrville), Dan Branch (R-Dallas), and Tryon Lewis (R-Odessa), heard testimony from U.S. congressmen Charlie Gonzalez and Lamar Smith, both intent on impressing that they do NOT write the district maps (a sly response to former U.S. rep Tom Delay's heavy involvement in Texas' last redistricting?) A frustrated state Senator Jeff Wentworth (R-San Antonio) also addressed the joint committee. Is it just us or does Wentworth give the best guilt trips ever? He wanted to remind the jerks under the pink dome that he had been trying since 1993 to pass legislation creating a bi-partisan citizen committee to take over the redistricting process instead of it taking up all the legislators' time one out of every five legislative sessions. Did the jerks listen? Nooooo, though they came thisclose to getting the bill through second reading in 2009. Wentworth wanted to give the committee "fair warning" that he'd be re-introducing the bill this session.

Several other citizens gave testimony. Curiously, many were comely members of the local Grand Ole Party hoping that they would get a bigger slice of the Bexar Co. pie in the state senate and house due to redistricting. Others included Tony Calvert, Jr., who criticized the dilution of the East Side voting bloc by splitting it between three U.S. congressional districts, and MALDEF member Luis Figuerroa, who demonstrated the most in-depth knowledge about Texas' largest redistricting issue: Hispanic voters. Nearly 70 percent of the state's population growth is attributed to Hispanics, said Villarreal, who also stated that in four years, Hispanic Texans will outnumber Anglo Texans. Groups like MALDEF and the Southwest Voter Registration Education Project are eager to remind state lawmakers that without Hispanic populations the state would pick up only one new congressional seat, so there better be more brown representation in D.C. as well, either via Hispanic representatives or designating the new congressional districts to areas with high concentrations of Hispanics. One witness mentioned that not only did Hispanics account for 70 percent of Texas' population growth between 2000 and current, they contributed a similar percentage in the previous decade, "we're playing catch-up not for 10 years, but for 20," said Villarreal when we caught up with him after the hearing. His hope is that a redistricting committee evenly-balanced between Democrats and Republicans (which it is currently), will help avoid too much partisan acrimony. "We need balance, but most importantly, we need perspective," he told us. "We all have to be part of the solution."

Perhaps if one party did not have a significantly better track record with Hispanic voters than the other, this wouldn't be a partisan issue. Though San Antonio knows several Hispanic members of the GOP, as we recently learned from the Mexican-American Legislative Caucus, not one Hispanic member of the Texas Senate is a Republican. The question both parties will have to answer and refer back to much more frequently than every 10 years is, which is easier, redistricting games to favor your party or inspiring the "minority" voters who will soon make up the majority in most of Texas' urban and rural areas?

If you missed the hearing in San Antonio, but are interested in getting in on redistricting action, the joint committee will hold public hearings on July 19 in McAllen, July 20 in Laredo and July 21 in Corpus Christie. Also, you may submit written testimony through the chairs of the committees, call representatives Delwin Jones at 512-463-0542 or Todd Hunter at 512-463-0672.

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