Texas redistricting fight moves to courts

AUSTIN, Texas – On Oct. 14, Texas Democrats filed suit in federal court to block the Republican redistricting power grab. The motion contends that the redistricting map, which the Republican-dominated Legislature approved on Oct. 12, violates the voting rights of minorities.

Almost simultaneously, on Oct. 16, the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund filed a motion in federal court against the newly redrawn map. MALDEF filed the suit on behalf of the American GI Forum, a Latino civil rights organization that led protests last spring and summer against redistricting.

This action is important because Republicans argue that their new congressional districts increase minority voting power in the state. But according to MALDEF’s regional counsel and lead attorney in the case, “the newly-enacted congressional redistricting plan for Texas does not accurately reflect Latino voting strength in the year 2003.” Perales also said that while Republicans contend that their new map creates “an additional Latino majority district in South Texas, in fact it eliminates one district and adds another, with no net increase in electoral opportunity.”

The proposed map splits so many communities with common interests that even some Republican state senators balked at supporting it. It took a visit from U.S. House Majority Leader Tom DeLay and intense arm-twisting by Republican leaders to muster the votes needed for passage in the Senate.

DeLay’s intervention signals how important Texas redistricting is to the right wing’s efforts to advance their anti-working-class program even if they lack national support. According to a leaked e-mail analysis of the new map, authored by Republican congressional staffer Joby Fortson, the new map, if it survives the court challenge, will have “a real national impact that should assure Republican control of the House [of Representatives] no matter the national mood.”

The new map does two things to reduce minority voting strength. First, it shifts some minorities in competitive districts with Democratic incumbents to districts that already are dominated by minority voters. Second, it shifts other minority voters from those districts into ones dominated by affluent white suburbs, many of which consist of 60 percent or more white voters, thus marginalizing minority voters.

The perfect case in point is U.S. Rep. Martin Frost’s district in the Dallas-Fort Worth area. Frost is a moderate Democrat, whose district consists of more than 50 percent minority voters. Fort Worth African Americans from the former district are moved into one dominated by affluent white suburbs and Dallas African Americans are moved into one that already sends an African American to Congress. Latino voters are moved into GOP Representative Pete Session’s district, which is dominated by rich Dallas and North Dallas, the city’s affluent white suburbs.

Passage of the map was a big victory for Texas House Speaker Tom Craddick and West Texas oil and gas special interests. Under the old map, Midland, the center of the West Texas oil and gas industry and Craddick’s hometown, was in a district dominated by Lubbock and big agribusiness. Craddick insisted that the new map create a district anchored by Midland. It took some ugly gerrymandering that ignored the wishes of some fellow Republicans to accomplish this goal.

Craddick and his cronies have already selected K. Michael Conaway, who was the chief financial officer of the Midland bank that loaned Bush $500,000 to buy the Texas Rangers baseball team, to represent Midland in Washington.

It is possible that no court decision will be rendered in time for the spring primaries. If that’s the case, then the old districts will remain in effect for the 2004 elections.

Opponents of the power grab are not giving up. Rep Garnett Coleman (D-Houston) told the Houston Chronicle, “We are proud of what we have done. All of you thought this as a fait acompli before June and here we are in October. We’re going to continue the fight in the courts … to make sure the people of the state are represented fairly.”

The author can be reached at pww@pww.org