A little long today, but it’s an important subject.
‘Tis the season to redistrict—and to whine about redistricting. As every third-grader probably knows, we have a new census every ten years. Once the census is completed and we know the populations of the various states, counties, cities and towns, we go about the business of reapportioning representation at all levels of government.
If one part of our city has grown faster than another, city council district lines must be redrawn to allow each council member to represent approximately the same number of citizens as the other council members. Our county commissioners’ districts must be redrawn for the same purpose, along with districts of myriad other local officeholders.
As for Congress, federal law requires the Clerk of the House of Representatives to notify each state government of its entitled number of seats no later than January 25 of the year immediately following the census. It is then the job of each state legislature to draw the actual districts within the state in order to allot approximately the same number of citizens to each Congressional district.
The state legislatures also have the responsibility and privilege of redrawing the districts of state senators and state legislators for the same purpose. This may be the most important job most legislatures have, since the results of their work have a major influence on the party makeup of these various bodies.
It’s also probably the one time each decade we hear the most whining from whichever party is in the minority in our state. Democrats want to concentrate the most Republicans they can in the fewest districts possible, leaving more districts friendly to Democrat candidates. Republicans want the opposite.
Andrew Jackson coined the famous phrase, “To the victors go the spoils.” In his case, he was talking about his right after winning the Presidency to appoint people he wanted to various posts in his administration.
The same principle has always applied to redistricting. The party in power in each state got to draw the redistricting lines, maximizing its own party strength for the next decade’s elections.
In Texas, this use to be a truly vicious exercise. From time immemorial until the last couple of decades, Democrats had a stranglehold on the state legislature, and they used their reapportionment power ruthlessly tilting the scales of justice far to one side.
When I was in college, the only Republican Congressman from Texas was Bruce Alger of Dallas. His district had a population, as I recall, of around 950,000. At the same time his next-door neighbor Sam Rayburn represented a district with a population of about 215,000. With that districting the same number of people that elected Alger could elect nearly five Democrat Congressmen.
Where were the cries of foul? Where was the ACLU? Nobody thought of trying to get some federal judge to overturn the will of the duly elected representatives of the people who gathered in the legislature to create this imbalance. Republicans just continued to recruit the best candidates they could and gradually eroded the massive stranglehold the Democrats held.
Under current federal law and guidelines, such gerrymandering is illegal. Districts within a state must each represent approximately the same number of people, based on the most recent census. If the average district has a population of 700,000, we could have 670,000 in one district and 730,000 in another—we can’t be exact—but we cannot have 900,000 in one and 500,000 in another.
So the argument these days isn’t so much about how many people are in each district. It’s about the demographic makeup of the districts. In a state where Democrats control the legislature, they will naturally try to concentrate all the suburban, middle-to-upper middle-class people they can in as few districts as possible within the constrictions of the population averages, spreading the ethnic minorities and others they can lead to vote for their party around to produce as many districts favorable to their candidates as possible.
Of course, in a state where Republicans are in the majority, they will try to do just the opposite. This is a natural function of politics—nothing sinister at all.
After the 2000 census, Texas gained two new seats in Congress. Democrats still held majority status in the legislature, so they redistricted in a manner most favorable to them. When Republicans took over the majority in both houses of the legislature in 2002, they decided to redistrict once again to undo some of the favorable treatment the Democrats had arranged for themselves—and had been arranging since before any of us were born.
Remember the Bruce Alger situation mentioned earlier, where Republicans just had to go along and bide their time? Did the Democrats do likewise now that the shoe was on the other foot? Not at all.
House Majority Leader Tom Delay lent his influence to help the redistricting movement, which for some reason truly irked Democrat leaders. The had a political hack named Ronnie Earle in the office of Travis County District Attorney who was always ready to abuse his power to harm Republicans, so they got him to seek an indictment of The honorable Mr. Delay. In Travis County, the odds are almost overwhelming that a jury—either a grand jury or a trial jury—is going to be loaded with Democrats, so they managed to ruin this man’s reputation with an indictment and even convict him. So much for playing nice.
While this was getting under way, the Democrats in the legislature came up with a new disruption tactic. Lacking the voting power to stop redistricting, fifty-two Democrat members of the state House of Representatives went to Oklahoma to deprive the House of a quorum. Since they were out of state, they couldn’t be served with subpoenas and forced to return. They caused the governor to have to call two special sessions to redistrict. When he called the second one, eleven Democrat senators went to New Mexico, once again disrupting orderly business by depriving the Senate of a quorum. Governor Perry had to call a third session before a Democrat senator manned up and returned to allow a quorum.
Texas had been a majority Republican state for a couple of decades. With only two exceptions, our governors have been Republican since 1978. We’ve had at least one Republican U.S. Senator since 1961and two since 1993. Yet it took this redistricting battle in 2003 to make our Congressional apportionment fair enough for the Republican majority to elect a majority of Republicans in our Congressional delegation.
To paraphrase an old Ray Charles song, “Now it’s whining time again . . .” Our legislature is pursuing its legal and constitutional duty to redistrict based on the 2010 census, and guess who’s whining about every move the majority makes? You guessed it—the party of the Sam Rayburn-Bruce Alger discrepancy.
One Tarrant County Senator, Wendy Davis, has led the whining. She has new sound bites for the newspaper daily and continues to threaten lawsuits to stop the will of the people from being honored.
Ø Regardless of your party affiliation, how do you feel about a party that creates districts like Sam Rayburn and Bruce Alger had and then railroads a man into prison because his party wants to bring a level playing field to the game?
Ø What do you think about a kid losing the marble game and then grabbing all the marbles and hiding them—like the fifty-two representatives and eleven senators who went and hid rather than allowing the legislative process to function?