Redistricting Lands in the Feds' Hands

By Michael King
Published November 7th 2003 in Austin Chronicle

"If the Republicans succeed in what they're trying to do, there will be only one Democratic Texas representative north of Houston and Austin," said state Sen. Royce West, D-Dallas. "I repeat: one Democratic representative north of Houston and Austin." West was speaking of the proposed congressional re-redistricting map passed by the Legislature and now under preclearance Voting Rights Act review by the U.S. Department of Justice. The single Democratic representative for the northern two-thirds of Texas would be Eddie Bernice Johnson of Dallas.

West is among the many state Democrats currently making the trek to D.C. to continue their case against redistricting. Austin Sen. Gonzalo Barrientos visited the DOJ last week, and said that, like several of his colleagues, he received a mixed reception. "I was there with our lawyer [Gerald Hebert, the former DOJ attorney now representing the Texas Democratic congressional delegation], and there were eight or nine DOJ personnel -- a couple of political appointees, and the rest career attorneys. The attorneys asked most of the questions. I gave my personal background -- everything from segregated schools to migrant labor in the fields to VISTA work -- and told them that the effect [of the new map] on minorities is not just in Austin or El Paso, but across the whole state, because it's like dominoes. I also talked about the negative effect on rural representation" (not protected by the Voting Rights Act).

"And I added another factor: In order to do this, they had to postpone the primaries to March 9, which means that minority Texans, who vote overwhelmingly Democratic, will have no input on the presidential candidate next year." (Super Tuesday is March 2, when the Democratic nomination will presumably be decided.)

Barrientos said that the attorneys were asking good questions, although he couldn't say what that means in terms of eventual DOJ action. He said he did specifically ask the political appointees who would make the decision on preclearance -- would it be the career agency attorneys in the DOJ's Civil Rights Section, or the Bush administration's appointees? "Their response, for whatever it's worth," said Barrientos, "is that it would be the Civil Rights Section."

Texans in Congress and in the state House of Representatives also visited with the DOJ last week and gave likewise mixed reviews. Dallas state Rep. Roberto Alonzo told Quorum Report that he was encouraged by the questions from the DOJ attorneys, as well as by their request that the department be provided with responses to the seven boxes of material defending the map received from Texas Secretary of State Geoff Connor. On the other hand, U.S. Rep. Ciro Rodriguez, D-San Antonio, said the hostility of the political personnel to the Democrats' arguments seemed palpable. "You could almost tell who they were by who was rolling their eyes," he told The Dallas Morning News. Austin Rep. Lloyd Doggett said that the meeting itself was handled professionally, but "entering a building with a John Ashcroft portrait leering down at you is not reassuring, for all kinds of reasons." Doggett said that while he does not want to "relieve career employees of their obligations" by predicting how the DOJ might rule, "I wouldn't be making trips down to McAllen [to campaign in the new District 25] if I thought I could stake my career on it."

On the Republican side, Jonathan Grella, spokesman for U.S. House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, R-Sugar Land, denounced the Democrats for presuming to meet with the DOJ at all to "lobby" for their seats. (Justice department personnel say it is standard practice for all "interested parties" in a VRA case to present their arguments to the DOJ.) The Texas Democrats in Congress submitted a detailed argument to the department, arguing that the new map is "retrogressive" on its face to minority voting rights, leaving African-American and Hispanic voters with less, if any, direct or indirect influence on the state's congressional representation.

Dems appear to have placed more hope in the federal courts than in the DOJ, and on Monday a three-judge panel in Marshall held a status hearing with the parties to the half-dozen lawsuits already filed against redistricting. The court consolidated the cases for a trial to be held in Austin on Dec. 11 (with motions for summary judgment, unlikely to be granted, being heard on Dec. 8). Democrats have welcomed this news, because it means the court will hear arguments prior to the close of the candidate filing period (Dec. 3 to Jan. 16) for the March primary. This opens up the possibility that the judges will order the 2004 elections to proceed under the current map, adopted in 2001, while the case is still pending.

West says he is trying to remain optimistic, but is skeptical of any effective division in opinion at the DOJ. "I keep hearing that," he says of the not-all-negative reports from the DOJ meetings. "But in light of how quickly they rejected our earlier claim [concerning the abandonment of the Senate's two-thirds rule] without even hearing us," he said, "I don't know that it means anything. ... I do know that if the Republicans accomplish what they are trying to do, Texas will no longer have senior leadership in Congress, one party will dominate rather than a balanced delegation working together, and ethnic minorities will not be fairly represented."

West pointed to the congressional staffs of GOP House members, and said that in his experience they are largely "homogeneous" and overwhelmingly Anglo. "That's only one indicator, but it's very hard to represent people or communities you do not know. And based on [the Republicans'] records, they cannot represent ethnic minorities."