Travis caught in remap crossfire
State shuffling led to 3-way split

By Laylan Copelin
Published October 9th 2003

Republicans are not shy in saying that the map they bring to the Legislature today targets white Democrats in Congress.

But Travis County, represented by white Democrat Lloyd Doggett, also was doomed to sweeping changes by attempts to improve the election odds of a Latino Republican, the creation of a new Latino-dominated district and a lack of defenders in the room.

In the end, Central Texas was a victim of geography, and Austinites might struggle to send one of their own to Congress next year.

"My goal was to defeat as many Democratic incumbents as possible in order to give us five or six additional seats," said state Rep. Phil King, R-Weatherford, the House's chief mapmaker. "I would suspect that (any Democrat) who is not in a minority district would have a very competitive race."

Doggett, D-Austin, is among those. He moves from a district representing Austin and eastern Travis County to a district that takes in northeastern Travis, northern Bastrop and all or parts of six counties that lead to Houston. The new district takes in many more Republicans, according to past elections.

The map unveiled Thursday allows Republicans to increase the GOP base for U.S. Rep. Henry Bonilla, R-San Antonio, by moving Democratic-leaning Latinos out of his district. To protect against criticism that the move harms Latinos' voting rights, the mapmakers paired those voters with some Central Texas voters in a new, Latino-dominated district that runs from Central Texas to the Mexican border.

But helping Bonilla was only one factor that sealed Central Texas' fate.

Another was the creation of a new West Texas district that could be won by someone from Midland, Speaker Tom Craddick's hometown. To capture the 651,619 residents required for each district, mapmakers drew the district east from the New Mexico border to the Hill Country. Also, with three districts stemming from Travis, Republicans were determined that two of them would favor Republicans.

Already, western Travis County is represented by U.S. Rep. Lamar Smith, R-San Antonio. And Republicans representing Williamson County were opposed to attaching any part of Travis County to their congressional district. That meant mapmakers could only draw east to create another Republican district and splinter the Democratic stronghold of Travis County.

The decision to split the county was a reversal from previous maps that left Central Texas largely unchanged. At the time, the Republican mapmakers argued that keeping the region whole was the best bet against legal challenges.

But at the insistence of U.S. House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, the state's GOP leadership switched to support splitting Central Texas, except for the Republican stronghold of Williamson County.

Federal law prohibits diluting minority voting strength, but the final legal test will be statewide impact on minority voters. To offset criticism that they were hurting minorities in the Dallas-Fort Worth area or along the Mexico border, Republicans will point to the new Latino district and other minority districts around Houston.

"I think we helped focus on adding minority representation," said U.S. Rep. Kevin Brady, R-The Woodlands, who accompanied DeLay on his three days of steering state leaders' negotiations this week. "That's been our contribution."

Democrats dispute the GOP's contention that minorities will get more representation in Congress. They argue the GOP map actually reduces minority districts from 11 to 10 and isolates other minority voters in Republican districts.

Eventually, the U.S. Department of Justice and the federal courts will decide who's right.

Today, the Legislature is expected to debate the issue that has been stalled for six months, first by Democrats fleeing the state to avoid a vote, and later by the Republican impasse.

Republicans also are prepared to move the March 2 primaries to March 9, according to House Bill 1. The move will likely mean that the presidential matchup for the 2004 election will be determined before Texans cast their nominating votes.

Gov. Rick Perry said the new map is needed because the Democrats' 17 to 15 advantage in the state's congressional delegation is rooted in Democratic-drawn maps.

"For too long, millions of Texans have lived in gerry- mandered districts that were drawn to protect incumbents rather than the public interest," Perry said. "Starting today, the voters of Texas can know that their power to choose their congressman or congresswoman will not be hampered by an incumbent protection scheme."

Travis County Democrats don't see it that way.

Austin Rep. Dawnna Dukes and Sen. Gonzalo Barrientos said the capital has little in common with Houston suburbs or border towns.

"Under the Republican map, Austin may no longer be represented in Congress by an Austin resident," Barrientos said. "I say 'may.' I would bet money that we probably wouldn't."

On the other hand, Democratic lawmakers from South Texas express fear that Travis County may dominate the new, Latino district.

Rep. Jack Stick, R-Austin, defended the map as giving Democrats a voice in the South Texas district and Republicans a voice in the other districts.

"In the end, I think as much representation as we can get Travis County in Washington, the better," Stick said.

The change is a boon for Bonilla, who won re-election last year with less than 52 percent of the vote in a district that stretches from San Antonio to Laredo and west almost to El Paso. His strongest support came from Anglo voters in Bexar County, not from Hispanics along the border.

By removing part of Laredo and adding three Hill Country counties around Kerrville, the Republicans dropped the number of Hispanics and expanded Bonilla's Republican base.

Williamson County was a winner because it will be the population center of a Central Texas district. The county's Republican lawmakers fought to keep their county intact.

Travis County never had a strong advocate at the negotiating table. Travis County Democrats chose to fight redistricting altogether, so they were excluded when Republicans were drawing the final map. Travis County's Republicans in the House took little active role in the mapmaking.

Sen. Jeff Wentworth, a San Antonio Republican whose district includes southern Travis County, shifted his support behind the GOP map although he had said he would oppose further fracturing Travis County. He said getting more support for President Bush in Congress was more important.

At a news conference Thursday, House Democrats said the map will polarize Texans along racial lines.

"It was designed to put a face that is a black or brown face on the Democratic Party so they can play the race card whenever they want to play it," Rep. Garnet Coleman, D-Houston, said. "We have a group of charlatans running our state government."