Texas Democrats Solicit Bush's Help in Redistricting Dispute White House Says It's Staying Out of Fight

By Edward Walsh
Published August 11th 2003 in Washington Post

Texas Democrats are trying to drag President Bush into a bitter dispute in his home state, calling on Bush to intervene to stop a Republican attempt to redraw the boundaries of the state's 32 congressional districts for a second time in the last three years.

In a letter addressed to Bush at his Texas ranch, 11 Democratic state senators who fled to New Mexico to prevent passage of the GOP redistricting plan accused Bush's chief political strategist, Karl Rove, of playing a key behind-the-scenes role in orchestrating "a blatantly partisan and grossly unfair re-redistricting scheme."

"Your continued silence [on the Texas dispute] is being interpreted by thoughtful Americans as complicity or as tacit approval," the senators wrote on special stationery bearing the title "The Texas 11."

A White House spokesman said in reply yesterday: "While the president always maintains an interest in Texas, he currently is concentrating on governing all of America." When White House spokesman Scott McClellan was asked about the dispute last Monday, he called it "a matter that the state of Texas is addressing."

"We'll leave it to the state of Texas to address that," McClellan said. The redistricting dispute has paralyzed the state legislature.

Redistricting is normally done the year after the census, but in 2001, when Democrats still controlled the Texas House, the two parties deadlocked, and new lines were drawn by a panel of federal judges. Democrats emerged from the 2002 elections with a 17-to-15 advantage in the state's U.S. House delegation.

But since then, the GOP has taken over the Texas House -- which has already rammed through one version of a new redistricting plan -- and controls the entire redistricting process. A Republican attempt to redraw the district lines during the legislature's regular session this year was thwarted when more than 50 House Democrats bolted to a motel in Oklahoma near the end of the session, depriving the House of a quorum to conduct business.

Bush's successor, Republican Gov. Rick Perry, has called two special, 30-day legislative sessions to deal with redistricting. In the first, Senate Democrats blocked the GOP plan because of a Senate procedure requiring a two-thirds vote to consider any new legislation.

But when Perry called a second special session, Republican Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst, the presiding officer of the Senate, announced that the two-thirds procedure would be suspended. In response, the 11 Democrats fled to a hotel in Albuquerque, preventing a quorum in the Senate.

House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Tex.) is widely seen as the driving force behind the GOP redistricting plan, which could result in a gain of five or more congressional seats for the Republicans. Dewhurst has acknowledged discussing tactics with Rove, but the exact role of the White House strategist in the dispute has remained murky.

In their letter to Bush, the 11 Democratic senators said the GOP redistricting plan "smacks of blatant racism by Republican leaders" because of its likely impact on minority voters. Democrats charge that the plan would dilute the votes of about 1.4 million black and Hispanic voters by "packing" them into a handful of congressional districts. "Clearly you recognize the increasing significance of the Hispanic and African American vote in national elections because you sought our help in Texas," the senators said. "Early on, you vowed to unite, not divide. Today your Texas successors threaten to divide us as never before in our state's history. This flies in the face of your national Latino outreach programs. With all due respect, Mr. President, you cannot have it both ways."

Last week the two sides took their dispute to court. Perry and Dewhurst asked the Texas Supreme Court to order the missing Democratic senators to return to Austin. The 11 senators filed suit in Travis County contending that Perry had no authority to call a special session on redistricting and asking for a ruling that they could not be arrested if they return to the state.

Staff writer Mike Allen in Crawford, Tex., contributed to this report.