Will third time be remap charm?

Published July 26th 2003 in The Dallas Morning News

AUSTIN -- As the battle over congressional redistricting deadlocked a second time, with no resolution in sight, both sides paused Friday to calculate the political risks of a third go-around.

"This is for all the marbles," said Democratic pollster Jeff Montgomery. "It's for keeps. And there will be no turning back."

Democrats used the Senate's traditional requirement of a bipartisan consensus and a key Republican senator's defection to thwart passage of a new congressional map in the special session. House Democrats staged a boycott in May to block a new plan during the regular session that ended June 2.

On Friday, Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst pronounced the GOP's remap effort dead in the special session that began June 30 and will end Tuesday.

"We didn't have the votes to bring it up," Mr. Dewhurst said, though he reiterated that Republicans probably would in a second special session because he wouldn't require a two-thirds vote, as is customary, for a bill to be brought up on the Senate floor.

A spokeswoman said Gov. Rick Perry has not decided yet to call another session.

Strategists have advised Mr. Perry to first make sure there is agreement within his own Republican Party on a new congressional map and enough time for it to clear federal review and be in place for next year's elections.

Meanwhile, 11 Democratic senators waited for Mr. Perry to make a decision before they consider whether to show up for a second special session.

"It's premature to discuss any location or where we would possibly go because the decision has not been made," said Sen. Leticia Van De Putte, D-San Antonio and chairwoman of the Senate Democratic Caucus. She said Democrats would discuss a boycott this weekend.

Political scientists and polltakers agreed that few voters care deeply yet about the prolonged redistricting battle, though they differed about whether the public eventually will punish one side or the other.

"It's an activist fight," said Bruce Buchanan, a political science professor at the University of Texas at Austin. "The mass public does not have a way to relate to how redistricting is affecting their interest."

Mr. Buchanan said he was surprised that Republicans and Democrats are not spending advertising dollars to sway the public to their side.

Democrats packed field hearings with critics of the push for a new redistricting plan by such Washington Republicans as U.S. House Majority Leader Tom DeLay of Sugar Land and senior White House adviser Karl Rove.

For instance, at seven meetings the Senate held across the state, 89 percent of the 2,620 witnesses opposed any change in the congressional maps drawn by federal judges two years ago, after the Legislature failed to produce a plan.

Ordinary Texans may not be aware of the redistricting battle at all, said Mr. Montgomery and Mike Baselice, a GOP pollster in Austin.

However, Cal Jillson, political science professor at Southern Methodist University, said he thinks a good many voters are watching the spectacle at least sporadically and with casual interest.

"The public is sitting back, sort of bemused at this point," Dr. Jillson said. "It's having a hard time sorting out fact from fiction. Republicans say it's a matter of fairness, that they've got 58 percent of the vote in this state. ... Democrats say this is a heinous act of political hardball."

Although Dr. Jillson predicted a second session would bring "a partisan explosion" that could damage one party or the other, Mr. Baselice, who polls for Mr. Perry, said "the downsides are minimal" for Republicans and probably for Democrats, too.

"I don't know how it's going to stack up against other issues," Mr. Baselice said.

"Probably, it's not that powerful a deal. ... I wish I could sit here and tell you here's somebody that lost an election because of redistricting ... because of the way they voted or how they conducted themselves during the debate. I can't think of one."

The public views redistricting "as a political issue," which doesn't affect paychecks or quality of life, he said.

Mr. Montgomery, the Democratic pollster, and SMU's Dr. Jillson said they were surprised that Mr. Perry had called the first special session without having made sure beforehand that a map would pass.

"This has been a fairly ineffectual performance by the Republican leadership in Austin," Dr. Jillson said.

Mr. Montgomery said Mr. Perry had "mediocre" rankings with the public in a recent survey. But he attributed the lack of enthusiasm for the governor to the state's $9.9 billion budget shortfall and Mr. Perry's low profile during the recent regular session, not to his handling of redistricting.

Dr. Jillson said Republicans could get too greedy, drawing a map to boost their current 15 seats to as many as 22 of the 32 seats in the state's congressional delegation, only to have it overturned by federal judges on the grounds that it diluted minority voters' voices.

"When the adrenalines starts to flow, as it is down there now, it's hard for these guys not to overreach," he said.

GOP consultant Mr. Baselice said "you're going to hear that type of rhetoric," but it won't be persuasive with voters.

"I don't think anybody's trying to get back at Democrats for their gerrymander districts that were partisanly drawn in the 1990s and in the 1980s," he said.

Mr. Montgomery said assessments of damage are premature.

"This opera is only in the second act, and perhaps about to go into the third act," he said. "There's any number of scenarios that might play out."