Commission may draw district lines
Wentworth credit for tenacity.
No, not for trying to authorize carrying handguns on college campuses, though his persistence about that has dismayed a considerable number of top college officials and students.
The tenacity we’re talking about is Wentworth’s continuing effort to remove redistricting from the political, partisan swamp of the Legislature.
Wentworth, R-San Antonio, has been trying since 1993 to get Texas to join other states – now 13 -- in setting up some form of redistricting commission other than the legislature.
The Senate approved the idea in 2005 and 2007, but it died in the House. In 2009, it was blocked by Sen. Dan Patrick, R-Houston. During the regular session that ended May 30, it failed to get to the Senate floor.
The proposal during the special session is Senate Bill 22, limited to congressional redistricting. It would create an eightmember commission, with the Republican and Democratic Party caucuses of the House and Senate each selecting two members. They can’t be elected officials, party officials above the level of a precinct or lobbyists.
Those eight would choose another nonvoting member, who would be presiding officer. It would take at least five votes to pick the non-voting member. It would also require five votes to approve a redistricting plan.
Wentworth had predicted, in January of 2010, that redistricting would be a fiasco.
“By June 1, 2011, we will have adjourned,” Wentworth said then, “and the Legislature will not have drawn lines for the Congress, the state Senate, or the state House. We will have failed.”
He was one-third right. The Legislature did approve new district lines for the House and Senate, but failed to draw a congressional map during the regular legislative session.
However, Gov. Rick Perry included congressional redistricting in the immediate special session that began June 1, and the Senate passed a new congressional map on June 6. The House altered it slightly June 14, and sent it back to the Senate for concurrence on an almost completely partyline vote. On Monday, June 20, the Senate concurred with the House amendments, so the bill is headed for the governor’s desk.
Another prediction Wentworth made in 2010 was that the legislature’s maps would be designed by the majority party to punish the minority party. That was true in spades, as Republicans who dominated both bodies drew legislative and congressional districts that did just that.
If you think the fact that a majority of Hispanics and African Americans tend to vote Democratic may have entered into this, you can also be forgiven for thinking that the redistricting effort was about as non-partisan as the bills about voter ID and sanctuary cities. But the Republicans figure it’s just payback for what the Democrats used to do to them up until 10 years ago.
The congressional districts drawn by the House and Senate, for instance, split Travis County, where the capitol is located, not just into three districts, as it currently is, but five – stretching as far away as San Antonio, just south of Fort Worth, west of Kerrville, and east to Houston.
U.S. Rep. Lloyd Doggett, D-Austin, who has survived previous attempts to draw him out of a district, complained that the new congressional map is designed to keep someone from Austin from being able to represent it for the next decade.
The chairs of the House and Senate redistricting committees, Rep. Burt Solomons, R-Carrollton, and Sen. Kel Seliger, R-Amarillo, defended the proposed new congressional districts as being as fair and representative as they could make them.
And House Speaker Joe Straus, R-San Antonio, applauded the House for presenting “a fair and legal congressional map.”
Democrats in the House, Senate and elsewhere disagreed. They argued that the map is destined to be drawn by federal courts, on grounds it divides minority voting strength -- even though most of the growth that gained Texas four more congressional districts from other states was largely among minority groups, particularly Hispanics.
Matt Angle, a former aide to former U.S. Rep. Martin Frost, a victim of the 2003 congressional redistricting engineered by former Republican Majority Leader Tom DeLay, contended the proposed congressional map violates the federal Voting Rights Act.
“Even though all four of the new districts Texas gained as a result of the 2010 census were due to the increase in Texas’ Hispanic and African American populations, the Republican plans reduce the number of districts where minority voters have the opportunity to elect their candidate of choice from 11 out of 32 districts (34 percent) to only 10 out of 36 districts (28 percent),” said Angle, who heads a Democratic advocacy organization called the Lone Star Project.
“However,” Angle predicted, “by so blatantly ignoring minority population growth and minority voting strength, the GOP has provided the opportunity for minority advocacy groups and their allies to win a fairer plan in the federal courts.”
If history is a guide, the maps will all be questioned in federal court. Challenges have already been filed in three federal districts in Texas. Over the next few years, it could qualify as a part of the effort to boost the economy – and could be nicknamed “The Lawyers’ Full-Employment Act.”
If he doesn’t seek re-election in 2012, Wentworth, 70, would leave the redistricting commission to be pushed by other legislators.