Texas Democrats and Republicans Battle Over Redistricting

THE redistricting fight in Texas, never a peaceful process, has been especially protracted and partisan this time, with both sides accusing the other of questionable tactics.

The United States Supreme Court let stand a redistricting plan for the state senate that was drawn by three Republican-appointed federal judges. That will enable the GOP to win from 12 to "an optimistic maximum of 16 seats" in the 31-seat state Senate, says Karen Hughes, executive director of the Republican Party of Texas. The Senate had been "grossly gerrymandered" by the Democrats until now, she alleges, limiting Republicans to nine seats.

Democrats, in contrast, accuse Republicans of abusing the Voting Rights Act for partisan interests. "We concede nothing," says Ed Martin, executive director of the Democratic Party of Texas. "Even in their gerrymandered districts [the GOP is] going to have to fight to win."

Even though the primaries will be held with the judicially-drawn Senate boundaries, legislation was passed that would enable the Senate-drawn boundaries to be substituted in the general election - an unprecedented action, Mr. Martin adds.

Meanwhile, a Republican Party lawsuit is plodding through the courts. It won't conclude in time to affect the 1992 elections but could force redistricting of the US congressional districts for subsequent election years, Ms. Hughes says.

Reapportionment is always partisan, observes William Hobby, a Democrat who served as lieutenant governor for 18 years. "There's nothing different about that. That's the name of the game."

But Mr. Hobby, now a professor at the University of Texas, says this process seems worse than usual. "I certainly have some criticism for both sides." All of the plans, Republican or Democratic, "have an Alice-in-Wonderland quality about them," he says.

Democrats in the state Senate, he noted, imposed a redistricting plan in December for that body in agreement with minority plaintiffs and without airing it before the Legislature, which had recessed.

The three-judge panel, meanwhile, replaced that plan on Christmas Eve with its own version in response to the lawsuit brought by the Republican Party.

During a special session of the Legislature earlier this month, a fist fight nearly erupted in the Senate when a Democrat accused the Republican next to him of participating in a "sorry, dirty, rotten, low-down deal."

The Republican senator, whose reelection is assured under the three-judge plan, has paid thousands of dollars to a political consultant whose brother is one of those judges.

Another of the Republican judges, according to affidavits filed by the state attorney general, received assistance in drawing the district lines from a state representative who subsequently filed to run for a Senate seat.

Attorney General Dan Morales, a Democrat, had sought to have the US Supreme Court replace the judges' plan with the Senate's plan, which it formally adopted at this month's special session. "Redistricting should be in the hands of elected officials," says Ron Dusek, a spokesman for the attorney general's office.

But Hughes charges that the attorney general "is acting, unfortunately, as a partisan Democrat."

Observers to the redistricting process have been dismayed at the partisan scrambling and maneuvering, prompting numerous suggestions that a new process be found. "Such an idea almost always comes up after people watch the process and have seen how it operates," Mr. Dusek says.

Adds Hughes: "There must be a better way, but I'm not sure what it is. I'm not sure I trust that nonpartisan commissions would ever really be nonpartisan."

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