November's top prize might be a statehouse

Winners of key state legislative races will determine who shapes US House districts.

The line of firefighters shaking David Fisher's hand may not know it, but this Democratic state Senate hopeful is easily the most-watched candidate in Texas.

Oh, sure, there's that Bush fellow. But the race between Mr. Fisher and state Rep. Todd Staples is where the action is.

The reason is pure mathematics. The balance of power in the nation's state legislatures - now evenly split - will be one of the most important outcomes of Election 2000. If Fisher wins this seat, Democrats will control both houses of the Texas legislature, in a year when statehouses around the country will be drawing new district lines that will determine the makeup of Congress for the next decade.

As such, this race in east Texas could be pivotal for the state, and perhaps emblematic of what will happen nationwide.

"Whoever wins there will likely determine the political makeup of the Texas statehouse," says Ross Ramsey, editor of Texas Weekly, an Austin-based political newsletter. "The outside forces are interested in [the Staples-Fisher] race because of redistricting." Even without the added volatility of a redistricting year, statehouse races have grown increasingly important, as states take on more responsibility for issues that touch citizens' lives.

George W. Bush and Al Gore may debate about how best to improve the nation's public schools, but the truth is that most decisions affecting education - including teacher training, educational standards, and private-school vouchers - are made in the state legislatures. Similarly, state lawmakers are blazing new trails in criminal justice, welfare reform, and in the way businesses and civilians use the civil court system.

All that said, the process of redrawing electoral districts is coming at an especially volatile time. Nationwide, the partisan lines of control are evenly drawn. Democrats control 19 state legislatures; Republicans control 18; the rest are split between the two parties.

In some states, the margins of control are quite small. Republicans control the Texas state senate, for instance, by one seat. As such, even a shift of 17 state legislative seats and two governorships in favor of Republicans in November's election could gain the GOP some 20 seats in the US Congress.

Redistricting is a product of the once-a-decade US Census report, which was completed this past summer. States that lose population tend to lose power in the form of congressional seats.

Even states that maintain the same number of seats, however, have population shifts within their borders, and the process of redrawing the map of election districts can alter the political makeup of any given district dramatically.

A once rural conservative district, for instance, can quickly become a cosmopolitan urban district, with the stroke of a pen. This can either prompt a representative to change his political tune, or pack his bags.

Given the stakes of redistricting, it is perhaps not surprising that political parties are spending an extraordinary amount of money to tilt the statehouse balance of power in their favor. In the Fisher-Staples race, for instance, the Republican Party claims to have spent about $2 million, and yet they claim to be outspent by the Democrats by 2 to 1.

"This is probably going to be the most expensive state legislative race in history," says Richard Murray, director of the Center for Public Policy at the University of Houston.

The irony, he adds, is that it takes a 21-seat majority to do anything controversial in the state Senate, so the redistricting committee members will probably stick with the good-old-boy tradition of seniority and friendship. "The Senate will come up with an incumbent protection plan. After all, they've got to live with each other for the next 10 years."

At the South Nacogdoches Volunteer Fire Department, few of the audience members seem to care about redistricting. They're more interested in Fisher's promise to provide funding for rural fire departments, which have been the last line of defense against forest fires, such as the Melrose fire, which took more than a month to put out.

Fisher reminds them that his opponent, Representative Staples, was one of seven Republicans to vote against the so-called "firecracker bill," which would have imposed a 2 percent tax on fireworks to pay for more rural fire protection.

"We're here today to support David Fisher in this campaign," says I.J. Tucker, president of the Professional Firefighters Association in Lufkin. "We need someone to listen to firefighters' issues in Austin. Right now, it's been falling on deaf ears."

"We need all the help we can get," agrees Thomas Lambert, fire chief of the Lake Nacogdoches Volunteer Fire Department. "There's only so much you can do with barbecues and donations."

For his part, Fisher says the people he talks to don't care one whit about redistricting. They care about education, healthcare, and protection of the area's natural resources, including the all-important timber industry.

"The people here are interested in one thing," says Fisher, "and that's making east Texas the first priority."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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