Redistricting may seem a dry subject in high school civics class, but a large and passionate group of Houston-area folks turned out for a hearing Saturday morning to discuss just that.
The occasion was a joint hearing of the state House Committee on Judiciary & Civil Jurisprudence, Subcommittee on Houston Redistricting and the state Senate Select Committee on Redistricting, held at the Athletic/Alumni Center at the University of Houston.
The Texas Legislature will take up the often-combative redistricting process in next year’s session to draw up new electoral lines to reflect population changes measured by the 2010 U.S. Census. (For links to information and resources on the Texas effort, click here.) The process involves drawing up new lines for Congressional seats as well as state legislative and education board boundaries.
At least 17 state politicians were seated along a line of tables facing a nearly packed room in the center. And while the hearing was called to gather testimony from the public, the first several speakers were politicians themselves.
U.S. Rep. Gene Green, whose 29th District includes much of the Houston Ship Channel area and East Harris County, was up first. The Democrat noted that his own largely Hispanic district was signficantly changed during the protracted and contentious mid-decade redistricting battle in 2003, forcing him to change his residence to remain eligible to run.
“My wife was happy to get a new house,” Green joked. But among the downsides of that 2003 battle was that several Democratic Texas Congress members with longstanding seniority were forced out, harming the state’s political influence, he said.
Green, who while a Caucasian represents a district drawn to reflect a largely Hispanic population, said his goal is to increase Harris County’s representation in the U.S. House, adding that the county should get at least two of the state’s expected four new seats. He said at least three of the total seats should be drawn to represent the huge growth of the Hispanic population.
In one of the first notes of partisanship in the hearing, Democratic Texas Sen. Judith Zaffirini of Laredo pointedly asked Green if the Texas Democratic Congressional delegation had a single spokesperson representing it in the redistricting process. Green replied that there was none.
Later, however, U.S. Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee of Houston said the Democratic members were working through their dean, U.S. Rep. Lloyd Doggett of Austin. U.S. Rep. Kevin Brady, a Republican from The Woodlands, said the GOP delegation was working through U.S. Rep. Lamar Smith of San Antonio.
Lee, whose 18th District includes a large proportion of minority voters, told the panel is was important that “communities of interest” be kept together in any redistricting process. She said her 18th District is a diverse “district of neighborhoods” that includes both downtown Houston and Freedman’s Town, a historically black neighborhood.
“We can work together, although it will be a challenge,” Lee said.
For his part, Brady urged the state lawmakers to do whatever they could to draw the new lines themselves and keep the process out of the courts. He told them that dealing with an expanding population was preferable to dealing with population contraction, but noted that there would have to be a balance in serving the interests of the state’s fast-growing metropolitan areas and the lower-growth or contracting rural areas, particularly in West Texas.
Sue Speck, mayor of Hedwig Village, one of a group of small village enclaves encompassed within west Houston, urged the lawmakers to do whatever they could to keep those villages intact in the 7th Congressional District now held by Republican U.S. Rep. John Culberson.
Russell Hamley, mayor of Jersey Village, also urged that his small municipality, along with the greater unincorporated Cy-Fair area, be kept as contiguous as possible within Culberson’s district.
George Korbel, a San Antonio attorney and consultant who has participated in the state’s redistricting battles since the 1970s, spoke to the panel “representing myself.” He said that among the factors the lawmakers should be considering is that the huge growth in the Hispanic population is mostly responsible for the state’s expected four new Congressional seats.
Civil rights advocacy groups will argue that those seats should be drawn to represent Hispanics, Korbel said. Those arguments will be similar to ones made by Republicans representing a more white population 20 to 30 years ago, he said. “They will say that they were short-changed (in the previous redistricting), and that’s a logical argument,” he said.
Texas Rep. Carol Alvarado, a Democrat on the panel who serves a district in east Houston and Harris County, said that the Hispanic population in Harris County is larger than the Hispanic populations in the San Antonio region and the Valley. But while those areas have four Congressional seats drawn to represent Hispanics, Houston has only one — Gene Green’s 29th.
As more regular citizens began speaking, the tone of the hearing began to shift. A Caucasian woman told the panel she was alarmed about the talk of drawing districts to reflect certain ethnic groups. “I see another Bosnia happening,” she said.
“Let’s not let (the idea of the U.S. ‘melting pot’) be degraded by the color of our skin,” she said to the applause of many in the room.
Alan Vera, a Hispanic businessman and veteran from Houston, pointed to the recent Republican electoral sweep. “It’s been said that to the winners go the spoils, and the losers get to spin.”
Vera asked the lawmakers to consider creating three Congressional districts that cross racial and political lines.
Responding to a question from Texas Sen. Royce West of Dallas, Vera said that differences between ethnicities “have been pressure-cooked into us. We are perpetuating walls that divide us instead of creating districts that unite us.” Vera said he was less interested in”electing a Hispanic than electing the best person to represent us,” another line that generated applause.
Texas Sen. Dan Patrick, a staunchly conservative Republican from west Houston, told Vera that his testimony was among “the most inspiring” the panel had heard during its tour of the state. Patrick later said he was “beaming with pride” that many in the audience were his own constituents from District 7.
Becky Bowyer bemoaned the reported low voter turnout in the last election. She said many choose not to vote because “they believe their votes do not matter” because they live in gerrymandered districts.
Bowyer said that as a conservative Republican, “my vote is meaningless” living in Sheila Jackson Lee’s Congressional district. Bowyer called for the creation of “wedge-shaped” districts that would center on downtown Houston and radiate to the edges of Harris County.
John Faulk, a Republican who earlier this month lost his electoral challenge to Lee, began his remarks by noting that a prior speaker was “a paid staffer” of the Congresswoman. Faulk said the 18th District was “well-served” by the legendary Barbara Jordan, but that Lee was not as responsive.
Faulk went on to criticize the U.S. Census, saying that the “main reason” its forms ask for racial identification is for the drawing of gerrymandered districts. This prompted a strong challenge from Sen. West, who is black. As Faulk pressed his case, West walked out of the room, only to return after Faulk was done.
James S. Bowie, a black Republican, said he was “frustrated” that the redistricting effort may wind up in the courts, as it did in 2003. Texas Rep. Roberto Alonzo of Dallas told Bowie that the lawmakers would work hard to avoid that, but noted that is often the result in a three-branch democracy with a judiciary that interprets the law.
“A lot of times, we don’t like the result,” Alonzo, a Democrat, said, noting that he had been disappointed by the U.S. Supreme Court decision that made George W. Bush the victor over Albert Gore in the 2000 presidential race.
Representatives the NAACP and LULAC spoke on behalf of increased representation of the black and Hispanic communities. Two speakers — Rogene Gee Calvert, president of the Houston 80-20 PAC, and Mustafa Tameez, president of the South Asian Chamber of Commerce — called upon the lawmakers to draw lines that would increase representation for the large Asian-American community in southwest Houston and Fort Bend County.
After four hours of testimony, the lawmakers thanked the dwindling audience for showing up, saying that the Houston meeting had been the largest and most passionate they’d held.
Copyright © 2010 Ken Fountain. All rights reserved.