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Census Numbers Terrible for Rural Texas

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When the U.S. Census numbers appeared today, showing that the Texas Latino population had grown by 42 percent in a decade, most people wanted to talk about the places that had grown dramatically – the communities that accounted for Texas’ 4.3 million new residents.

But for a whole lot of counties, the Census figures were news of a different sort. In rural Texas, counties are dying, the Census shows. Fast. The region that produced two House Speakers will soon wield little power in state politics. Everyone knew it was coming—but the maps offer a particularly dramatic telling.

Of the 254 Texas counties, 78 actually lost population. The vast majority of those are west of I-35. Within the Panhandle, things are especially dramatic. Only one county in the entire region—Randall—kept up with the state’s 20 percent overall growth.

That sort of regional population loss is compounded by the incredible growth around cities like Austin and and Fort Worth. Travis County and Tarrant County both grew over 25 percent since 2000. People are indeed coming to Texas and staying here, but few are going west. 

In August, I spent ten days driving around West Texas in an effort to learn about the region’s changing political culture. After all, the Tea Party was big in Lubbock; in both the GOP primaries and the general elections, upstart Tea Partiers beat establishment candidates. But more than ideology, I found these small town residents want representatives who would be loud and aggressive. With such a small population, everyone wants to ensure that their concerns will still get heard. 

Regional power is sure to shrink under redistricting. Not only are the numbers bad, but many of the representatives are freshmen who lack the political clout that can help protect districts. And one of the most powerful West Texas members just announced he’s stepping down.

When state Rep. Warren Chisum, an outspoken hardline conservative, announced this week that he would leave the office he’s held over 20 years in order to run for the Railroad Commission, it was yet another indication of the dwindling power these state reps will have. Of the 19 counties he represents, 11 have lost population. The only other representative with numbers that low is Jim Landtroop, R-Plainview, where 13 of the 16 counties are smaller than they were ten years ago.

While none of this is shocking, West Texas’ loss of political power has major implications. After all, this is the place everyone imagines when they think of the Lone Star State. Oil wells and cowboy hats, huge ranches and rough terrain. The truth is, these days Texas is better represented by strip malls and suburbs. That’s progress, folks.

In his inaugural address, Gov. Rick Perry infamously said the twenty-first century would come to be called the “Texas Century.” Who knows? Maybe. There’s no denying that Texas’ growth will mean more power for the state in Congress. 

But it will be a very different state than the Texas of the last century. Even the governor’s childhood hometown in Haskell County—where all of his “growing up in Paint Creek” stories come from—isn’t immune. It’s down to less than 6,000 people.