Did Pe��_a Lie About Drawing His Own House District?

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Texas Representative Aaron Peña (R, but formerly D–Edinburg) is in the hot seat this week after testimony in San Antonio federal court last week proved inconsistent with Peña’s description of his role in the recent redrawing of Texas voter district maps.

The proposed new map for state House districts includes a specially created conservative district for Peña. That district surfaced mere months after he switched political parties, helping give the GOP a supermajority in the Texas House.

Peña stated on the House floor during session in April that he told the redistricting committee, “I will not draw this map because one, I did not want to be involved. And two, that I didn’t want to be involved in pairing or being involved in affecting my neighbors districts.”

But that doesn’t square with what House redistricting committee counsel Ryan Downton testified in a San Antonio federal court last week. Downton said he worked directly with Peña on the district lines after the first draft of the map was released. Specifically, Downton said that Peña told him which neighborhoods were favorable to the lawmaker so that Downton could include them in Peña’s proposed district. This is according to Texas Democratic Party deputy executive director Anthony Gutierrez, who posted the report of court proceedings on Monday on that party’s blog  The Party Insider.

Apparently, it proved awfully difficult to carve a conservative district for Peña out of Democratic-leaning Hidalgo County. Compared with surrounding districts—all Democratic— Peña’s HD 41 is   under populated by about 7,000 people. Downton testified that including more voters would have made the district too Democratic as Hidalgo County is largely populated by Latinos who have never before elected a Republican. This process of putting more voters in neighboring districts is a method of gerrymandering known as “packing” where minorities are packed into surrounding districts to create a non-minority district for interested parties.

A call to Rep. Peña’s office got me this quote from Peña:

“I did not physically draw the map, did I make suggestions to the map drawers, sure just like 149 other members did. I have always been forthright that I communicated with staff and legislators as is my duty as a member of the committee.  These sort of petty personal attacks by hyper-partisans are not constructive.”

The same day Gutierrez released his report, the Department of Justice filed legal briefs announcing that the Texas House and congressional redistricting maps violate the Voting Rights Act of 1965 because they don’t protect the electoral power of the state’s minority populations. This means the case will go to federal court in Washington D.C.

The Voting Rights Act is a landmark piece of legislation that outlawed discriminatory voting practices especially prevalent in the American South. Texas is required by federal law to get pre-clearance on any changes to voting procedures because of its history of disenfranchising minority voters. (More on this and the various court proceedings in my print column in the upcoming October issue of the Observer.)

As of this writing, the San Antonio federal court proceedings have wrapped, but the panel has not issued a report. It’s waiting for the decision to come down from D.C. courts that are allowed to make the final decision on this case. That could take as long as November. Meanwhile, Peña has a very tough reelection fight on his hands, even if his friendly district is upheld.

Cindy Casares is a columnist for the Texas Observer. She is also the founding Editor of Guanabee Media, an English-language, pop culture blog network about Latinos established in 2007. She has a Master's in Mass Communications from Virginia Commonwealth University Brandcenter. Prior to her career in journalism, she spent ten years in New York City as an advertising copywriter. During her undergraduate career at the University of Texas she served under Governor Ann Richards as a Senate Messenger during the 72nd Texas Legislature.