The Hammer Drops

Democrats define the case against the House Republican redistricting map

No one had wanted to return to Austin after the long July Fourth weekend. Representatives who had traveled from around the state reluctantly trickled into the AFL-CIO offices near the Capitol for the 11:00 a.m. meeting of the House Democratic Caucus on July 7th. All knew later that day they would be forced to act as handmaidens in their own defeat.

The regular 78th Legislative Session had ended only a month before and Democrats had wrested just one victory from a rampaging Republican majority. They had accomplished the feat by fleeing the state under cover of darkness. Most motored across the Red River aboard two buses, finding safety at a Holiday Inn in Ardmore, Oklahoma. In doing so they denied the House the quorum it needed to operate. Holding out past the deadline for new legislation, they prevented a bill on congressional redistricting from moving forward. But in a few short hours, on the third day of a 30-day special session called by Gov. Rick Perry, the House would take up redistricting again, and this time, there was no way to run out the clock.

A series of bruising public hearings in Austin and across the state the week before had aggravated already inflamed tempers. Representatives had watched as thousands of witnesses pleaded, reasoned, and yes, threatened redistricting committees dominated by implacable Republicans. The entreaties to cease and desist met mostly with silence.

Now on the day of reckoning, a number of the Democrats had told Caucus Chair Rep. Jim Dunnam (D-Waco) that they wanted to speak against the bill. Like their Republican counterparts they understood that this would be but the first step in the battle. Once past the Legislature, the legality of the new congressional map will ultimately be decided by the U.S. Supreme Court. And while Dunnam insists he has had little contact with attorneys, there are plenty of lawyers in the mix for both sides.

The Republican leadership, worried perhaps about inadvertent gaffes emerging during the debate (or even worse, the truth) had urged its members not to muddy the legal record with any strident rebuttal to Democratic charges, according to the Austin American Statesman. “The [Republican] Caucus decided it didn’t want to get into a heated battle,” confirms Craddick spokesman Bob Richter.

Democrats likewise had planned their strategy for the day’s debate with both the judiciary and the court of public opinion in mind. They discussed their plan and divvied up tasks. The Dems opted not to waste endless hours in an effort to tweak the GOP’s map. The Republicans had mastered voting in lockstep at the beginning of the session and the Ds knew any amendment would be preordained to fail. Additionally, their lawyers advised them corrective amendments might give the appearance of endorsing the Republican map. But the Ds could still present new maps as well as argue against the proposed plan. And just maybe, if they made a good enough case, they could convince judges and voters to listen.

lthough apparently coincidental, it was entirely appropriate that freshman Republican Rep. Jodie Laubenberg (R-Wylie) be the first to the front podium the day the House passed congressional redistricting. Laubenberg owes her seat in part to U.S. House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Sugar Land). The former exterminator’s political action committee, Texans for a Republican Majority (TRM), helped Laubenberg defeat two fellow Republicans in a tough 2002 primary. She then went on to squash a Democrat in the general election. Laubenberg received $13,500 from DeLay’s PAC as well as $1,740 in the form of direct mail on her behalf. She also took in $1,000 from the Texas Association of Business (TAB).

Both TRM and TAB are now under investigation by the Travis County District Attorney’s Office. The probe seeks to answer whether the two conspired to funnel illegal corporate cash into the 2002 election.

Laubenberg is one of several dozen candidates DeLay sponsored in a successful million-dollar campaign to get his good friend Rep. Tom Craddick (R-Midland) elected Speaker of the Texas House. During the regular session, DeLay didn’t bother to conceal his role as the engine behind the redistricting effort. By sine die, Craddick had delivered for all the other economic interests that backed his ascension to the speakership, but the flight to Ardmore had delayed paying off his most difficult marker. For unlike the rest of the agenda–tort reform, environmental deregulation, highway development, to name but a few–the redistricting bill would affect the entire nation.

Thanks to DeLay, once again Texas is a national leader in political perversion. If “the hammer” as he likes to be called, is successful in engineering a favorable new congressional map, Republicans in Congress could pick up as many as six additional seats. And if DeLay wins the legal challenges from his coup in the Lone Star State–as well as in Colorado where a similar action was taken–he and White House Rasputin Karl Rove hope to do it again with other Republican-dominated legislatures. The goal appears to be the perpetuation of Tom DeLay in power–to serve the interests of a greedy alliance of corporate pirates and religious zealots–indefinitely. “What Tom DeLay really wants is to control the world,” opined Rep. Senfronia Thompson (D-Houston) at one point during the redistricting debate.

Laubenberg had asked Craddick if she could choose someone from her district northeast of Dallas to give the opening invocation. Her choice, A.I. Draper, is the pastor of the First Baptist church in Wylie, one of the largest towns in the area, with just over 14,500 people.

While Laubenberg’s seat encompasses some of Plano and a few Dallas bedroom communities, the bulk of it is rural. The people who sent Laubenberg to Austin voted in the high 70th percentile for statewide Republican candidates in 2002. But the district also consistently elects Ralph Hall, a conservative Democrat, to Congress.

Rural Anglo congressmen like Hall are precisely the kind of Democrats DeLay hopes to defeat with his map. The end result of his vision will be a resegregation of sorts. The all-powerful GOP will be the Party of Anglos. The Democrats will represent mostly low-income people of color clustered on the border and in the inner city. The House Republican map that many trace to DeLay accomplishes this by yoking rural Texas to thickly settled suburbia and dumping minority communities into Republican strongholds. The new Republican districts would be like Laubenberg’s, a place where the election is decided in the primary. Critics charge this amounts to de facto disenfranchisement for Democratic-leaning minorities stuck in the new districts. (If Laubenberg herself had any reservations about tying her rural district to the whims of Dallas suburbs, her vote in favor of redistricting did not indicate it.)

Ironically, DeLay’s scheme could eliminate a number of Democrats who often vote like Republicans. On the state level they are politicians like Conservative Coalition member Rep. Dan Ellis (D-Livingston). Toward the end of the redistricting debate, Ellis made a rare appearance at the front microphone for a personal privilege speech to argue against the redistricting bill. He explained how in his East Texas region everybody works and cooperates together on a nonpartisan basis. The business-minded Ellis wondered if a freshman Republican congressman rooted in suburban Houston would look out for his rural area, whose virtues he was happy to catalogue: “Our best resources are oil and gas, our children, timber, water and plain old hardworking God-fearing people,” he informed the members.

Unfortunately for Ellis and fellow Democrats, these days the Old Time Religion looks Republican–God’s Own Party–as Pastor Draper made clear.

“We thank you that you have raised up a President to lead our nation from the great state of Texas,” Draper intoned in his opening prayer. “We thank you for his character, integrity, and we pray that you would grant him skillful and godly wisdom in his leadership.”

Don’t fret on that score, Draper counseled. “We believe that the heart of our president is in [God’s] hands and that his decisions are divinely directed of the Lord.”

Draper heaped praise on the leadership right to the end of his brief sermon. “We believe that these men and women are individuals of discernment, understanding, and knowledge,” he concluded. “We trust that the stability of our great state will long continue.”

y the time Rep. Phil King (R-Weatherford) approached the microphone to introduce the redistricting bill, both sides knew each other’s arguments intimately. They had sparred repeatedly in committee and the media. King, wary of a challenge to the map under the Voting Rights Act, insisted that there was “no dilution of minority voting strength” under the plan. It largely left majority minority districts alone. He cast the map before the House as “fair and equitable.” Touching on one of the Republicans’ principle arguments, he noted that Texas voters elected the GOP statewide, which in his mind ought to transfer to Congress as well. The map “clearly recognizes our voting patterns in Texas,” he said.

The Dems began their attack as soon as King opened the floor to questions. Rep. Richard Raymond (D-Laredo), a member of the redistricting committee and a persistent critic, brought out the fact that during the field hearings held the week before, over 90 percent of those who testified were against taking up redistricting.

Democrats argued that Republicans were just going through the motions. Soliciting public input had been a sham, a prelude to the majority ramming through the new map. King countered that the Dems had purposely filled the hearings with partisans, and that it was up to each individual representative to decide how to vote.

To illustrate the Dems’ point, Rep. Mike Villarreal (D-San Antonio), the vice-chair of the redistricting committee who had been marginalized by the Republican majority, placed a tall stack of papers beside a smaller one on the podium. With a ruler he showed how those who had indicated they were against redistricting amounted to 12-inches of paper. The stack of those who supported the Republican plan stood only 1 inch tall. (Nothing pleases bored reporters and photographers more than a solid visual illustration, and Villarreal’s uneven stacks of testimony made it into most state newspapers the next day.)

“The controlling influence of this legislature is wielding the sword of redistricting for their own purposes, not for the larger purposes of this state,” said Villarreal. “Not only does this stack represent where the people of Texas stand on redistricting, but polling that has taken place … has come out to say that 80 percent of our fellow citizens are against [it].”

Through friendly questioning of Villarreal, Rep. Elliott Naishstat (D-Austin) wondered whether the redistricting debate would increase public apathy. The citizenry might cease to participate in the process once they understood their lack of influence. Villarreal allowed that such a result could occur.

Dunnam noted that the bill had passed out of committee on the Fourth of July weekend, when he had been spending time with his wife and kids. During the regular session the redistricting bill had surfaced right before Mother’s Day. “It sort of seems mandatory that this bill be passed over a holiday,” he observed dryly.

Dunnam cited the coincidence as further evidence that the map had been produced in secret, specifically to avoid public input.

King took the opportunity to challenge Dunnam’s work ethic. “The rest of us were here working,” noted the chairman of Regulated Industries.

“I’d of been here too if I was allowed a say in the process” retorted Dunnam.

Later, Dunnam would present an amendment postponing consideration of the bill until Thursday, by which point the Senate would finish their field hearings and members could have a chance to study the House map that had only officially appeared two days before. As the amendment sailed to certain defeat by the Republican bloc, Dunnam lashed out at the GOP’s haste: “It says we don’t care what the public is going to say. We don’t care what the members are going to say. We got the votes. We are going to break the arms and this thing is going to shoot off the floor of the House of Representatives.”

Rep. Al Edwards (D-Houston) questioned King on why the Legislature should break custom and tackle an entirely new redistricting plan in a non-census year after a federal court had already approved a map. King made the case, as he had before, that it was the Lege’s obligation to handle redistricting. He wasn’t quite as honest as an earlier statement when he explained that the president needed more Republicans in Congress to help him with his agenda. But leaving it to the courts, King seemed to say, was somehow illegitimate, an abdication of responsibility.

Edwards then asked hadn’t the current occupant of the White House obtained his position through the courts? “I’m not trying to be funny. If the President can serve where he is today because of the courts, and the courts have approved the maps for our congressional people in Texas, then why can’t they continue to serve if the courts approved it?” asked Edwards with little expectation of a response. And none was forthcoming.

Besieged over how they had conducted the process, King insisted the bill “is no different from any other piece of legislation.” For the rest of the afternoon, veteran Dems happily took turns picking apart that statement.

To call into question the GOP’s urgency for redistricting–even though the process could cost economically troubled Texas as much as $7 million including legal fees–the Ds brought the ghost of Gov. Perry as a witness on their behalf. In 2001, Perry had declined to call a special session on redistricting after Republican Sen. David Sibley killed it. At the time, Perry said a special session on redistricting without a consensus at the outset would be a waste of tax dollars and that the courts should handle it instead.

Had Perry simply parked redistricting in the courts until the Republicans could engineer their majority in the House, wondered Democrats.

bout three hours into the debate, Rep. Arlene Wohlgemuth (R-Burleson) approached the podium with the smile of a little girl about to do something naughty. In her hand she held an amendment to the King map that would restore her congressional district. “I am doing this at the request of my constituents,” she said. “I don’t believe that it’s acceptable to the author.”

Wohlgemuth is a key member of Craddick’s leadership team. Her steely resolve and knowledge of the process make her one of the most effective legislators at the Capitol. During the regular session, she used her spot with the leadership, along with generous helpings of guile and brute force to radically restructure health and human services. But now she was sending up an amendment she knew would fail, with a smile on her lips.

Wohlgemuth’s office refused to comment for this story. But late that night, hours after King had employed the Republican bloc to kill her amendment, Wohlgemuth returned to the fold to vote for the full redistricting bill–despite the harm it did to her slice of rural Texas.

Next came Rep. Carl Isett (R-Lubbock). Isett is a member of the redistricting committee. In that capacity he presided over a Lubbock hearing on changing the lines. Apparently, what Isett heard from the district scared him enough to offer an amendment restoring his congressional district to the one created by the court. Still, he had zero expectation it would be accepted, and it wasn’t. He too voted for the final bill.

“What I heard from my constituents is that they wanted to keep the 19th district the way it is,” said Isett, after the vote. “I have been one of the people who’s said from the beginning that the rest of the state needs to be redistricted. That doesn’t mean I believe the lines on this map were d
awn in the best interests of West Texas.”

Wohlgemuth and Isett’s cover-your-ass amendments were in response to real anger in rural communities over the potential loss of their voice through redistricting. The Waco City Council met on the Fourth of July to pass a resolution condemning the map. It remains to be seen if Democrats can capitalize on the widespread discontent. To date they have done a poor job of prospecting on Republican territory.

During the debate, Dunnam took a stab at catching Republicans in their own contradictions. He proposed an amendment aimed squarely at the state’s outside counsel on redistricting. The amendment would have capped the lawyer’s salary at not more than 110 percent of the average wage of the top ten best paid employees at the attorney general’s office. To do otherwise would be an insult to hardworking public servants, Dunnam argued. It would also save taxpayer money.

“Don’t we need to spend the peoples’ money more prudently?” he asked the bill’s sponsor.

When King demurred, Dunnam failed to call into question his claims to be a fiscal conservative. The amendment died after King argued it would hamper the state’s ability to get the best representation it could.

But the discussion did serve to flush into the open the extraordinary circumstances of Andy Taylor. In 2001, Taylor worked for then-Attorney General John Cornyn on redistricting. Taylor quit the job to enter the private sector with the law firm Locke, Liddell & Sapp. (The firm helped write the Texas House’s omnibus tort deform bill last session.) The day after joining the firm, Taylor signed a contract to represent the state on redistricting. The firm earned over $800,000 for his work. Taylor billed $375 an hour at the time, according to the Houston Chronicle.

In 2002, the Houston-based attorney served as the head of the transition team for Cornyn’s replacement, Greg Abbott. Now that the state is back in the redistricting business, Abbott rehired Taylor as outside counsel. Coincidentally, about when redistricting was heating up last April, Taylor left his former firm to go into practice for himself. He now will be charging the state $400 an hour. A spokeswoman for the attorney general confirmed that Taylor has already done work on redistricting. King has admitted that he relied on Taylor’s advice. But according to the Chronicle, Taylor has yet to bill the state for his services.

Taylor has almost as good a view of the redistricting process as Tom DeLay. Remarkably, Taylor also represents Texans for a Republican Majority in a civil action filed against the PAC. And Taylor serves as lawyer and spokesman for the Texas Association of Business helping to fend off several civil suits and a grand jury investigation looking into its conduct in the 2002 election.

ep. Senfronia Thompson (D-Houston) is a master of a certain kind of legislative theater. With a well-placed phrase or a carefully crafted amendment she manages to entertain her colleagues while simultaneously driving home a serious and substantive point. Most veteran legislators crave her respect. All dread when she takes to the back microphone to oppose them.

During the redistricting debate, Thompson, who is African American, offered her own version of a new congressional map. “There seemed to be a big concern about how minorities are going to be treated and I wanted to thank my Republican colleagues for being so thoughtful about us,” she told them by way of introduction.

She noted that within decades it would be Anglos in the minority in Texas. “I want to help them put a plan in place where we can all keep benefiting when I’m in the majority,” she said. “We’re going to treat y’all right too, Mr. King.”

Her map created a number of new minority districts and then paired Republicans against long-standing popular incumbents of color. “I just think it makes good sense if we have a 65 percent or 70 percent African American district,” she said. “I don’t think Tom DeLay’s going to have a problem running against Sheila Jackson Lee [there].”

King, smiling, successfully moved to table the amendment. By early evening, all of the amendments had been defeated. But in a scattershot way, through offering amendments and careful questions, the Democrats had fashioned much of their case against the redistricting bill. One at a time they filed to the front of the chamber to speak against the bill in summation.

The soft-spoken and sharp-witted Rep. Jim McReynolds (D-Lufkin) addressed the threat redistricting posed to rural Texas. The bill as it passed out of the House would boil four rural Texas congressmen down to one, effectively denying rural voters a meaningful choice. Subsequent speakers would complain that constitutionally it really wasn’t the Lege’s job to pick congressmen. It also wasn’t good sportsmanship to change the rules just because Republicans didn’t like the outcome. One lawmaker compared it to politics in El Salvador, another to Liberia.

McReynolds said: “In the Piney Woods of East Texas, we’re independent as hogs on ice politically.”

He worried the new suburban-based congressmen wouldn’t know the rural area’s special needs or how to treat its two natural resources, water and timber. “We’re blessed with water,” instructed McReynolds. “We’d like for you to move to our part of the state and live with us. But if we’re going to export our water, we don’t want to pay Houston a nickel for a drink of our own water. Or Dallas either.”

Finally, McReynolds rattled off the seniority in Congress that might be lost. Redistricting could displace ranking members of Transportation, Veterans Affairs, Agriculture, Energy and Commerce, Space, and Homeland Security committees. All of them are in a position to bring money home to the state.

Barry Telford (D-DeKalb), a representative for 17 years, accused King of proposing a “vindictive map.” Telford, who has suffered from health problems and might not run for reelection, bemoaned the House’s loss of bipartisanship.

“Members, we are laying the seeds in this special session to become what we have always claimed to loathe, and that is nothing more than a little Washington, instead of on the Potomac, in Travis County, ” he said. “That will be a shame. Members, who will come later–and some of you freshmen members who have been told it’s always been this way–will know nothing more. Members who will come after us, on the Democratic side, will seek vengeance, they will seek retribution, and they will feel totally justified in being vindictive.”

Many minority lawmakers were thinking more short term. Some alleged that the real endgame for Rove and DeLay was to use their new solid congressional majority to target the Voting Rights Act, up for renewal in three years.

Ruth Jones McClendon (D-San Antonio) argued that minorities, once submerged in Republican districts would be unable to build political coalitions with Anglos.

“What are they so scared of?” asked Richard Raymond of his silent Republican colleagues. “You know, the irony of killing East Texas, which used to be the most conservative part of the state, and maybe still is: even in East Texas they have begun to build coalitions, black, brown, and white.”

In fact, resistance to redistricting has bonded the Democrats together like never before. For the first time since the populists tried it 100 years ago, minorities and Anglos are joined together in a progressive cause. Whether that can trickle down to their constituents is another matter.

But if the Republicans had hoped their dominance would intimidate the Democrats, their plan had failed. “It’s not the size of the dog, it’s the fight in the dog,” Senfronia Thompson had said at one point to King. “And there is a lot of fight in a lot of dogs around here.”

Shortly before midnight, the Democratic Caucus assembled again, this time in the Speaker’s Committee room, right off the main chamber. They met to decide whether to give their votes so the speaker could suspend the rules and allow the House to pass the bill that day. If not, Craddick would have to wait until after midnight for final passage. As they discussed it, the House sergeants nervously stood at the door, fearful the Ds might bolt before the vote. The group decided to wait until after midnight, which was only minutes away.

Craddick called for the vote on second reading, one reading short of passage. Lawmakers scanned the board. The final tally was 84 to 61. Only two Democrats, Rep. Vilma Luna (D-Corpus Christi) and Rep. Ron Wilson (D-Houston) gave it an aye. Five rural Republicans voted against. Most who opposed the bill did so to placate angry constituents, they admitted later. One Republican, who didn’t want to be named, described a long discussion with the leadership over his “no” vote. “The Senate is going to come back with a whole new map,” he said. “Why should I stick my neck out now?”

After a brief recess, the clock struck 12:01 a.m., July 8th.

“This is the bill we heard yesterday,” said King, making a stab at humor. “I move passage.”

Then the House sent the redistricting bill to the Senate, 83 to 62.

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Published at 12:00 am CST