Dateline Texas

A Little Bit More Equal


For the last decade people have moved freely across this state, as they have in decades prior, pushed or pulled by employment, open space, divorce, death, bill collectors, love and the weather. But electoral districts are not of this earth, and they do not follow the natural migrations of voters. Thus we have redistricting, in which elected officials meticulously and methodically apply a mathematical model–the census–to our most sacred Constitutional principle–one man, one vote–in a vain effort to redraw their own electoral districts, and thus their own political futures, with some semblance of objectivity, order, and dedication to the public interest. Of course, politicians are very much of this earth, and never do their shortcomings, self-interest, and basic human frailty become more evident than during this periodic reordering of democracy, which is why the whole process inevitably winds up in the courts, as the current effort to reapportion state and federal legislative districts is destined to do.

While the spotlight is always on the state legislature and the U.S. Congress, this same drama plays out every 10 years in the state’s 254 counties, where county commissioner’s precincts must be redrawn. The stage may be smaller, but the intrigues are no less intricate and the characters no less human. In Liberty County, 1000 square miles of piney woods and pastureland between Houston and Beaumont, redistricting made it to the courts a little early this time around. In late June, Liberty County Commissioner Toby Wilburn was arrested on a charge of wiretapping the courthouse, allegedly to “earn a political advantage” on his fellow commissioners, according to the FBI. The process of redrawing county precinct lines had just gotten underway, and most hands agree that Wilburn, who had seen the math and understood the principle, was about to get screwed.

So he allegedly sent his co-conspirator, precinct four Constable Craig Houghton, to Houston to buy some very small radios. On the ground floor of the Depression-era courthouse in downtown Liberty, population 8,932, County Auditor Harold Seay showed me where one ended up: slipped into the emergency lighting system on his ceiling, about 10 feet from his desk. In County Judge Lloyd Kirkham’s office, one flight up, the feds found one in the moss of a potted plant. A third was found in the office of precinct one Commissioner Todd Fontenot. The bugs were not difficult to find: Houghton led agents right to them. First, however, he allowed himself to be wired by the FBI, who had been brought in after local law enforcement was tipped off about the conspiracy. Thus, on at least one of the nights that Wilburn, Houghton, and a third alleged conspirator, building superintendent Neal Williford, spent crawling through the courthouse, the FBI was listening to its own very small radio, and making a very compromising recording. Houghton has plead guilty; Wilburn and Williford, who have plead not guilty, will have their day in court later this month in Beaumont.

Liberty County has three population centers, each at the heart of its own commissioner’s precinct: Liberty, the county seat, sits roughly in the geographical center, Dayton six miles west, and Cleveland in the northwest corner. A fourth precinct sprawls across the remaining rural areas of the county to the north. The area was once a booming oil field–Spindletop blew fifty miles east of Liberty–but that played out long ago. Rice farming and cattle ranching have become unprofitable as well, and the town of Liberty has shrunk along with the local economy. Meanwhile the Dayton area, Toby Wilburn’s precinct, has boomed. Dayton is emerging as a new Harris County bedroom community, particularly attractive to people looking for an affordable half-acre or acre with a treeline on which to plant a manufactured home. Pastureland has turned to subdivision almost overnight, making precinct four one of the fastest growing areas in southeast Texas.

The rules of redistricting, whether of commissioner’s precincts or Congress-sional seats, are deceptively simple. Generally speaking, districts must be compact and contiguous, they must contain roughly the same number of people, and they must not have the effect of decreasing the voting power of minorities or political parties. At the county level, commissioner’s courts collect their census data and turn it over to an expert, usually an Austin law firm that specializes in electoral law, which draws up a map and sends it back to the commissioners for debate. Of course, anybody is free to have their own competing map drawn up, and this is how things get complex. At last count, at least six maps had been drawn for Liberty County, which has fewer than 70,000 residents.

When the process began, the solution seemed obvious. Precinct one, the Liberty area, was short about 3,000 people. Just across the Trinity River was precinct four, Dayton, with about 3,000 too many. The other two precincts were about right. So the county’s Austin consultant drafted a plan that carved three voting precincts (or “boxes,” the smallest unit of measurement on a political map) out of the center of Dayton and added them to Liberty, certified it constitutionally and mathematically sound, and mailed it back to the commissioners. That’s when things got out of hand.

“Toby came to me and said I just can’t survive this,” Liberty County Democratic Party chair John Archer recalled. It wasn’t so much that the new map split his community in two that bothered Wilburn, it was that they had removed the very boxes he was counting on to get reelected. After only a couple of years in office, everybody else in the precinct hated his guts.

The problem was the roads. In rural counties, a commissioner’s chief duty is keeping the roads in good condition. He spends most of his time not at the courthouse, but in the county barn, where his paving equipment resides and his men receive their orders. By all accounts, Wilburn’s machinery spent too much time in the barn and not enough on the roads. More development around Dayton has meant more traffic, and maintenance on what used to be farm roads did not keep pace with the growth. Roads were particularly bad in the low-lying areas along the river, where periodic floods had taken their toll. Potholes and decaying shoulders were causing accidents. In some of the new subdivisions, conditions had gotten so bad that homeowners were getting organized. In June, a demonstration in front of the courthouse made the front page of the local weekly, The Vindicator. Most ominously, a resident of one of the new subdivisions filed suit against the county for lack of maintenance. People blamed Wilburn, and not without reason. “Toby just didn’t have a plan,” Archer said. One of his first moves was to repave the road in front of his barn. Wilburn did a good job on it–maybe too good. “It was a nice road. Asphalted. While we’ve got roads that school buses are driving down to pick up kids that are pretty dangerous roads,” Archer said.

From the beginning, Wilburn was convinced that the other commissioners had it out for him. “He never really seemed to fit in at court,” County Auditor Harold Seay said. Dayton has long been considered a stepchild at the commissioner’s court, which has been slow to recognize the growth in the area. Yet when citizens threatened a lawsuit, the other commissioners offered to bring their equipment and men to help Wilburn out. But Wilburn wasn’t interested, Archer said. “He said ‘Get out.'” When the first redistricting plan came back from Austin, Wilburn’s suspicions were confirmed. The plan called for removing from the precinct a sizeable chunk of the only people whose roads Wilburn had no responsibility for fixing: city drivers, whose roads were maintained by city crews. “Those are the people he counted on to get him reelected because all the others were mad at him,” Archer explained. The new map would have sealed his doom.

Several county observers speculate that this is what drove Wilburn to allegedly bug the courthouse: His job was on the line, and he needed to know who was with him, and who was against him on the commissioner’s court. In addition to his alleged covert operations, Wilburn struck back with a redistricting plan of his own. He told Archer, the resident census expert, that he needed a plan that kept his urban boxes intact, but that sloughed off instead some of his trouble spots, especially the river areas, to precinct one. Archer complied as best he could, delivering the plan to Wilburn about three days before the commissioner was arrested. “The FBI probably got a good picture of me dropping it off,” Archer said.

Neither plan was particularly well received by the commissioner’s court, nor by the public, which voiced its disapproval earlier this summer in two rowdy public hearings (one held in the Dayton High School cafeteria) in which the road issue featured heavily. Dayton area residents were adamantly opposed to having their community split between two commissioners, which they felt would only further exacerbate their road problems. Before long, the maps started multiplying.

Toby Wilburn is still technically the commissioner in precinct four, but he has been stripped of his duties under an order issued by the U.S. Attorney in Beaumont. Thus, after a long hot summer of acrimony, precinct four will have no say in the final vote on redistricting. At the same time, ominous developments in the statewide redistricting process have left the area feeling particularly adrift. The prevailing statewide plan calls for Liberty County to be removed from its current house district, meaning popular Democrat Zeb Zbranek, who is from one of the area’s oldest families, may no longer represent the county. (Though Zbranek says he intends to run next time around for whatever district Liberty County winds up in.) The Senate plan, meanwhile, has observers predicting the defeat of Liberty County Senator David Bernsen, whose new district contains fewer reliable Democratic voters. “Title your article: ‘No Representative, No Senator, and No Commissioner,” one local observer joked. Feelings are running so hot about the plan’s many changes in southeast Texas that Republican Attorney General John Cornyn, one of the principal architects of the plan, had to cancel a scheduled speaking engagement in Beaumont for fear of angry hecklers.

Democracy may be in limbo in Liberty County, but the roads at least are improving. Dayton area rancher Lester Wisegarber has filled in as Wilburn’s replacement at the county barn. By all accounts, he has done an outstanding job on the roads in the short time he has served. And in an apparent effort to settle the pending lawsuit (and forestall others) the county is reportedly promising a major investment in precinct four road repair. That’s all anybody ever wanted, according to the soft-spoken Wisegarber, who has said he has no intention of running for commissioner once this is all over. “All the people in precinct four wanted was just to have it a little bit more equal,” he said.