Molly Ivins

Redistricting! You?re Gonna Laugh! We Promise!

Rep. Delwin Jones of Lubbock, who is approximately the age of the earth’s crust, is once again chairman of the House Redistricting Committee, which is like reporting, “This just in: news still bad.” Once every ten years, when the only elected representatives we’ve got re-draw the lines of the districts from which they are elected, statehouse reporters vainly try to interest the public in this sleeper, in all senses, of a subject. I’m going to tell you a funny redistricting story, so don’t go to sleep.

“Dell-win” as he is pronounced in West Texas, was chairman of the House Redistricting Committee back in 1971 (he was a Democrat then: weren’t they all?), when a motley crew of 30 liberals and Republicans rose in rebellion against a corrupt House speaker. The Speaker’s henchmen christened them “the Dirty Thirty,” and the redistricting bill was their chosen instrument of revenge. Even by the standards of the day, when “one cow-one vote” was the operative principle in the “rule-dominated” Lege (that’s “rural” to you new Texans), the 1971 map was a classic of the gerrymandering art. There were districts that looked like giant chickens, districts that looked like coiled rattlers and districts that sprouted peculiar zits that popped out to include the home of one liberal incumbent in the district of another.

In the process of screwing all the Speaker’s enemies, the redistricters inadvertently screwed a few of his friends as well, one of whom was Rep. Bill Finck, a cigar manufacturer from San Antonio. Brother Finck rose to protest the butchering of his district. “Lookahere, Dell-win,” he began plaintively. “Look at what y’all have done to my dis-strict. You have drawn a great big, ol’ ball at the one end, then it runs in a little-bitty ol’ strip for 300 miles, and then there’s a great big ol’ ball at the other end. The damn thing looks like a pair of dumbbells.” Finck’s voice rose in pain. “Now the courts say the districts have to be com-pact and con-tiguous. Is this your idea a com-pact and con-tiguous?”

Dell-win pondered deeply at the front mike. At last he replied, “Whale, in a artistic sense, it is.”

Delwin Jones’ sense of the aesthetic is not to be underestimated. Texas is in precarious political balance: the Rs control the Senate by exactly one vote, and the Ds control the House by six. Our congressional delegation is 17-13 Ds over Rs, which means, among other things, had the Gore v. Bush contest gone on to the U.S. House of Representatives, Texas would theoretically have cast its only vote for Al Gore. Gives you some idea of how much is at stake in redistricting fights.

Here’s the challenge: Dell-win and the guys have to draw a map that meets constitutional standards, including complicated legal requirements about racial representation–a lasting legacy of our discriminatory past. Even though Jones is now an R, he wants, as all incumbents do, an incumbent-protection plan. When it comes to “rule” D’s and R’s, who can tell the difference anyway? The Rs dominate enough politically to have carried every one of our statewide elected offices, plus they suffer from years of frustration over not getting their fair share, and from the humiliating sense that they have been out-smarted by canny Ds in these battles. Actually, it’s just Dell-win’s sense of the aesthetic (he was out during the ’81 fight, back in ’91 as vice-chair and is now running the show again this year.) The Rs’ blood is up.

Should the Republican-dominated Senate and the Pete Laney-dominated House not be able to agree on a redistricting plan, which is highly likely, the whole mess gets kicked over to a body called the Legislative Redistricting Board. This is comprised of the lite guv, the speaker, the attorney general, the comptroller and the land commissioner: hence, four Rs, one D, and we’re screwed. The Rs will be restrained in their own highly-aesthetic map-drawing efforts by the requirement that the results meet court standards. The last thing any winner on redistricting wants is for the plan to flunk the constitutional test, so the map ends up being drawn by federal courts, which notoriously have no sense of political aesthetics whatsoever.

This is the three-dimensional chess of politics. To mix our metaphors, there are so many wild cards, it’s like push-tittle poker. Among them is the Democrats v. minorities theme. Since most minority reps are Democrats, this may strike you as odd, but part of the Ds’ fate–in the sense of preserving their House majority–depends on how selfish assorted minority reps want to be (from a white D perspective). When, under federal court pressure, we first started electing black and brown reps to the Lege and to Congress, it was so difficult to get minority citizens to vote (actually, any poor citizen is hard to turn out, and since our poor folks are disproportionately minority, it frequently comes to the same thing) there was a rough rule that a district had to be 70 percent black or brown to elect one. Consequently, minority citizens got packed into a few districts–a process in which the Rs gleefully cooperated–and the result is more minority reps and fewer Democrats, over all.

At least in theory, the 70-percent rule is now down to between 55 and 60 percent, maybe 65. Thus, only a selfish minority rep would cling to his or her 70 percent and stubbornly refuse to loan a few of those minority voters to some worthy neighboring Democrat. The all-time prize for selfish performance (meaning normal-incumbent behavior) goes to Congresswoman Eddie Bernice Johnson, now chair of the congressional black caucus. Eddie B. was, in her days in the Lege, considered something of a sell-out by liberals, and was also known as “the Neiman-Marcus N-word,” but I consider her a hero, by Dallas standards. You tell me how else the first black out of Dallas ever would have gotten elected to Congress?

The two members tied for the Eddie B. Johnson Award this year are Domingo Garcia of Dallas and the ever-improbable Ron Wilson of Houston, both for pretty disgusting performances. Since redistricting is the ultimate Me-First game, I am rarely moved by any plaint, but I did have to spare a moment of sympathy for Rep. Steve Wolens of Dallas. Wolens is not only one of the smartest people in the House, he’s also a liberal by Dallas standards, and there he was having to beg for a few Hispanic votes on account of Dell-win has lumbered him with half of the Park Cities, the River Oaks of Dallas. Now that’s cruel, Delwin.

Another sufferer was Rep. Glenn Maxey of Austin, always carefully described by the Texas press as, “the only openly-gay member of the Legislature.” Maxey is turning out to be one of the great inside power-players of recent years (so are a couple of other liberals: could this be an actual trend?). The Rs, who have made enormous gains in the burgeoning lily-white suburbs of Austin, may even be entitled to another district, but Maxey played the gay card. His voice breaking with emotion, he said to his colleagues, “I have tried to be a helpful member of this body.” Of course he is helpful above and beyond, and specializes in getting serious homophobes to recognize him as a human bean. Maxey handily defeated the Republican amendment to destroy his district.

As the whole process shuffles uneasily toward the redistricting board, we will all be waiting with bated breath to see how it turns out–or at least the incumbents, their spouses and potential opponents will. The rest of us can just enjoy the aesthetics.

Molly Ivins is a nationally syndicated columnist. Her book with Louis Dubose, Shrub: The Short But Happy Political Life of George W. Bush, is out in paperback.

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Published at 12:00 am CST