You Thought Redistricting Was About the Candidates?

Redistricting is supposed to be about the voters — not the candidates.

That’s hard to remember when the mapmakers are at work. They’re all former candidates and current officeholders, and many of them want to be candidates again, either for the offices they now hold or the offices they dream about.

In the Texas House, 30 members decided not to seek re-election after drawing new political maps last year. Slightly more than half of those — 17 — left the House to run for other offices. Only one of the four senators who left was trying to move up, but he was beaten in a congressional race. Just two members of the congressional delegation stepped aside, and one of them, Ron Paul, Republican of Lake Jackson, has spent months running for president.

Redistricting is also tended to by civil rights and partisan advocates outside the Legislature, and they talk about election results as if they are talking about future officeholders. They’re not, but it’s easy to get mixed up. Like when mapmakers drew a new Hispanic seat in Houston in 1991 and voters there elected Gene Green, an Anglo Democrat, to Congress. He’s been there since, so his voters apparently like him. And the idea behind the Voting Rights Act is to let minority voters select the candidate of their choice. Just because the voters are Hispanic doesn’t mean they are going to elect Hispanic officeholders.

That is happening all over the state.

El Paso voters threw out U.S. Rep. Silvestre Reyes in the Democratic primary, nominating Robert O'Rourke to replace him. The only thing Hispanic about O’Rourke is his nickname — Beto. The voting-age population in the 16th Congressional District is 77.6 percent Hispanic, according to the Texas Legislative Service, but it exercised its franchise on behalf of O’Rourke instead of Reyes.

Texas outgrew the rest of the country during the first 10 years of the century and got four new congressional seats as a result. Hispanics accounted for two-thirds of that growth, and when it came time to draw new political maps, lawmakers and outside groups pushed hard to make sure the new maps reflected that population change.

One new district — the 35th — includes parts of San Antonio and Austin and the four counties in between. That parcel is 58.3 percent Hispanic; when all minorities are combined, they account for 70.6 percent of the adult population. Next door, those same Republican mapmakers were playing Wile E. Coyote to U.S. Rep. Lloyd Doggett’s Roadrunner, drawing a decidedly Republican district around the home of the incumbent Democrat from Austin. Rather than perish there, he ran in the new district and easily won the nomination. Minority district, Anglo winner.

The mappers created a district in Dallas and Tarrant counties, designed to represent minority voters. It’s not over yet, but chances are good that a Democrat will win the seat, and the only two Democrats left are minorities.

There is, however, a twist. It was drawn with a Hispanic majority, apparently thwarting local activists who have long sought a black seat anchored in Fort Worth. The citizen voting-age population is 39.4 percent Hispanic, a demographic that outnumbers Anglos, who in turn outnumber blacks. The district also has a Dallas tilt, with slightly more than half of the population on the eastern side of the line that splits the counties.

The Democratic runoff pits state Rep. Marc Veasey against former state Rep. Domingo Garcia of Dallas. Veasey is the Fort Worth guy in a district that slightly favors Dallas. He is the black candidate in a district where Hispanic voters outnumber black voters by nearly two to one. But he was way out in front in the 11-candidate primary, and Garcia is playing catch-up in the runoff.

The people who were advocating on behalf of those voters, notably the Texas Latino Redistricting Task Force, a group of organizations represented by a busload of lawyers in the redistricting trials, consistently said their goal is districts “where minorities are now free to nominate and elect candidates of their choice.”

If Veasey, Doggett and O’Rourke win, these will still be Hispanic congressional districts — in terms of the people being represented.

They just aren’t choosing Hispanic officeholders.

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This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune at http://www.texastribune.org/texas-redistricting/redistricting/you-thought-redistricting-was-about-candidates/.

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