Numbers Tell Tale of Who's Vulnerable in Redistricting

You don't need a new map to find the political trouble spots in Texas.

The population numbers released by the Census Bureau last week don't reveal exactly which federal and state officeholders are threatened by any reapportionment of seats, but they show what regions have grown or withered. With deeper analysis come more specific numbers that show, on a closer scale, what's sprouting and decaying.

And now, the mapmaking is underway.

In any conversation about who is vulnerable in the redistricting process, the four freshmen from West Texas always rise to the top of the list. Sure enough, when the census numbers came out, that part of Texas lagged behind the state's overall growth; there aren't enough people there to justify the number of state representatives in the Legislature. Two will have to go. It's not at all clear this early who'll be on the list, but two things stand out. State Rep. Warren Chisum, R-Pampa, is interested in running for the Texas Railroad Commission and won't be back, so that seat will be easy to delete. And of the four Republican freshmen, Rep. Jim Landtroop of Plainview is the least well-anchored. Rep. Walter "Four" Price is based in Amarillo, and John Frullo and Charles Perry call Lubbock home. Only 22,194 people live in Plainview, and the 16-county district is spread out like a crucifix that reaches from north of Lubbock to south of Midland.

Parties and friendships aside, it's an easy district to cut up.

 

Or look at Tarrant County, where Sen. Wendy Davis, a Fort Worth Democrat, is completely surrounded by Republicans, two of whom need to add people to their districts. Her seat isn't a district protected by the federal Voting Rights Act — it voted for Republican John McCain in the 2008 presidential election — and she's a Democrat in a legislative body in which Republicans would gain solid control by flipping a couple of seats to their side. Like Landtroop, she's got time to negotiate, and a district that will require her to be good at it.

Or look at U.S. Rep. Blake Farenthold, R-Corpus Christi, a freshman who surprised Democrats and Republicans alike when he beat U.S. Rep. Solomon Ortiz, D-Corpus Christi, in the November elections. Texas gets four new U.S. congressional seats in 2012, and Latinos are pushing for at least one in South Texas. Farenthold's district isn't stable ground for a Republican and could easily be affected by changes in the lines nearby. And he's a freshman at a time when it would be more useful to be an incumbent.

The lists, in other words, are starting to take shape. Exactly who's zooming whom won't be apparent until the legislators working on this produce some maps. They have to do three things: Each district has to be the same size (variances are allowed in legislative maps, but not in congressional ones), and the mapmakers have to balance their political urges with the legal requirements. In one sentence: They are drawing equal-sized districts that maximize their parties' advantages without breaking the law.

If the Legislature doesn't draw congressional lines, it will fall to the federal courts to do so. If the House and Senate can't get enough support to approve their own lines — there's plenty of sentiment that they won't be able to muster the votes for plans that would also win the governor's approval — then the five-member Legislative Redistricting Board would take over. That panel has five Republicans on it: Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst, House Speaker Joe Straus, Attorney General Greg Abbott, Comptroller Susan Combs and Land Commissioner Jerry Patterson.

It's like going to the doctor and finding you're not at death's door but you have certain risk signs. Some signs that you're in less-than-perfect shape for political redistricting are your seniority, your party, your race, the growth in your area of the state, the growth elsewhere and, very importantly, your neighbors:

• You're a freshman. Party is important, but seniority is more important. Legislative bodies are just like summer camp: Every year is better than the first one.

•  You're an Anglo Democrat. Davis is an example. So is Rep. Scott Hochberg of Houston. And two senators: Kirk Watson of Austin and John Whitmire of Houston.

• You're an urban Anglo of either party. Rep. Sarah Davis, R-Houston, or any of a number of Republican House members from Dallas, like Dan Branch, Will Hartnett, Linda Harper-Brown and Joe Driver, might not be in immediate trouble, but the trends in place could get them in the decade ahead.

• You're in a district that's short of people surrounded by districts that are short of people. Landtroop is the poster boy, but there are others, like state Sen. Troy Fraser, R-Horseshoe Bay. His district stretches from Abilene to Austin, and everyone to his west needs more people. He needs more people. He could be forced to give up Abilene and pushed into Central Texas spots like Waco, where he'd be an out-of-towner without political roots.

• You're in a district that's short of people surrounded by districts that elect the other party's candidates. This was more of a problem before the November elections, when it described several districts held by Democrats that are now held by Republicans. A GOP-dominated Legislature would have made quick work of that map, but its big win in November created a mess: Now they have to defend seats where their candidates won, narrowly, in a Republican year. They worry that even in Republican Texas, there are not enough Republicans to safely draw 101 House seats. So instead of going after Democrats, they have to decide which Republicans are more protected, and which ones get less comfort. An example: It's harder to knock Hochberg off the map if you're also trying to fortify Sarah Davis by adding Republicans to her district.

• You're in a district that's short of people and not protected by the Voting Rights Act, surrounded by districts that are protected. Dallas Republicans Branch and Kenneth Sheets represent House districts that are short of population (Dallas County will likely lose two Texas House seats in this redistricting), bounded on the south by protected minority districts and on the north by their fellow Republicans. A variation on the theme: U.S. Rep. Francisco "Quico" Canseco, R-San Antonio, has a district that stretches from his hometown to El Paso. It's overpopulated, as are the districts around him. Lawmakers will have to draw his as a minority district while trying to protect him, a Republican incumbent. This was the same setup when the district was first drawn and it cost the Republican incumbent, Henry Bonilla, his seat.

• You're in a district that doesn't have a population center. Rep. Rick Hardcastle is a Vernon, Texas, Republican. It's a nice place, but it's not big enough to protect a district like, say, Wichita Falls or Abilene is. Chisum did him a big favor by getting out of the way, but West Texas still has to lose a seat, and Hardcastle will have to rely on seniority and charm.

 

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