Two New Texas Latino Seats in Congress?

Nina Perales of MALDEF and others from the Texas Latino Redistricting Task Force present proposal for two new Latino-majority congressional seats in Texas.
Nina Perales of MALDEF and others from the Texas Latino Redistricting Task Force present proposal for two new Latino-majority congressional seats in Texas.

The public version of drawing new congressional maps for Texas started this morning with committee hearings and the unveiling of a proposal from a coalition that insists at least two of the four new districts should have Latino majorities.

The chairmen of the Senate and House committees that will draw those and other maps, meanwhile, both said today that they'll be trying to draw new maps that are fair, that are legal, and that make the greatest number of legislators happy.

"The process won't be driven by assertion or insistence but by the numbers," said Sen. Kel Seliger, R-Amarillo, at a TribLive event this morning sponsored by the Tribune. He said the Hispanic growth in the state is undeniable, but said that population is "diffused" throughout the state. It isn't always easy to draw districts for a population that's scattered throughout the state and not bunched in particular neighborhoods and geographic communities.

Rep. Burt Solomons, R-Carrollton and the head of the House Redistricting Committee, echoed that: "There's been a lot of Hispanic growth in the state, but they're not all in one place."

Both said they're trying to get maps drawn with as little political violence as possible. But there will be blood, they admit. "There's going to be some very happy people," Solomons said. "There's going to be a few very unhappy people. My job is make sure I have as few unhappy people as possible."

Texas is getting four new seats in Congress because of its rapid growth over the last decade. And since two-thirds of that growth was Hispanic, a coalition called the Texas Latino Redistricting Task Force says at least two of the new districts should have Hispanic majorities. Almost two-thirds of the state's growth over the last ten years was Hispanic, and Hispanics now account for 38 percent of the Texas population, the group said.

They presented two maps, each of which includes nine Latino-majority seats. That's two more than in the current 32 districts, and the new seats would go in the Dallas-Fort Worth Metroplex and in Starr and western Hidalgo counties in the Rio Grande Valley.

Several members of the task force said they'd like to see another Latino seat, and Jose Cardenas, president of the League of United Latin American Citizens, or LULAC, said his group is trying to draw a map that would create four new Latino seats in Texas. One idea would create a Latino district that includes part of southeastern Travis County and reaches down to South San Antonio.

The task force includes the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund (MALDEF), LULAC, the American GI Forum, the San Antonio Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, and the Southwest Voter Registration Education Project. Those groups will be involved both individually and as a group in the legislative lobbying and in the inevitable court fights over the maps that emerge from the legislative session.

Conversations and plotting over redistricting has been underway for months, privately. The timing of the task force's public release of maps is tied to House committee hearings on the congressional districts that began this morning. Those maps — along with ideas from other groups that want a say in congressional redistricting — will go into testimony as legislators draw 36 new congressional districts, each with exactly 698,488 people in it. State lawmakers began hearing from a long line of interest groups, members of congress and people representing them, partisans and others on their way to drawing new maps.

The House panel already voted out new maps for the State Board of Education. Still ahead, in addition to the congressional maps, are maps for representatives and senators. Both Seliger and Solomons are accepting ideas from other members and hoping that local lawmakers can work out some of the local fights.

In Dallas County, for instance, there are 16 state representatives and only enough people, probably, for 14. Two are in trouble. Solomons admitted at the TribLive conversation that some of the four freshmen lawmakers in that county "probably" have reason to be nervous. In West Texas, the area that stretches from the Panhandle to the Mexican border and from El Paso County in the west to I-35 in the east has 18 state representatives and only enough people, probably, for 16. Warren Chisum, R-Pampa, has already indicated he won't seek reelection, so there's one. But somebody else might be in trouble.

The Senate has bigger districts but the geographic and population problems are the same. Seliger said the West Texas districts will have to find people in the I-35 corridor to bring their numbers in line; the populations of the current districts are too small given the growth of the state since they were drawn in 2001. 

Asked about the conventional wisdom that it will be hard to protect all 101 Republicans in the Texas House from politically hazardous maps, Solomons admitted it's a problem. "I think it's really, really difficult to draw a legal map at 101," Solomons said. "You can technically draw one."

Likewise, Seliger said it's possible to draw maps that put Republicans in control of two-thirds of the Senate seats (they have 19 now and would need 21 to make two thirds). "That's going to be challenging, he said. Democrat Wendy Davis of Fort Worth has argued that hers is a protected "coalition district" but Seliger said he's not sure that's right. She's at some risk, he said: "I won't say she's toast, but given the composition of her district, she's going to be challenged."

"There will be a lot of pressure from people in the Republican Party to try and do something there," he added. "I don't know what we're going to do."

Partisans are interested in those congressional seats, too. Members of the congressional delegation are talking amongst themselves, and two — Lamar Smith, R-San Antonio and Henry Cuellar, D-Laredo, floated the idea a year ago of splitting the four new seats between the two big political parties. That was before the elections that swept Democrats out of seats in the delegation and in the Legislature, but Seliger said Democrats "absolutely" have a fair shot at two of those seats. He added that while it'll be fair, it's no certainty. Could Republicans get all four seats? Seliger said he hasn't been able to draw a legal map that would do that. "Three, yes. Four, no. "

Asked if his own seat is safe, Solomons feigned uncertainty: "I hope." 

Texas Tribune donors or members may be quoted or mentioned in our stories, or may be the subject of them. For a complete list of contributors, click here.