Vol 30, Issue 21 Print Issue

The Never-Ending Story: Redistricting and 2014

Politics is fast. Redistricting is slow.

Start with the fast one. Susan Combs released the political Kraken Wednesday, announcing she will leave office at the end of this term. That made Comptroller of Public Accounts an open seat and inspired a scramble to announce for that race. And it takes a rich player away from the table in the 2014 race for lieutenant governor. Combs had expressed some interest in that and had $7.3 million in starter funds at the end of last year. Her exit from that conversation removed one of several ways for other candidates in that race to fall short.

Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst has told reporters he will seek re-election, and he’s expected to make that official pretty soon. That doesn’t mean he will be back, but that he will try. Two statewide officeholders plan to run, and at least one senator is looking at it. That’s before you invoke the names of any Democrats. No faces are showing in that part of the forest, but they have more time and less primary competition to navigate.

Dewhurst’s challengers will leave openings at Land and Agriculture. And all of that interesting stuff could seem insignificant real soon now, when Gov. Rick Perry and Attorney General Greg Abbott announce their plans.

It’s been a good while since this many seats were open on a statewide ballot. In 1990, the governor, lieutenant governor, attorney general, comptroller and treasurer’s posts were all open and another statewide post — agriculture — ended with an incumbent Jim Hightower losing to an upstart named Perry. Two railroad commissioners gave up their posts that year, too: John Sharp, who was elected comptroller, and Kent Hance, who lost that year’s Republican primary for governor.

 

That year would be hard to match, but give these guys credit for trying.

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The slow part might be even slower than expected.

Perry called the Legislature back for redistricting and gave them a narrow list of instructions — like a grocery list with one thing on it. His order: “Legislation which ratifies and adopts the interim redistricting plans ordered by the federal district court as the permanent plans for districts used to elect members of the Texas House of Representatives, Texas Senate and United States House of Representatives.”

Poke around the Legislature for a minute and you will bump into parliamentary lawyers who don’t think a governor can order a result in that fashion — that Perry’s instruction has the effect of asking lawmakers to look at the subject of the interim redistricting maps and doesn’t prevent them from making changes.

Making changes could make a mess of the intent of the session.

This started, remember, with Attorney General Greg Abbott’s proposal to ratify the maps drawn by federal judges for use in the 2012 elections. Doing so has a reasonable chance of killing ongoing litigation over maps approved by lawmakers in 2011 — in particular a pre-clearance finding of intentional discrimination in those maps. What’s more, a pending U.S. Supreme Court ruling in an Alabama case could wipe out the whole pre-clearance section of the Voting Rights Act, freeing Texas and other states from having to get federal permission every time they change their election laws.

Abbott saw a shortcut through at least part of the legal bramble. A newly drawn map from lawmakers could add to the bramble, inspiring a whole new round of litigation or adding to the complexities of the tangled lawsuits already underway.

For now, the Legislature is proceeding with hearings. The San Antonio federal court at the center of this has asked the busloads of lawyers to opine about the various possibilities by next week. The Washington case is on hold until the Supremes rule on the Shelby County, Ala., case, probably this month.

And for now, the Texas party primaries are set for March 2014.