News accounts a couple of years ago detailed the death of a man who hooked a rocket engine to a motorbike in an attempt to jump it over a canyon. The takeoff went as planned, but the rocket-powered bike aimed too low and smashed in to the opposite wall of the canyon. If he'd made it across the canyon, he'd have been a star. Instead, the rider got a posthumous "Darwin Award," given to people involved in accidents that defy common sense.
Maybe that's a bad analogy for this stage of the Texas redistricting wars, but you can say this: The plan is afoot, this is on a fast track, and the canyon exists.
The Senate finally voted out a bill, after all the wrangling. The short form: It pairs two incumbents — U.S. Reps. Jeb Hensarling, R-Dallas and Jim Turner, D-Crockett — and, on paper, includes 20 Republican districts and 12 Democratic ones. Those numbers are based on the average results in statewide contests last year. One district in the Democratic column is basically a toss-up district, but the incumbent is U.S. Rep. Henry Bonilla, R-San Antonio. Cartographic surgeons emasculated his biggest threat — Laredo — by splitting Webb County, saying he'd requested it.
The House, as expected, declared it Spinach. They asked for a conference committee, and sent in Reps. Phil King, R-Weatherford, chair; Joe Crabb, R-Humble; Kent Grusendorf, R-Arlington; Peggy Hamric, R-Houston; and Ron Wilson, D-Houston, to argue for the House. All five favored the House bill when it went out. The Senate's conferees are Sens. Todd Staples, R-Palestine, chair; Robert Duncan, R-Lubbock; Juan "Chuy" Hinojosa, D-McAllen; Jon Lindsay, R-Houston; and Jane Nelson, R-Flower Mound. Hinojosa voted against the plan, while the others voted for it.
The House also voted down a proposal to order its conferees to protect House Speaker Tom Craddick's position on how districts should be drawn in West Texas. The West Texas dispute, and a linked dispute in Central Texas, divide the Republicans in the House and Senate. If the motorcycle hits the canyon wall, those issues will figure into the autopsy report. The only direct combatant on the conference committee is Duncan, who's at odds with Craddick, but Craddick has, in effect, five votes.
The House's plan, which it has now approved three times, pairs more congressional incumbents, takes Craddick's side in West Texas, and combines a bunch of little tweaks here and there in a way that makes it a political impossibility in the Senate. The nays from the Democrats were already certain, but the House map scares off five Republicans in a legislative body where five Republicans and the Democrats make a majority, with or without a two-thirds rule. Like the Senate map, it's got 20 Republican seats on paper and 12 Democratic ones. And like the Senate plan, Bonilla, a Republican, is in a Democratic district. In the House plan, he's got more Democrats in his district and also has a unified Webb County. That's the population center and the source of his most serious challenges. But cutting it in half, as the Senate did, gives some Republican redistricting lawyers acid reflux. Splitting a populous minority county to elect a congressman from hundreds of miles away could be hard to sell in court.
These U.S. representatives are paired in the House map: Max Sandlin, D-Marshall, and Jim Turner, D-Crockett; Gene Green, D-Houston, and Nick Lampson, D-Beaumont; Joe Barton, R-Ennis, and Martin Frost, D-Dallas; Chris Bell, D-Houston, and John Culberson, R-Houston; Randy Neugebauer, R- Lubbock, and Charlie Stenholm, D-Abilene; John Carter, R-Georgetown, and Chet Edwards, D-Waco; and Ralph Hall, D-Rockwall, and Pete Sessions, R-Dallas.
Who's Zooming Whom?
We crunched some numbers to measure the "violence" of each map. The Texas Legislative Council puts out a standard set of statistics with each of the redistricting maps drawn on the state's computers. Part of that analysis shows how much of a member's current district is included in the new district that's being proposed. On virtually every map we've seen, U.S. Rep. Sylvester Reyes' district in El Paso is left alone; 100 percent of the Democrat's current district is included in proposed ones.
If mapmakers want to tell an incumbent to get lost, or to force a tough election that strips away the benefits of incumbency, they draw a district that doesn't include much of the incumbent's current turf. The map that's been approved three times so far by the Texas House would do that to U.S. Rep. Gene Green, D-Houston, putting him in a new district that includes only 676 of the 651,620 people who live in his current district. Since he's in the new district, the little number includes him and his family.
In general, the House map would leave incumbents in Congress — from both parties — with less of their current turf than the Senate map. Another way to put it: The Senate map would leave a greater number of Texas voters with the choice of keeping the representative they have now.
The average new district in the Senate-approved map overlaps existing districts by about 77.8 percent. The House-approved map moves more Texans around, leaving the new districts, on average, with 57.3 percent of the populations they've got now. The numbers mean that the House map is harder on incumbents of both parties than the Senate map. The House map is harder on Democrats than on Republicans, letting Republican incumbents hang on to more of their current constituents.
And then there is a difference that tells the story: The House map would let minority Democrats in the state's congressional delegation keep, on average, 90 percent of the populations they now represent. Anglo Democrats, who've been targeted for defeat by mapmakers looking to turn the tide, would keep an average of 27 percent of their constituents in the House plan.
The Senate map doesn't treat the average Democrat any harder than the average Republican, but there's still a difference between the minority Democrats being protected by the plan and the Anglo Democrats being targeted for replacement. It's less dramatic than the House plan, though: Minority incumbents wearing the D label would get 88 percent of their populations back, while their Anglo colleagues with that label would get only 72 percent of their people back.
Where's the Rest of Me?
Gov. Rick Perry weighed in with a partial map on the eve of the Senate debate, but it had a political shelf life of about 14 minutes. The map, touted as a compromise on the West Texas problem, was presented by King, and all the praise came from the House end of the Capitol. Nobody from Perry's office was there, although the map was presented as his. Nobody from the Senate was there, though it was presented as a compromise.
The map included just seven of the state's 32 congressional districts. (To give you an idea of how much population that covers, use this guide: Alabama, Colorado and Louisiana each has seven seats in Congress.) It undid the pairing of U.S. Reps. Randy Neugebauer, R-Lubbock, and Charlie Stenholm, D-Abilene, in an apparent attempt to placate state Sen. Robert Duncan, R-Lubbock, but that created ripples enough to cause problems for other senators, losing more support.
For one thing, it didn't include anything east of I-35. Since it would create a new West Texas district, it would eliminate a district somewhere else. Without the rest of the map, it's impossible to find the victim. The Perry map also illustrates the basic problem with trying to draw a new seat for West Texas. That part of the state is losing population, not gaining, and to add a seat there, mapmakers have to create huge districts in a hunt for Texans. Amarillo would be in a district with Sherman, north of Plano. Another district would stretch from the Northwesternmost county in the Panhandle — Dallam — to Bosque County, south of Fort Worth and north of Waco. A third — the new county possibly dominated by Midland — would reach from Parmer County, northwest of Lubbock, to Bandera County, which is in the Hill Country next to San Antonio.
And Where is the Upper Hand?
In Perry's partial plan, Stenholm's new district would reach from north of Abilene to southwest of Austin, and U.S. Rep. Henry Bonilla, R-San Antonio, would get something like what he's got now — a district reaching from San Antonio to El Paso to Laredo. Republicans occupied the first lifeboats paddling away from that ship. Sens. Teel Bivins, R-Amarillo, and Kip Averitt, R-Waco, said they couldn't support the Perry map. Neither is on the conference committee, but the mappers will need their votes when they bring something back to the Senate next week. Averitt and Duncan have told some senators that their votes are linked, that they'll vote aye or nay together. And there are rumors that other senators have signed on with them. If that's right, it'll be harder for the House, which has maintained the upper hand on redistricting all summer, to get its way.
Now that the Senate has voted out a map, it's harder for Republicans outside the Capitol to pressure members, and it's always hard to get a member to cast a vote contrary to what the folks back home want. The local politics that really govern redistricting make it hard to broker deals or to twist arms. And as we have pointed out (after some of the players pointed it out to us), congressional redistricting is now in Republican hands and they'll get the credit or blame for whatever happens with the conference committee and the votes that follow. An early idea — having lawmakers meet this weekend to finish the maps — died by mid-week. The conferees will get together right away, but the House and Senate decided not to meet again until Monday.
Moving the Furniture Around
Business lobbyists appear to have killed a proposal they feared would double their audits and give legislators the power to uncork traditionally confidential tax information for political purposes. And they're on the verge of whacking a scheme that has the state government balancing the state budget by slowing down refunds due big taxpayers. All of that is tied to legislation that would strip Comptroller Carole Keeton Strayhorn of her power to audit state agencies and school districts in search of savings, giving the powers instead to the Legislature.
Earlier this year, state budget-writers decided to withhold tax refunds from businesses owed more than $250,000 by the state, by saying those businesses could get their checks as soon as the Legislature approved them. The Legislature isn't usually in the loop on stuff like that, and they're usually not in town (believe it or not) between regular legislative sessions. The idea was to delay the refunds, hold the money, and use that sum — around $120 million — to balance the budget. That's the same as a delayed payment, except that the state has to pay interest on tax refunds. By the time lawmakers come back to write a new budget, that interest tab will be in the $12 million to $15 million range and they'll have to pay the refunds, hitting the next budget for $120 million.
Business groups that represent large taxpayers have been kicking and scratching to get the provision killed. The state apparently has the money to kill it, and lawmakers are trying to find just the right legal language to take care of it. They didn't get it done on the Senate floor, but it's not over yet, and lawmakers are sympathetic to the taxpayers on this issue.
Business lobbyists were also bug-eyed over proposals to let legislative auditors review tax audits done by the comptroller. Lawmakers angry with Strayhorn after nine months of infighting want to get a list of audits, audit results, and the comptroller's contributors so they can see if there's any connection between one set of data and the other. That sounds great for a minute, but it lays open the taxpayers, and it was written so that lawmakers could decide which taxpayers to expose. We're not cynics or anything, but that setup would give an unscrupulous political fundraiser a lever to use on a potential donor, no? Senators voted to keep that stuff private, and to let the auditor review comptroller decisions without subjecting the taxpayers involved to secondary audits.
Pin the Chair on the Donkey
Former Land Commissioner Garry Mauro and current state Rep. Garnet Coleman, D-Houston, have added their names to the list of candidates for chair of the Texas Democratic Party, but each is saying he's running for the job on an interim basis. What that means depends on what you want to hear. The interim job is all that's open at the moment, and both men say they'd consider running for a full term at the next state convention. For now, though, they're talking interim. Other candidates are saying they want to chair the party and aren't inserting the word "interim." Clear as mud?
Add Sherry Boyles to the list of people considering a run; she's a former party official who ran unsuccessfully last year for a spot on the Texas Railroad Commission and has, to this point, been a political ally of Mauro's.
The party's special election to replace Molly Beth Malcolm, who is retiring, will be on October 25, and only 63 people — mainly the members of the State Democratic Executive Committee — are eligible to vote. That makes it a little like a race for House Speaker, since the voting pool is small and everybody knows everybody. No favorite has emerged, but three names come up most frequently in early conversation (this will change, with four weeks left): Mauro, San Marcos attorney Charles Soechting, and former state Sen. Carl Parker, D-Beaumont.
Some of the big outside groups that hope to influence this thing — the Texas AFL-CIO and the Texas Trial Lawyers Association, for instance — haven't made any public endorsements. Labor officials say they're asking the voters in this thing to hold their commitments while the field sorts itself out.
While we're here, we want to remove any essence of certainty we created in last week's item on the succession. State law says the chair and vice-chair can't be the same gender. The current vice-chairman is Juan Maldonado. One set of legal beagles — the ones we quoted last week — believes Maldonado would have to resign if a man is elected chairman. As it turns out, there's an argument, since this is an interim election and involves politics and lawyers and all. An alternate theory is that two men could serve until the next Democratic Party convention and a regular election. Another, less widely held, is that only a woman would be eligible to run for the interim post so long as Maldonado is the vice chairman of the party. They have a month to sort that out.
Gov. Rick Perry apparently prefers an appeals court judge in San Antonio to Republican Supreme Court Justice Stephen W. Smith, who beat a Perry appointee last year to win a spot on the nine-member court. Fourth Court of Appeals Justice Paul Green says he'll run against Smith next year, and says he's talked to people close to the governor who've all but assured him he'll have the governor's seal of approval. Green wouldn't say who he talked to, but said he'll meet soon with Perry to talk about the race. In the meantime, he's filed papers that allow him to start raising money and talking about the contest, and he's hired Dave Carney, from Perry's political team, to run his campaign.
Smith, who'd never been a judge before winning the seat on the high court, beat Xavier Rodriguez in last year's Republican primary. Green, like Rodriguez, is from San Antonio, is a Republican and would challenge Smith in the GOP primary in March. Republicans are still struggling to get Hispanic candidates out of contested GOP primaries alive, and the loss was a particular embarrassment to the guy in the top office, who wanted to show some ability to reach out to that traditionally Democratic part of the electorate. Officially, he hasn't made an endorsement, but his support for anyone opposing Smith shouldn't come as a shock.
Smith has been a leading proponent of having judges talk about issues and about their views during elections. Tradition runs the other way, with judges in Texas elections saying they don't like to prejudge things publicly for fear their positions will disqualify them later. Smith's version is legal, thanks to recent federal court decisions, but Green wants to stay with the traditional argument. He's been on the San Antonio court — his first judicial job after years of practicing law — since 1993.
Flotsam & Jetsam
The Texas Secretary of State oversees elections, but they don't collect the same information on every election. For instance, they don't collect precinct-level election returns for constitutional amendment elections from local election officials. If you're a political nerd, that limits the amount of number-crunching you can do, and it takes away one of the tools you might use if you were trying to figure out how to win a primary election against an incumbent.
For instance, without those numbers, a nosy consultant or reporter or politico can't look at the results of the constitutional amendment election by House or Senate district. Members who voted one way on high-profile amendments might want to know whether their constituents voted the same way. So might people challenging those incumbents. Although the SOS doesn't collect the numbers, the Texas Legislative Council sometimes does; if that turns out to be the case, there will still be a delay while the state people wait for the numbers to roll in.
• Sentencing for former Attorney General Dan Morales has been delayed to Halloween. He asked the courts to wait until after the trial of his co-defendant, Marc Murr. They were accused of trying to divert money from the state's tobacco settlement to themselves. Morales pleaded guilty to charges that arose during that investigation.
• The Texas Supreme Court will hear a parody case stemming from a spoof article in the Dallas Observer directed at Denton County District Attorney Bruce Isaacks and Judge Darlene Whitten. The article, which wasn't labeled as a spoof, recounted the fictional trial of a 6-year-old arrested for reading the children's book "Where the Wild Things Are." The two public officials said people believed the story and that their reputations were damaged. The paper says the article is protected free speech. The court will hear the arguments in December.
• Attorney General Greg Abbott says video lottery terminals, or VLTs, aren't legal in Texas and would require a constitutional amendment to become legal. They're not covered by constitutional provisions that allow the state lottery because of differences between the two kinds of gambling, Abbott said in a letter opinion. Video lottery was one of several ideas touted by comptroller Carole Keeton Strayhorn earlier this year as an alternative to new taxes and fees needed to balance the budget. She also proposed a $1 tax on cigarettes, but neither proposal got far in the Legislature. Last month, Strayhorn issued a report saying lawmakers had raised $2.7 billion in fees and other charges to balance the books.
• The Texas Public Policy Foundation has cranked out a new report on things the government does that compete with things the private sector does. On the list: garbage services, electric power, toll-roads, and so on. Copies of The Business of Government can be had at www.texaspolicy.com.
• Gov. Rick Perry, announcing plans to open economic development offices around the state, said later that uncertainty about the state's tax structure shouldn't make businesses wary. Perry has said he'll ask the Legislature to tackle school finance in a special session next year. Most people think any solution would require a makeover for the state's tax system. But Perry says businesses can see the state's general philosophy about spending and shouldn't worry about it.
• Gov. Perry is now being introduced as "the man who will appear in history books... as the first 10-year governor of Texas," an epithet that would require another four-year term after this one, starting in 2007.
• Lawmakers, back in town for redistricting, are sending word to the Teacher Retirement System that they didn't want to cut health benefits for librarians and other non-teaching, non-administrators in the state's schools. TRS directors approved a rule earlier this year that defined administrators as anyone making more than $50,000 a year. Two years ago, the Lege gave educators a $1,000 a year bonus. This year, with a tight budget, they reduced the bonus for others, and cut it off altogether for administrators. The Texas Federation of Teachers squawked, and the 21,000 people cut off by the TRS rule are on the verge of getting their bennies back.
Political People and Their Moves
Joe Householder of Houston, a former radio reporter turned political hack, is going off to The Show on the East Coast, where he's taken a job as communications director for U.S. Sen. Hillary Clinton, D-New York. Householder had been at Varoga Rice and Shalett in Houston. The hiring will feed a rumor or two: Householder worked on last year's reelection campaign of Iowa Gov. Tom Vilsack. Clinton isn't a presidential candidate, but if that changes, Iowa is the place to start...
Department of Corrections: Last week's item about Adrian Plesha should have said he is the former communications director to U.S. Rep. Pete Sessions, R-Dallas. Plesha pleaded guilty to making false statements to the Federal Election Commission when he was working for a California candidate; he worked for Sessions after that, and left the offices of the Texas congressman several months ago...
Victor Carrillo, the only Texas Railroad Commissioner who hasn't been elected to that post, is now the chairman. He was elected by his fellow Republicans on that three-member panel, Charles Matthews and Michael Williams. Carrillo was appointed by Gov. Rick Perry in February, and will be on the ballot seeking a full term next year...
Austin Democrat Ray Martinez is in line for one of the seats on the Election Assistance Commission. Martinez, an attorney, worked on the voter registration project set up by Hispanic Democrats (and headed by Henry Cisneros) two years ago to boost minority registrations and turnout in the 2002 elections. The new commission was set up after the voting mess in the 2000 presidential elections. It'll have four members, each appointed by George W. Bush and approved by the Senate...
After 37 years at the Texas AFL-CIO and a mess of activity with Texas Democrats, Rosa Walker is retiring. Most recently, she has run community services and volunteer stuff at the union, and she headed the coordinated campaign for the Democrats in last year's elections...
Adam Jones moves two blocks north, leaving his post at the Senate Education Committee to be — take a deep breath — Associate Commissioner for Operations and Fiscal Management at the Texas Education Agency. He's been at TEA before, as a budgeteer and as the agency's legislative liaison...
Deaths: A.W. "Dub" Riter Jr. of Tyler, a banker, University of Texas System regent and reliably generous contributor to Republican campaigns, of cancer. He was 79.
Quotes of the Week
Sen. Robert Duncan, R-Lubbock, quoted in the Houston Chronicle on his clash with House Speaker Tom Craddick, R-Midland: "He's got to decide whether he wants to have redistricting. Are we going to have redistricting, or are we going to have Midland? Is this about Texas, or is this about Midland?"
Gov. Rick Perry, telling reporters that looming school finance reforms don't increase business uncertainty about state taxes: "They only have to look back at this last session of the Legislature and they saw a group of men and women who understand that the way you create jobs in this state is not by adding tax burden on the business community."
From the federal appeals court decision allowing the California elections to proceed: "The decision to enjoin an impending election is so serious that the Supreme Court has allowed elections to go forward even in the face of an undisputed constitutional violation... In short, the status quo that existed at the time the election was set cannot be restored because this election has already begun."
Sen. Judith Zaffirini, D-Laredo, bugging Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst about the state police on hand to quell demonstrations as the Senate finally took up congressional redistricting: "Mr. President, I couldn't help but notice that there are ten DPS troopers in the gallery, and that's at least double the number we usually have. I wonder if we're under some threat that we should be aware of?"
Sen. Steve Ogden, R-Bryan, saying he wants to move performance reviews to the Legislature and away from the state comptroller because the comptroller is in the position to make favorable fiscal assessments of her own bills: "Not only are they a player in this game, but they're the referee, too."
Sen. Mario Gallegos Jr., D-Houston, quoted in the Washington Post: "The people from the Woodlands did not elect me. That's a gated community. The nearest gated community to me in inner-city Houston is the county jail."
Texas Weekly: Volume 20, Issue 16, 29 September 2003. Ross Ramsey, Editor. George Phenix, Publisher. Copyright 2003 by Printing Production Systems, Inc. All Rights Reserved. Reproduction in whole or in part without written permission from the publisher is prohibited. One-year online subscription: $250. For information about your subscription, call (800) 611-4980 or email biz@ texasweekly.com. For news, email ramsey@ texasweekly.com, or call (512) 288-6598.