John Frullo, Jim Landtroop, Charles Perry and Four Price each won election to the Texas House last month, representing districts in the Panhandle and the South Plains. But those four freshman Republicans will arrive in Austin in January with “kick me” signs on their backs. At least one of them isn’t going to last long.
West Texas is losing population. While the state’s population has grown 19 percent, according to preliminary U.S. census numbers, any place that loses population loses political representation. So does any place that has grown at a slower rate than the state average.
The state is expected to gain three, maybe four, congressional seats next year because it’s growing faster than other states. That will protect West Texans in Congress, because the new seats will plug holes in the map that would otherwise come from the left half of the state.
The Texas Legislature, on the other hand, will have the same number of seats it now has: 31 in the Senate and 150 in the House. And the political maps will have to change as the population concentrates more into the rough triangle formed by Houston, Dallas-Fort Worth, and San Antonio and Austin.
Each House district has to have the same number of people. Densely populated areas have smaller political districts, while rural areas have bigger ones. The districts in West Texas are about to get even bigger geographically, so they won’t require as many representatives to cover the same territory.
“I will need approximately 15,000 more people,” says Price, whose district borders Oklahoma. “And you can’t go north or east where we are.”
Redistricting is like an election you don’t get to vote in. Lawmakers use sophisticated computer software to redraw the maps, paying attention to the same things you would if you were doing it: competition, voting history, demographics and geography. They want political districts that include their own homes, in which they can win elections, and in which the competition is weak.
Frullo and Perry are from Lubbock. Price lives in Amarillo. Landtroop lives in Plainview. The four freshmen are surrounded by legislative veterans, with nowhere but south to go for new voters. Every state officeholder in the region is a Republican, so being from the party in charge is no advantage.
The problem could be solved with a retirement. The freshmen are surrounded by lawmakers who have already vested in the state retirement program and who are old enough to start drawing pensions. But unless John Smithee of Amarillo, Warren Chisum of Pampa or Rick Hardcastle of Vernon wants to call it quits, one or more of the freshmen will be paired in a district only one can win.
The party thing is big. Republicans have near-supermajorities in both the House and Senate. The governor is a Republican. If the Legislature can’t pull together enough votes to adopt new maps, the Legislative Redistricting Board, made up of five Republican officeholders, will take over. The U.S. Justice Department, which has to sign off on any changes the state makes before new elections are held, is in a Democratic administration and is the only card Texas Democrats have to play.
But the party thing doesn’t help in West Texas, where there are no Democrats to run over. West Texans’ one not very secret weapon is state Sen. Kel Seliger. The Amarillo Republican, whose district stretches south to Midland, is the chairman of redistricting. He says it might be possible to draw maps that minimize the political damage to his part of the state.
Seliger adds, however, that the Senate will draw Senate maps and will leave the House maps to the House. West Texas had a card to play there, but it’s gone: Delwin Jones, R-Lubbock, was the redistricting chairman, but he lost to Perry in the Republican primary.
That leaves internal House politics.
Two of the four freshmen have endorsed a challenger to House Speaker Joe Straus, R-San Antonio. No matter which candidate wins the speaker race, two of the freshmen will be wrong. If Straus is chosen, then Price and Frullo are with the winners. If Ken Paxton, R-McKinney, is, then Landtroop and Perry bet right.
If a third candidate, Chisum, finishes strong, the speakership will be in West Texas hands again, and all bets are off. But no West Texan — including any of the four freshmen — has endorsed him. Somebody’s going to lose his job.
“It’s four great guys,” Perry says of his classmates. “But one of them’s probably going to be a one-termer.”