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Anglo Democratic Lawmakers: From Endangered to Protected Species?

Anglo Democrats — an endangered species when the political mapmakers were working in 2001 — might be a protected species this year. Many of them represent districts full of minority voters they say are protected from disruptive redistricting.

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Anglo Democrats — an endangered species when the political mapmakers were working in 2001 — might be a protected species this year. Many of them represent districts full of minority voters they say are protected from disruptive redistricting.

And Republican attention might be on defense rather than on offense. Before last year’s elections, Republicans were talking about redrawing maps to gain a strong advantage over Democrats. But the voters took care of that for them, and now the Republicans — in the Texas House in particular — have to figure out how to draw safe or nearly safe districts for their incumbents. They’d be more interested in knocking off Democratic incumbents if they weren’t so busy figuring out how to protect their own officeholders from Democratic challengers.

In 2001, it was a rotten year to be an Anglo Democratic incumbent; 2011 holds high risk for Republican House freshmen. If the mapmakers can’t draw safe districts for each of the 101 Republicans elected last November, they’ll be pushed into a kind of political LIFO accounting — last in, first out.

A decade ago, there were six Anglo Democrats in the Senate, and now there are three. In the latest census numbers for each of those three districts, Anglos make up less than half of the population.

The senators in those districts argue that theirs are “coalition districts,” where no ethnic or racial group has the majority, but where minorities have sufficient strength to elect the candidates of their choice. The law doesn’t try to ensure minorities will get elected, but that minority voters have a voice. Breaking up their districts, the Democrats argue, isn’t legal.

Senate District 15 in Houston is the clearest example. Senator John Whitmire, an Anglo Democrat first elected to the Legislature in 1972, represents a district where 26.7 percent of the residents are black and 46.5 percent are Hispanic. Just 22.8 percent are Anglo.

Senator Kirk Watson’s district in Travis County is 44.3 percent black and Hispanic, enough to qualify it as a coalition district, he argued at a recent redistricting hearing. Senator Wendy Davis of Fort Worth is advancing that same argument; 46.5 percent of the people in her district are black or Hispanic. In both of those districts, the Anglo population is below 50 percent.

In the House, eight of the 49 Democrats are Anglos, compared with 37 a decade ago. There were more Democrats then, too, and there are more Anglo Republicans now than then — this is about the fastest shrinking part of the Legislature, not about political white flight.

Ten years ago, Republicans openly proclaimed that their easiest targets were Anglo Democrats. The logic was simple: They were trying to increase the number of Republican seats in the Legislature and thought the numbers there should match the numbers their candidates were ringing up in statewide races for governor and so on.

They had a one-vote majority in the Senate, and Democrats had a six-vote majority in the House. Why, Republicans wondered, could George W. Bush rack up 59 percent of the vote for president in Texas in the 2000 election but they didn’t have something around that same proportion in the Legislature?

They decided that most of the 50 minority members of that Legislature were probably in districts protected by the Voting Rights Act, and they went after the people who were not Republicans and were not protected — which is to say, they went after Anglo Democrats.

The move inspired some of the survivors to start the WD-40s, a group for White Democrats over age 40. The last standing member of that bunch — Rep. Allan Ritter of Nederland — switched parties after last year’s election. Now there are eight Anglo Democrats, and half of them represent districts where Anglos don’t have a majority.

They’ll argue, like the senators, that their districts ought to be protected.

Republicans in the Legislature will draw the maps — after all, they’ve got the numbers. Failing that, the state’s Legislative Redistricting Board will take over. It’s got five members, all of them Republicans. Then it’s to the courts.

The Republicans have a chance here to cement the wins they made in November. For the Democrats, the silver lining is that between the protections of the law and their small numbers in the Legislature, they’re not worth attacking.

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State government 82nd Legislative Session John Whitmire Redistricting Texas House of Representatives Texas Legislature Wendy Davis