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In Redistricting Fight, a Comfort Zone for Abbott

The attorney general is in the happy position of defending redistricting maps that benefit his allies and punish his foes — all in the name of official state business.

Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott

The state’s Republican attorney general, an ambitious fellow who hopes to be governor someday, is in the happy position of defending redistricting maps that benefit his allies and punish his foes, all in the name of official state business.

Greg Abbott’s job doesn’t put him at odds with his politics. Just the opposite: he’s defending legislative actions — maps institutionalizing Republican majorities — that line up perfectly with what Texas Republicans want.

Nobody asks the attorney general whether he agrees or disagrees with his clients in all cases. If a state agency does something remarkably stupid and ends up in court, it’s the attorney general who has to defend it.

The attorney general’s office claims purity, as you’d expect it to, saying it’s not politically motivated even as it rails against its Washington counterparts at the Department of Justice as being politically motivated.

But the political smell is hard to ignore.

So are the visuals. Walk into the federal courtroom in San Antonio where part of the redistricting litigation is playing out, grab a spot on one of the wooden pews and look around.

There to your left are the people suing the state over redistricting: lawyers representing Texas Democrats and officeholders, various minorities and individuals.

Over on the right sit the lawyers for the State of Texas, sent to defend the work of the Legislature. Behind them, on the same side, sit the lawyers for the Republican Party of Texas.

They are of one mind on the maps.

The 2010 elections put overwhelming Republican majorities in both houses of the Legislature just as the time came to draw new political maps for state legislators, the congressional delegation and members of the State Board of Education. Those Republicans drew maps to give each district an even number of people and to maximize the number of Republican districts that could be created, they thought, under the Voting Rights Act and the federal and state constitutions.

Democrats didn’t like it. And minorities didn’t like it, saying the new maps didn’t reflect the fact that 89 percent of the state’s growth over the last decade had been attributable to minority population growth.

Texas got four new congressional seats, for instance, and those groups thought minority voters should control three of them.

The Legislature got sued. It always gets sued, whether the occupants of the building are Democrats or Republicans.

That gave Abbott a high-profile spot on the political stage, overshadowing many of the people who will actually have their names on state ballots next year.

Texas is required to seek preclearance of its political maps under the federal Voting Rights Act. States usually get that done at the Department of Justice, but Abbott filed instead with the federal courts in the District of Columbia. He wanted to avoid the Democratic administration’s politics, he said. When that court stalled, and the San Antonio court drew interim maps in the face of election deadlines, Abbott asked the United States Supreme Court to intervene, which it did. The trials there and in the District of Columbia Circuit are set for January, and the San Antonio maps — more favorable to Democrats but still strongly Republican — are on ice.

That could cause some elections to be postponed, putting Abbott in a bit of a spot: the state Republican Party and some of its statewide officials and candidates want their primaries held on March 6, as planned, no matter what.

The congressional and legislative folks from both parties and the state Democrats want all of the primary elections delayed if the litigation postpones any of them.

It would be more expensive, for both the state and the counties that together pay for the elections, but the attorney general’s team ducked, saying the State of Texas wasn’t taking a legal position on whether the primaries should be split or unified.

The judges asked the parties to work out a compromise on primary dates, and they’re working on it.

Meanwhile, the state is pressing ahead to get court approval of new maps before any legislative and congressional elections next year. The Legislature’s maps. The ones favored by Texas Republicans, and by the state’s top lawyer.

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State government Governor's Office Greg Abbott Redistricting Republican Party Of Texas Rick Perry Texas Democratic Party Texas Legislature