A Democrat Challenges Straus on Redistricting

State Rep. Trey Martinez Fischer, D-San Antonio, listens to a response from Rep. Dan Branch, R-Dallas, at TribLive on June 1, 2012.
State Rep. Trey Martinez Fischer, D-San Antonio, listens to a response from Rep. Dan Branch, R-Dallas, at TribLive on June 1, 2012.

If a federal court decides that the state intentionally discriminated when drawing its new political maps, is it more difficult for Texas lawyers to argue against Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act? And is it fuel for the constant struggle over the leadership of the Texas House?

That law bars places with histories of discriminating against minorities — like Texas — from changing election and voting laws without first letting the Justice Department or the federal courts decide no new discrimination is taking place.

It’s a little like finding out the discrimination thing is no longer in remission, if it ever was. 

The Democrats aren’t making it any easier on the state’s Republican officeholders. Rep. Trey Martinez Fischer, the San Antonio Democrat who heads the Mexican American Legislative Caucus, or MALC, wrote to House Speaker Joe Straus this week in an attempt to put that discrimination at Straus’ door. In his letter — copied to the other 148 members of the House — he included depositions of Gerardo Interiano, who worked for the speaker on redistricting matters. In that, Interiano said he and other aides to Straus met with an outside attorney about a lawsuit challenging the practice of counting non-citizen residents when figuring out how to draw political districts. Interiano said in the deposition that the state didn’t join in that suit or support it.

But Martinez Fischer, in his letter to Straus, said the speaker “should know that your senior staff and closest advisors were identified as the source and primary cause of the discriminatory conduct that prevented these maps from pre-clearing.”

The others in the meeting, according to Interiano’s deposition, were Denise Davis, Straus’ chief of staff, Lisa Kaufman, his top policy advisor, and attorney Mike Hull, who eventually filed that lawsuit in Sherman.

He closes by asking Straus to ask Attorney General Greg Abbott to drop his appeal of the redistricting decision.

Other than being an interesting poke at the ant hill, the letter highlights the argument that the state was intentionally discriminating. Martinez Fischer is a longtime antagonist of the speaker — he turned the House’s front microphone around and faced Straus in one particularly uncomfortable confrontation — and it also serves as the latest round of that testy relationship.

It also got some quiet hurrahs from some of the House Republicans who have challenged Straus’ leadership in the past. And it’s not one battle, but two. The outside argument over redistricting and voting rights will continue on, in the maps case and in the appeal of the federal court decision tossing out the state’s voter ID law. The inside fight is not about maps and voter IDs; it’s an attack on how Straus runs the House and whether everyone in it has a fair shot, or as Martinez Fischer put it, “what you truly care about and whom you are willing to sacrifice in order to accomplish your objectives.”

Straus’ press office issued a statement attributed to spokeswoman Erin Daly a day after the letter went out: "Last year, after members provided input and direction, the Texas House fulfilled its duty in passing new maps that reflect the population changes of the state. The House will continue to rely on Attorney General Abbott for legal advice and guidance, as it has throughout this litigation."