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Analysis: Texas redistricting is hard enough when politicians trust the mapmakers

Lawmakers get jittery when it's time to redraw their political maps, and the exercise is based on a mix of power, party, clout, tenure — and trust. That last one is a fleeting quality in the Texas House right now.

State Sen. Kirk Watson, D-Austin, looks at redistricting maps at a Senate hearing on May 13, 2011.

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The Texas Legislature’s once-every-decade* quest for new political maps will get a twist in 2021: The Texas House will have either a speaker whose trustworthiness is suspect or a brand-new speaker who’ll be riding in the wake of a scandal.

What’s at stake, for lawmakers, is whether they’ll have a chance at staying in office with the new maps. (The process is already underway, as of last week.) That’s how it goes with redistricting and the Texas House: The representatives of 150 political districts decide how to protect themselves and ruin their enemies by moving the lines around. Powerful members do better, on average, than weak ones. Members in the majority do better, on average, than members in the minority. And members who are on management’s good side do better, on average, than members who are not.

Members’ fates are, to a great extent, in the hands of the speaker.

And they are trying to figure out whether Dennis Bonnen, who became speaker less than nine months ago, can be trusted.

Bonnen has been accused of working against some of the incumbent Republican members of the House — people a Republican speaker would reasonably be expected to protect. In fact, he told reporters at the end of this year’s legislative session that he would punish House members who campaigned against colleagues from either party. The news in that — to reporters and to legislators alike — was that he was protecting Democrats as well as Republicans.

But he had a meeting a couple of weeks after the session with Michael Quinn Sullivan, the head of Empower Texans and a regular burr in the saddle of establishment Republicans. Bonnen told reporters in May that the group was beyond appeasement — “and I sure as hell am not going to waste my time trying.”

But he and then-House Republican Caucus Chairman Dustin Burrows of Lubbock not only met with Sullivan, but they allegedly ran their mouths, speaking openly and unflatteringly about other members and — according to Sullivan — offering to give House news media passes to his group if it would work for the defeats of 10 members of the House.

They denied it, but Sullivan taped the meeting and played it for select members and activists over the last several weeks, building a grassfire of opposition to Bonnen in his own House. Most members haven’t heard the tape, although everyone from the governor to Bonnen to people on the outside have asked that it be made public.

The summer began as the session ended with Bonnen and other state leaders in triumphant mode. The summer ended with members roiled in surprise over Bonnen’s alleged perfidy, and with the Texas Rangers investigating what happened in that meeting and whether it crossed any legal lines.

It is not, as they say, a good look. It’s also, to a great extent, inside baseball — a spat confined within the hallowed halls of the Legislature, with officials most Texans have never heard of arguing about hurt feelings and slights that don’t matter to people in the real world.

Except that they do. Speakers are supposed to protect the members of the House from outside dangers, like Sullivan’s Empower Texans, or sometimes the Texas Senate or the governor. That’s the job. And when it’s time for the task of drawing new political maps — a politically consequential moment for both the people inside the House and the people outside it, whom they’re supposed to represent — that protective embrace is even more important.

Even the members most likely to lose a redistricting fight — new ones, weak ones, those in the political minority — expect to be treated fairly, to not have the folks in management putting a thumb on the scales. They expect trustworthiness, even if they’re on the outs for some reason. Honor among thieves, if you will.

That could determine how willing they are to stick with the current management when Bonnen’s term ends in January 2021.

*About that asterisk up at the top: The Legislature draws new political districts for Congress, the state House and Senate, and the State Board of Education after every decennial census, adjusting the lines of the districts to reflect changes in the population over the last 10 years. But what would, at its simplest, be a one-time thing every 10 years, often turns into a continuous process as lawmakers and the courts sort out revisions to new maps. The legal fights that began with the 2011 redistricting maps, for example, are still not completely resolved as the decade ends. “Once every decade” is how this is supposed to work, but when the stakes are high, the fights never seem to end.

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