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One sort of news, familiar to reporters in business, government and politics, is known to some of us as a DBI.
Dull but important.
DBIs are the hardest stories to pitch to editors. You have to catch their interest in that nanosecond before they tell you nobody wants to read boring stuff.
Some of the biggest stories start as DBIs. This one is about redistricting — how the state draws its political maps — and it fits the pattern.
Novel coronaviruses and large-scale business scams are examples that share a DBI characteristic: They’re not interesting until they’re urgent. Nobody cares about unscrupulous lenders dishing easy home loans to people who can’t pay them back until out-of-control subprime lending topples the economy. Nobody wants to read about a new virus somewhere on the other side of the planet until it sweeps the world as a pandemic.
Redistricting is a classic DBI, and we’re at the starting gates for another round.
Political maps are the foundation of who does and doesn’t have a voice in a democracy. If you’re drawn into a district where you’re in the political minority — whether that’s because of race, political party or geography — the chance that your point of view will be considered is diminished. It can remain that way for another decade, until another census forces a new redrawing of those political districts.
Meanwhile, the safety net has frayed since the last time maps were drawn in Texas; the U.S. Supreme Court effectively removed the Voting Rights Act requirement that Texas and states like it win federal permission before making changes in voting and election laws.
People who aren’t paying attention to new political maps in 2021 are going to be unhappily surprised when they find — sometime during the next 10 years — that the political table has been tilted to favor someone else.
And even if they are paying attention, it’s hard to tell what’s going on. The people involved will tell you the wildest things, to keep things from getting too interesting, and to keep from drawing too much attention.
Just last week, during The Texas Tribune’s symposium on the upcoming 2021 legislative session, the leaders of the House and Senate committees on redistricting tiptoed around any suggestion that the results of the 2020 election will influence the redistricting maps they’ll be drawing in just a few months.
State Sen. Joan Huffman, R-Houston, is a lawyer and a former state district judge. State Rep. Phil King is an attorney, too. And they both know that redistricting litigation never ends. The cases that started with the new census 10 years ago are still open, even as another census is being completed and another round of redistricting is about to start.
Whatever kind of spider-sense they picked up in law school, practice and the Legislature is on its high setting. Asked whether a Republican House and Senate, with a Republican governor, can be expected to draw maps that favor Republicans, neither lawmaker agreed.
They didn’t exactly disagree, but they treated the question as radioactive. Because they’re both pretty good at this, their answers were the exact opposite of the tasty soundbites politicians pull out when they want to be quoted.
“I would say the data is going to drive what the maps look like. As the numbers come in, we will look to see where the population is growing … and from there, we will make the changes needed to make sure the maps are constitutional in their apportionment and proceed on from there,” Huffman said. “We do have a Republican Legislature that will be drawing the maps, but we will be driven by the data, and the law.”
Asked whether there is any chance that the Texas Legislature, with its Republican majority, will draw maps that favor Democrats, King smiled, but wasn’t any more revealing than Huffman.
“The committee’s job is to follow the law,” he said, “… to have a very, very transparent process, so that the public can participate and all legislators can participate, and so that everybody knows what’s going on, and third is to be fair. It’s the data that drives what’s fair or not. You obviously have political considerations, and the Supreme Court says it’s OK to have political considerations.”
Still awake? This is how DBIs work. Redistricting is the process of drawing political maps, pooling Texans into districts that will elect members of Congress, the state House and Senate, and the State Board of Education for the next 10 years. The people elected in those districts are the ones who draw the maps, which means the process starts with a built-in conflict of interest.
Sure enough, they draw maps that increase their chances of success — not only in elections, but in the government decisions that follow. Democrats draw Democratic maps. Republicans draw Republican maps. And the stakes are so high, the litigation over those maps never really ends.
That’s the reason for the bland answers. They might have some thoughts about what the maps should look like, but they’re not about to say so out loud.
Mum’s the word. They want to keep it dull, especially if it’s important.