Legislative Redistricting Board Hears Testimony
from Public and Legislators
The Legislative Redistricting Board (LRB) met in a public hearing on Monday, July 16, 2001 to hear testimony about redistricting maps presented by its members during its last meeting on July 10th. The board is in charge of redrawing district lines for the Senate and the House of Representatives after the Legislature failed to do so during the 77th Regular Session.
Unless the board can complete the job in 60 days, legislative redistricting will be turned over to the courts. Redistricting has always been one of the most partisan issues faced by Legislature, and the most challenged in the courts.
Attorney General John Cornyn is chairman of the LRB. Other members include Lt. Governor Bill Ratliff, House Speaker James E. "Pete" Laney, Comptroller of Public Accounts Carole Keeton Rylander and Land Commissioner David Dewhurst.
At the last meeting, each board member presented redistricting plans of their own design: Ratliff, Dewhurst and Rylander each presented individual maps for Senate redistricting. Laney and Cornyn each presented a map for the House redistricting. Amendments can be added to each of these plans before a final vote.
Comptroller Rylander opened the meeting, introducing an amendment to complete the map she presented in the previous meeting. She said then that she had not been able to solve to her satisfaction the redistricting of West Texas. Her new map draws these four remaining districts and makes changes to two others.
Legislators, judges, mayors and the general public all presented testimony at the hearing. The vast majority of the 55 witnesses testified on the House of Representatives, almost all of them testifying against Cornyn's plan and in support of Laney's. As for Senate redistricting, Ratliff's plan drew the most support.
First to testify was Representative Helen Giddings (House District (HD) 109) of Dallas. Frustrated at the Senate's inability to complete redistricting, Giddings went on to oppose Cornyn's plan for the House of Representatives. She described it as unfair in terms of gender and race, since the plan pairs two incumbent African American women -Giddings and Yvonne Davis in one district. Pairing is the practice of putting two incumbent legislators in the same district. This would reduce the seniority of the Dallas delegation in the House, reduce female representation and the seniority of African Americans in that chamber. Twenty percent of Texas House members and 12.9 percent of senators are women. Giddings said the plan is unfair to Dallas County, women and African Americans. "Do what's right!" she concluded.
Mr. Bill Owens thanked the board members for giving the public easy access to the maps through the Internet, at http://www.tlc.state.tx.us/tlc/research/redist/redist.htm. But Owens said all three maps gave Republicans too much control of the Senate. He referred the board to three other maps introduced by the public, that have more compact districts and fewer divided counties. He said current Senate districts are misshapen and that the board should start from scratch. He proposed not considering incumbency and would divide districts equally between Republicans and Democrats. "Let the people decide through their vote", he said, instead of predetermining the partisan tilt of the districts.
Representative Jim Solis (HD 38) of Cameron County also disagreed with Cornyn's map. Solis said this plan dilutes the strength of the large Hispanic population in South Texas, packing it into two districts and failing to keep together communities of interest. He showed support for Laney's plan, a modification of a map approved by the lower chamber during the regular session. Solis' opinion was seconded by many witnesses from South Texas and the Rio Grande Valley, who said they wish to maintain their team of legislators for the political and economic progress of the region.
Representative Irma Rangel (HD 35) said Cornyn's plan does not take incumbents into consideration, weakening what little power that South Texas Hispanics now have and packs them into fewer districts. She said that without political power, Hispanics would continue in a cycle of political and economic neglect in one of the country's poorest regions.
Representative Debra Danburg (HD 137) from Houston also opposed the way the Republican plan purges every Jewish American member from the House of Representatives.
Many other witnesses declared themselves against Cornyn's plan because it splits areas that have always been together. Representatives from the Texas Farm Bureau also spoke against the attorney general's plan, because they said it decreases rural representation. Although they understand that the rural population is decreasing in Texas, they want to maintain as much rural representation as possible. They all supported Laney's plan.
Reginald Rex from the African-American Chambers of Commerce also spoke in support of Laney's plan, saying Cornyn's plan pairs two of the most senior representatives from Dallas. Many other witnesses opposed the pairing of these two African-American women --Representatives Yvonne Davis (HD 111) and Helen Giddings (HD 109). Cornyn's plan pairs 42 legislators against each other, most of them minorities. Laney's plan pairs 18. Fourteen of the 150 House members are African American, as are only two of the 31 senators. Cornyn's plan also pairs African-American and Hispanic legislators in some districts.
Seniority or incumbency in the Legislature is a very important issue for African Americans and minorities in general. The more experience a legislator has, the more likely it is that he or she could obtain a chairmanship in a powerful committee. Without this political influence, witnesses said minorities would regress in effective representation. They said Cornyn's plan might be legal... but is not morally right.
Those few citizens in favor of Cornyn's plan said incumbents should not be protected. They said there are a lot of new faces that should take the place of old legislators. They also supported Dewhurst's or Rylander's plan for the Senate.
Other witnesses pointed out the partisanship of the LRB itself - four of the five members are Republican. They asked the members to be considerate towards Democrats. In the Cornyn plan, 88 of the 150 proposed House districts generally vote Republican.
Other legislators testifying yesterday were: Senator Judith Zaffirini (Senate District (SD) 21), House members Senfronia Thompson (HD 141), Ignacio Salinas (HD 44), Robert E. Talton of (HD 144), Ronny Crownover (HD 64), Tracy O. King (HD 43), Patricia Gray (HD 23), Trey Martinez Fischer (HD 116), and envoys or written comments from Mary Denny (HD 63), Burt P. Solomons (HD 65), Delwin Jones (HD 83) and Pete P. Gallego (HD 74). Also testifying was a representative of Senator Jeff Wentworth (SD 25), the chair of the Senate Redistricting Committee.
Many of the witnesses and members of the board made comments about the complexity of the issue. House Speaker Laney, pointing out that since the House and most witnesses supported his plan, jokingly advised the other board members to make things easier and just approve it.
The Legislative Redistricting Board adjourned until July 24 at 2:00 p.m., when it will meet to consider amendments and the formal adoption of a plan.