The Texas stalemate: It's all about race

Few are saying it openly, but the DeLay-Rove power grab in Austin is all about keeping white control of an increasingly Hispanic state.

By Michelle Goldberg

Published September 3, 2003 11:21PM (EDT)

Exile in Albuquerque is not glamorous. The 11 Democratic Texas state senators who fled to New Mexico more than a month ago to block a Republican power grab spend most of their days and nights at a slightly shabby Marriott hotel in the city's grim, sprawling periphery. Each morning they put on suits and hold a press conference in a windowless room, putting the most cheerful face possible on an impasse that looks ever more unlikely to yield the senators a real victory. By the evening, many of them have changed into shorts and are drinking in the hotel's lobby bar with a group of increasingly enervated Texas journalists. The senators miss their families and their jobs. They're spending thousands of their own dollars -- one of them had an $1,800 cellphone bill last month. And the local press is declaring their fight hopeless. "The Albuquerque Democrats might as well learn the Ballad of the Alamo," R.G. Ratcliffe wrote in the Houston Chronicle on Monday, "because no reinforcements are coming and they're running out of ammunition."

Their situation grew dramatically worse on Tuesday, when one of their number, state Sen. John Whitmire of Houston, enraged his comrades by deciding to return home because he saw no end to the deadlock. Without him, the Democratic group doesn't have enough people to deny Republicans a quorum and thus stop them from passing their redistricting plans. Yet the remaining Texas 10 still say they're not going home. While most press accounts cast them as opponents of a Republican plan to grab power by redrawing legislative districts, the lawmakers-in-exile here see something at once more subtle and more important: the latest chapter in the South's long, ugly war over minority voting rights.

Nine of the 10 senators remaining in Albuquerque are black or Hispanic; the other one represents a district that is mainly minority. And within a few years, experts say, Texas will join California as a state where Latinos, African-Americans and other minorities will outnumber Anglos.

So it is not far-fetched to say that how this drama unfolds will determine whether minority voters in Texas gain power proportionate to their numbers. That's why several Texas Democrats are trying to hold firm even as their audacious gambit gives way to a protracted, depressing slog and their unity begins to crack.

"This is an effort to seriously gut minority voting rights," says Sen. Leticia Van De Putte, head of the Texas Democratic Senate delegation. "We could not protect our constituents without breaking quorum" and fleeing Texas to short-circuit the Republican plot.

Redistricting -- the creation of new electoral districts to ostensibly reflect new population patterns -- is done once every 10 years in every state, based on census figures. It was last done in Texas in 2001. But Texas Republicans, having swept state offices in the last election, are determined to remake the voting landscape there while they have the power to lock in their party's dominance. They have the votes in the state Legislature to prevail, but because the Texas constitution requires that two-thirds of the senators be in the Senate chamber before business can be done, the Texas 11 were able to use their self-imposed exile to thwart their opponents, running out the clock on two special sessions called by Republican Gov. Rick Perry.

They couldn't go home because Perry would have immediately called another session and had them arrested and forcibly brought to the Senate. Whitmire's departure changes that equation, because with him, the Senate Republicans, and the one Democratic senator who stayed behind, the Senate has a quorum and can do business. According to the Houston Chronicle, Whitmire has suggested he might flee again if the governor calls yet another special session, but without him, the Democrats' boycott is largely symbolic. Still, as of Tuesday night, they were pledging to stick with it.

If the senators are stubborn, it's partly because they've come to see their stance against redistricting as a civil rights struggle, not a political quarrel. At first, it's difficult to see that the battle over Texas redistricting is all about race. Spurred by Texas powerhouse Tom DeLay, the majority leader in the U.S. House of Representatives, and by White House maestro Karl Rove, Texas Republicans are trying to ram through a redistricting proposal that would virtually ensure that Republicans would replace between five and seven white, moderate Democratic incumbents. The GOP proposal would redraw the state's legislative boundaries so that minorities are concentrated into a few districts, likely leading to a net increase in the number of minority members of Congress. But the voting power of blacks and Latinos would likely be diluted in other districts, giving Republicans a net gain of as many as seven seats.

Yet Texas Democrats insist that the Republican redistricting plan is a deviously clever update on the party's old-fashioned divide-and-conquer Southern strategy. The Republican plan, Democrats argue, would redraw the boundaries so that blocs of Hispanic and black voters would shift from districts where they've voted in coalitions with white Democrats and independents into solidly Republican suburban districts, where their influence will be almost meaningless.

It's an attempt, Democrats say, to lock in Republican power ahead of demographic changes that bode ill for conservatives. Republicans, they believe, are trying to both reduce minority voting power and to stigmatize the Democratic Party as the party of blacks and Hispanics (who still vote largely Democratic, despite some Republican inroads). And, by targeting white congressmen elected by coalitions of minorities and white Democrats, the Republicans have found a way to disenfranchise minorities without violating civil rights laws that prohibit states from gerrymandering electoral districts on racial lines.

Among many of the exiled Democrats, there's a strong sense that the most crucial political story in the nation is being overshadowed by the more colorful electoral pageant in California. "Were it not for California, this would be the biggest story in the country," says Sen. Gonzalo Barrientos of Austin.

That analysis of the Texas standoff is shared by the liberal group, and later this month it will raise the story's profile with an advertising blitz funded by a million dollars raised online through its "Defend Democracy in Texas" campaign. Many of its radio, television and print ads, some of them in Spanish, will target Hispanics in Texas and in key swing states. The plan is to make Texas redistricting into a national issue about Republican hypocrisy on Hispanic issues.

"Republicans are trying to have it both ways," says Zack Exley, MoveOn's organizing director. "They're trying to make this very strong appeal to Latinos to get some voters to switch over and vote for Spanish-speaker George W. Bush, but then at the same time they're blatantly trying to disenfranchise Hispanic voters in Texas to solidify the Republican grip on Congress.

"Republicans from Bush on down to Perry reach out to minorities with their left hand, then knock the hell out of us with their right," says Barrientos, a dapper, eloquent man who spent his childhood as a migrant worker in Galveston.

No Republicans returned calls for this story. But the redistricting standoff comes at a time when blacks and Latinos are on track to become majorities in Texas, leading some Texas Democrats to believe Republicans are using redistricting to limit the effect of demographic changes. One exiled Democrat recalls the candid comment of a Republican colleague: "We have 10 years until Hispanics take over."

The Republican isn't wrong. "A lot of people think that what's going to happen in Texas is going to be what happened in California," says Michael Lind, the author of "Made in Texas: George W. Bush and the Southern Takeover of American Politics." "It went from being a right-wing state based on lower-middle-class whites to being one of the most liberal states because of a coalition of blacks, Latinos and white liberals."

In the same way, "Texas is going to go from being one of the most reactionary states in the union to being one of the most progressive," Lind predicts. "At this point, the white Texans who vote for the Democratic Party tend to be very affluent, well-educated people who are very liberal, similar to California. The old white Texas populists, once the mainstay of Lyndon Johnson's Democratic Party, are mostly Republican now."

Thus, breaking up members of this coalition into different districts is key to preserving Republican power in Texas.

"Demographic changes mean that a majority of Texans will be people of color," says Garnet Coleman, a state representative from Houston. With the growing Hispanic population, "for the first time Anglos would become the minority. It doesn't bode well for them [Republicans] in terms of electoral demographics, but as long as they stack the deck by gerrymandering districts that favor them beyond the time that they naturally would be able to keep those districts, that's to their advantage."

Republicans don't have much time. Hispanics currently account for a third of Texas' population; according to a 2002 Washington Post story, the continued growth of the Latino population will leave Anglos as less than 50 percent of the population in Texas by 2005. Hispanics will exceed 50 percent of the state population by 2026, the Post reported.

Redistricting may blunt their political power, though. Once established, electoral districts are very difficult to change, says Rob Richie, executive director of the nonprofit Center for Voting and Democracy. As proof, he offers the case of Democratic dominance in Texas.

Texas Republicans have a point that the current congressional map doesn't reflect Texas' voting patterns, Richie says. More than 50 percent of Texans voted for Republican congressional representatives in the last election, but Republicans won just 15 seats, while Democrats took 17. (Of course, given the last presidential election, there's something audacious about Republicans arguing that the system is invalid because its party won the popular vote in Texas but lost the electoral vote.) The Democrats dominate, says Richie, because of the electoral maps that state Democrats drew in 1991.

A panel of Texas judges redrew those maps in 2001, after statehouse Republicans blocked passage of a new map drawn by Democrats, who were then a majority. Republicans defended those court-drawn maps, which gave their party two extra seats, from a challenge in U.S. Supreme Court brought by civil rights groups, who said the map was unfair to minorities. Nevertheless, that round of redistricting didn't reverse all the advantages Democrats had built into the system in 1991.

Indeed, Richie calls the Texas Democrats' 1991 maps the most effective gerrymandering of that decade in the nation. But Democrats were hardly alone in trying to draw maps to their advantage. During the same decade, Republicans successfully gerrymandered Florida, Michigan, Ohio and Pennsylvania. Right now, Richie notes, Pennsylvania Democrats could win a clear majority of the statewide vote and still not have a chance at taking the majority of House seats.

The point, he says, is that electoral maps drawn now will determine who can get elected a decade from now. That's why the Texas Democrats have such a sense of mission, even as their costs multiply and they grow weary of being away from home.

"Our Senate colleagues, they think we did this for show. They're very uncomfortable every time we bring up the black or Hispanic issue," says Van De Putte. "But this is about the consolidation of power and trying to direct control of the U.S. House for the next 20 years."

One great irony of this whole imbroglio is that the Republican plan would create more minority seats in the U.S. Congress than currently exist. On the Texas Republican Party Web site, party chair Susan Weddington boasts that redistricting will "provide new leadership opportunities for minority Texans." She's right -- while redistricting would dilute minority influence in many districts, it would pack a couple of districts with minority voters, who would be likely to elect minority candidates.

Democrats find it maddening when their opponents tout their plan as a kind of electoral affirmative action. "If anyone believes that Tom DeLay and Susan Weddington are really interested in what's good for black and brown people, then they believe that the Grand Dragon of the Ku Klux Klan is interested in what's good for black and brown people," says Coleman, who is black.

In exchange for two new minority members of Congress, Democrats say, blacks and Hispanics would lose a handful of white members whose voting records are relatively well-ranked by civil rights groups.

The argument that a handful of sympathetic white congressmen beats two minority representatives would sound grossly self-serving if put forth by the white congressmen themselves. But the main proponents of that argument are the Texas 11. "If you look at their voting records, you will see a stark difference in how [white] representatives from the two parties vote" on black and Latino issues, says Sen. Judy Zaffirini of Laredo. "Redistricting is a weapon of mass discrimination."

If it is, though, it's a subtle kind of discrimination. One might think the senators were being oversensitive, even paranoid, if a key Republican operative hadn't confirmed their suspicions that Republicans, led by Rove and DeLay, are playing a devious race card.

In May, the Denver Post reported on GOP attack dog Grover Norquist's strategy, saying, "The GOP can live with urban liberals, such as [California Rep. Maxine] Waters; it's moderates such as [Texas Democratic Rep. Charlie] Stenholm who are its main target." If the Texas redistricting plan is adopted, Norquist was quoted saying, "it is exactly the Stenholms of the world who will disappear, the moderate Democrats. They will go so that no Texan need grow up thinking that being a Democrat is acceptable behavior."

For those attuned to the signals, Norquist's message was clear -- redistricting would drive Southern whites out of the Democratic Party. In July, he went further, telling the New York Times that Sheila Jackson-Lee, a African-American congresswoman from Texas, "will be the spokesman for the Democratic Party."

"Basically you'll be labeled a nigger-lover if you're a Democrat," Coleman says of the Republican plan. "We've already been through those times. It's all part of the Southern strategy."

Whitmire's departure makes it unlikely that the Democrats can block that strategy, even if some of them hold out until Christmas, as they've threatened to do. If they remain in New Mexico, they'll probably prove the Houston Chronicle right -- it will be a Democratic Alamo, brave and doomed.

Michelle Goldberg

Michelle Goldberg is a frequent contributor to Salon and the author of "Kingdom Coming: The Rise of Christian Nationalism" (WW Norton).

MORE FROM Michelle Goldberg

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

George W. Bush Karl Rove Rick Perry Texas Tom Delay