Lay of the Land

Today, a new chapter opens in the Texas redistricting saga. The Lone Star State will begin its preclearance trial, in which it will argue that the various House, Senate, and congressional maps passed out of the legislature last year did not have a discriminatory effect on minorities. Only last week, the state was at the Supreme Court arguing over whether a federal court in San Antonio had the authority to reject the state's maps and draw new ones. In redistricting battles, the questions tend to be rather complex—did the state suppress minority voters by not maximizing the number of minority districts on the map? Does the state have a right to draw whatever maps its lawmakers wish? With multiple maps and multiple court cases, the Texas redistricting case is like a Russian novel of legal questions.

Recently, I ran into state Representative Aaron Peña, one of the state's few moderate Republicans and one of its few Latino Republicans. He raised a different set of considerations about minority-voter empowerment—questions that can get lost amid the head-scratching over legalities and court opinions.

Peña has conducted his political life in shades of gray. As a Democrat in the Republican-controlled House, he joined a bloc of Democrats who supported the far-right speaker in exchange for better deals for their districts (that speaker has since been deposed). Then he turned himself into Democratic enemy No. 1 when he switched parties just before the 2011 legislative session. With his defection and that of one other member, Republicans gained a supermajority in the state House. And after redistricting maps gave Peña a winnable Republican district by significantly altering the democratically controlled districts around his, Democrats were furious. Then, a San Antonio court redrew the maps and left Peña with a district that would be almost impossible to win as a Republican. While it's still unclear if the San Antonio maps will be used, he's announced that he will not seek re-election unless his district can be won.

When it comes to redistricting, Peña is surprisingly blasé about the entire process. He says he dislikes the highly partisan process, which tends to yield major advantages and fewer competitive seats for whichever party is in power. "When you have very solid [Democrat or Republican] districts, you don't have the norm—you tend to have the extreme," he explains. He points to Representative Debbie Riddle, a vehemently anti-immigrant Republican from a largely white, conservative district. "She doesn't have to understand my position even though I'm a Republican," he says. "She doesn't have to be as sensitive to Hispanic issues, because they're very few in her district. She only has to advocate to the most conservative elements in her district."

Peña argues that with many of his colleagues not needing to care about minority communities, it's important to have Republicans of color who can bridge the gap. "I represented the Valley as a Democrat, and I saw that," he says. "We put all our eggs in one basket and we had nobody advocate our case." According to Peña, black and Latino Republicans who hold office have a unique opportunity to sit in backroom meetings and advocate for their causes, building bridges with those in power—which is why the redistricting process should protect them especially. Minority GOP lawmakers, he says, "can assist in giving people to some extent, what they're looking for—which is political power."

There are some obvious problems with this assertion. The Texas House currently has five Latino Republicans and two black Republicans serving in the House. But all except Peña are in their first term, having been swept into power by the Tea Party movement. Many are extremists when it comes to issues like slashing government programs that disproportionately help minorities in the state (pre-kindergarten education and women's health care, for instance). Furthermore, the minority Republicans holding office were elected largely by white voters in their districts (though I should note, groups like George P. Bush's Hispanic Republicans of Texas and other groups are trying to make inroads in the state's black and Latino communities). But under the latest maps, most of the minority Republicans would face tough re-elections.

Still, Peña's point is chilling for those following the redistricting battle. No matter which maps are ultimately chosen, the Republicans will almost undoubtedly continue to rule Texas. If the more progressive maps go through, and minority Republicans lose their seats to minority Democrats, the Republican Party will once again be all white—and as Peña suggests, it wouldn't be eager to listen to minorities across the aisle. Of course, if the more progressive maps don't go through, then the Latino vote in particular will be watered down and the ability for communities to chose their "candidate of choice" will be fractured. The outlook seems bleak.

Peña is philosophical. "In this state, if trends continue, the Republican Party will die through attrition," he says. "In the long term, it doesn't matter—almost everyone is going to be Hispanic in Texas."

 

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