|Redistricting and a Look Back at the Last Time it happened in Texas , 2003-2004|
|by Wes Riddle||Tue, Jan 25, 2011, 09:32 am|
Recently there was a survey of incoming elected officials involving trivia, and it was compared to the same survey taken of the public at large. In this case the public did better than the crop of elected officials these days—and fully 20% of elected officials in the survey thought the Electoral College was a school that teaches those who aspire to higher office! While that is awful, the public and elected officials might be forgiven if they didn’t understand redistricting. I’m an historian. I’ve got a Masters degree from Oxford in American History and specializing in political history, and I can tell you there’s precious little in “majors” programs or in graduate education about redistricting. Not many elections or candidacies in the past hinged on the process like they do today.
The Founders probably did not anticipate a modern gerrymander (it was considered a scandal the first time it happened in Massachusetts in 1812). They would also not have predicted the overwhelming monopoly of political power by two national parties; or the post-modern national polarization and growth of government services and dependent constituents, which has caused election races to go on forever and redistricting to become a cutthroat business, rather than a process that aims to arrive at the fairest possible representation. No, formal education did not prepare me for the experience of redistricting, when I ran for U.S. Congress in the 2004 Republican Primary—starting out in District 11, which had a Democrat incumbent, and ending up two months before the Primary Election inside a brand new District 31 with a freshman Republican incumbent! The arrangement was decided by state legislators in committee behind closed doors. The impetus in the middle of the decade (not tied to any census) came from a new Republican majority in Austin —in coordination with the National Republican Congressional Caucus and then-U.S. House Majority Leader, Tom DeLay ( Sugarland , TX ).
Here are two observations with some associated points that I gleaned from my experience in 2003-2004. First, redistricting frustrates campaign planning and execution during the cycle in which it happens. Campaigns for office and particularly for U.S. Congress typically begin the summer before the primary, i.e., in my case the summer of 2003 for a March 9, 2004 election. The new district lines then, however, were not announced in the summer because the legislature did not get it done. The Governor called special sessions but these likewise dragged on (in part because Democrats kept running away to prevent a quorum). Preliminary lines were announced in October 2003, and these were highly contested so the matter went to the courts. In the meantime, candidates grappled with whether to suspend campaigns in large areas, bet on the new lines, or run in preexisting lines and hope they didn’t change too much. In a political sense the district lines were not actually finalized until a district court upheld the plan in January 2004, just two months before the Primary Election.
Therefore for seven months of the nine month primary campaign, I campaigned almost exclusively in District 11 (not 31). That’s not too bad if the districts had been close, but they were not. The old District 11 had 9 ½ counties in it; the new District 31 has 7 ½ counties in it—but only 4 ½ counties actually overlapped. That meant that I was spending time and scarce campaign funds working in 5 counties that were not in the District! I was spending inordinate time in Waco too (part of District 11) and almost no time in Round Rock (brought in by the redistricting).
Secondly, redistricting potentially pits the proverbial “Establishment” or party organization against newcomers or challengers. I happen to like Congressman John Carter very much and consider him and his wife Erika to be friends. He turned out to be a great conservative bulldog too for the people of Central Texas . After the last redistricting, however, one should recall that there was only ½ a county similarity between the new District 31 and the old District 31—and that was southern Williamson County (mostly Round Rock). The old District 31 stretched from southern Williamson County all the way to Houston . Congressman Carter had been elected to that district two years earlier, before inheriting the current District 31. Today’s District 31 stretches from Williamson County northward to Erath County nearly at the outskirts of Ft. Worth !
In terms of becoming a new “incumbent” at the time, well people in 7 of 7 ½ counties had actually never voted for “the Judge”—only one county (Williamson) was familiar with its long-term County Judge who served there 20 years before running for Congress. Carter tells the wonderful story of his being prompted by a sense of patriotism to run for Congress after the 9-11 attacks in 2001. Notwithstanding, other primary challengers who invest sizeable amounts of time, money and heart in their campaigns (and especially if they stand for tangible ideas and policy positions) are not necessarily dissuaded from completing the primary race, just because political elites redraw a line. Not only is it a free country (more or less), but no one should ever assume that they can deliver the people’s choice on a silver platter without a vote. In fact the redistricting was every bit as much a frustration for Carter, perhaps more so than it was for me. It certainly cost his campaign more to run in a new district than it would have to simply run for reelection in an old one. When there is no redistricting to affect the cycle, there typically is no primary challenger unless a party incumbent creates a scandal or performs very poorly. No one, for instance, thought seriously to challenge “the Judge” in a primary race in 2006, 2008 or 2010, i.e., after the people in the district had in fact voted for him and he performed admirably.
The Party, however, invests the title of “incumbent” on a Congressman who owns a district “number.” The District in an almost virtual sense is determined by a number and based on influence more than anything on a process that is not conducted in public. The outcome is not based on specific constituents or counties or land area, on claims of representation or plausible relationship with any favorite son. The number of a district resides with those who draw the lines in the state legislature and place it on a map or into a computer program regardless of town hall meetings. Redistricting is a partisan tool and also an insider/”Establishment” tool. Candidates and potential candidates are not consulted unless they happen to be incumbents, and even then their influence is limited. Redistricting is perhaps the least democratic aspect of our entire elective political system.
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