Special House Redistricting Panel Picks Reflect Growing Importance of Hispanics in GOP View

May 28, 2013
By Mike Hailey
Capitol Inside Editor

In a GOP-controlled state where the population could have a Latino majortiy within the next decade, a Texas House committee that will spearhead redistricting efforts in the current special session contains a higher percentage of Hispanic Republicans than any other minority group when partisan affiliation and race are taken into account collectively.

Texas House Speaker Joe Straus on Tuesday named Republican State Reps. Larry Gonzales of Round Rock and Jason Villalba of Dallas to a Select Committee on Redistricting that take the initial votes in the lower chamber on legislative and congressional maps that Governor Rick Perry has instructed the Legislature to approve in the special session that he called last night as soon as the regular session ended.

The special panel – an expanded version of a standing Redistricting Committee that had a relatively empty plate during the regular session that began in January – features partisan percentages that are identical to the share of seats that are occupied by Republicans and Democrats respectively in the House. With 12 Republicans on the redistricting committee, the GOP has 63 percent of the seats on the panel for which seven Democrats were selected as well.

But Republican minority lawmakers who hold 4 percent of the total seats in the west wing have a 10 percent share on the special session map-review panel even though none of the House’s three African-American Republicans are members.

While that could have both practical and symbolic value in light of the GOP’s recognition of its need to make much deeper inroads into the increasingly critical Hispanic vote, it means little or nothing to Democrats who plan to use the special session to lay the framework for another lawsuit that will accuse Republican legislators of discriminating against minoriy voters as way to maximize political gain.

State Rep. Garnet Coleman – a veteran House Democrats who’s been in a key player in redistricting battles since the GOP seized control of the lower chamber in 2003 – said Tuesday that he plans to file a plan this week with the federal court that crafted the interim maps to demonstrate that there are more feasible ways for the state to meet the standards of the Voting Rights Act without simply adopted the plans that have been in place on a temporary basis.

“During the first call of the special session of the Legislature, members of color will once again demonstrate that the Texas Legislature is pursuing a course to deny effective representation of racial and ethnic minorities and communities of interest,” Coleman said.

Three Hispanic Democrats – State Reps. Trey Martinez Fischer of San Antonio, Rene Oliveira of Brownsville and Richard Raymond of Laredo – will have 16 percent of the special remap panel’s 19 seats in a chamber where 19 percent of the total members are Latinos who are officially affiliated with the Democratic Party.

While African-American Democrats account for 9 percent of the House’s 150-member roster, they have 16 percent of the seats on the special session redistricting committee with State Reps. Yvonne Davis of Dallas, Helen Giddings of Dallas and Senfronia Thompson of Houston selected by the speaker for the bonus assignment.

Davis, a veteran lawmaker who leads the House Democratic Caucus and serves as the redistricting committee vice-chair, has already submitted alternative state House and congressional plans for the federal court’s consideration as it reopen proceedings on the Texas case with a hearing that’s set for today.

Hispanic Republicans, however, are only group when party affiliation and ethnic status are factored together who have a disproportionate share of the seats on the Select Committee on Redistricting compared to the percentage of slots they have on the list of total House members in 2013. Two-thirds of the Republicans in the House who are Latino are members of the committee that will handle the only issue that Perry has given legislators the green light to tackle in the special session.

State Rep. Drew Darby – a San Angelo Republican who’s a high-ranking lieutenant on Straus’ leadership team – can expect to wield the most sway on the special redistricting committee as its chairman. Darby chaired the standing House committee that deals with redistricting during the regular session that adjourned last night.

Darby had an extremely busy regular session as a lawmaker who also leads an Appropriations Committee subcommittee that focuses on several broad areas of state government spending. But Darby didn’t have to worry about splitting significant time between the budget and map panels when considering that a total eight bills were referred to the House Redistricting Committee during the regular session but never received hearings.

One of the bills that languishyed in the standing panel on redistricting in the past few months is the only one that’s relevant as the special session gets under way.

The one and only bill that Republicans plan to have in play during the special session is a measure that would ratify interim maps that a federal court approved last year for the state House and Senate and the Texas congressional delegation. Darby is the House sponsor of that particular measure while Republican State Senator Kel Seliger of Amarillo has the task of guiding the same legislation through the upper chamber in special session.

While Democrats have indicated that they will attempt to amend the maps, Republicans have a sufficient number of votes in both chambers to prevent that from happening if they are united for the special session. Senate Democrats, who’d threatened to block the redistricting legislation in the regular session with the two-thirds rule, can no longer rely on the longstanding Senate tradition in the special gathering where Republicans have removed it as a weapon.

The Democrats’ central objective in the special session will be to establish a new chapter in an ongoing court record that they will plan to use if and when a lawsuit is filed as expected to to challenge the maps that Republicans approve in the special session. Democrats prevailed at the courthouse in the battle over maps that the GOP majority approved in 2011 in a move that triggered the chain of events that’s culminating now in the special session.

Gonzales and Villalba – in the meantime – can’t expect to exert the kind of clout that Darby enjoys as the chairman of a special panel that includes Straus GOP allies such as State Reps. Brandon Creighton of Conroe, Linda Harper-Brown of Irving and Jim Keffer of Eastland.

But Villalba, who’s a freshman, and Gonzales, who’s in his second House term, had already established themselves as rising stars in the lower chamber before their selections to the special redistricting committee. Gonzales, for example, served on the powerful Appropriations Committee during the regular session.

Villalba was one of the few freshmen legislators who sponsored relatively major legislation that ended up clearing both chambers and going to Perry for his review. Villalba was the chief author on a bill that will create the first school marshal program for the sake of student protection in a major state.

Republican State Rep. Travis Clardy of Nacogdoches is the only other freshman lawmaker who was appointed to the redistricting panel in the House for the special session.

Select Committee on Redistricting

1. Drew Darby, chair

2. Yvonne Davis, vice-chair

3. Travis Clardy

4. Brandon Creighton

5. Joe Deshotel

6. Larry Gonzales

7. Linda Harper-Brown

8. Dan Huberty

9. Todd Hunter

10. Jim Keffer

11. Trey Martinez Fischer

12. Geanie Morrison

13. Rene Oliveira

14. Rob Orr

15. Joe Pickett

16. Four Price

17. Richard Peña Raymond

18. Senfronia Thompson

19. Jason Villalba

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