Austin Shocker

Congressional redistricting: Dem disaster or Trojan horse?

In the aftermath of last week's ruling on congressional redistricting, the first reaction of state Democrats was that they'd been screwed by one of their own.

Party officials initially had cheered when the Texas Supreme Court assigned the controversial case to Austin Democrat Judge Paul Davis rather than Republican Jane Bland's court in Houston. Then came the preliminary redistricting ruling by Davis, which left most Republicans smiling and Democrats complaining that a good judge is hard to find these days. Early media analysis of Davis's order had the 17-13 Democratic advantage in the state's congressional delegation facing a reversal to 20-12, counting the addition of two new districts as a result of the 2000 census.

The consensus view was that Bland, an excellent jurist with a reputation as one of the least partisan members of the Houston judiciary, could hardly have done the Dems worse.

"I'm in shock," Harris County Democratic chair Sue Schechter commented after the ruling. "What happened to that guy?"

Congressman Ken Bentsen, made homeless by the plan, labeled the decision a road map for disenfranchising thousands of minority voters in his district. Congressman Gene Green, whose future is brighter under the redistricting, nevertheless expressed shock that a Democratic judge would treat party incumbents so shabbily.

Davis's order largely mirrors a plan concocted by Bill Ratliff, the Republican state senator and acting GOP Texas lieutenant governor. A courtroom observer noted that during the redistricting hearing the judge seemed to warm up to Ratliff and his home computer-cooked scenario more than other witnesses. If the plan withstands the review of a three-judge federal panel, it will dramatically alter the shape of Houston federal politics.

The plan also would provide one more test for that crafty Brer Rabbit of Houston politics, Green. The former state rep and state senator helped draw up his Congressional District 29, which just happened to include his political strongholds in north Houston. He then went out and whipped all comers for the seat.

Under Davis's formula, technically known as Plan 01065C, Green's home precincts are moved into a reconfigured District 25. Currently on Houston's south side, the district would be redrawn northward to eliminate incumbent Bentsen's residence. The plan revamps District 25 in a zone across north Harris County from the Katy Prairie to Galveston Bay. The district -- technically a minority majority with a combined population 55 percent black, Hispanic and Asian -- would be dominated by a core 45 percent Anglo voting base.

In the view of Bob Stein, Rice University political scientist and social sciences dean, it's just the sort of electoral briar patch in which Green has thrived in the past.

"It's a 'bubba district' in terms of likely voters," says Stein, meaning that the 25th has a strong base of working-class whites who respond to good ol' boys, both Democrat and Republican.

"He's found himself a very comfortable niche in the House, where he works well with Democrats and Republicans. Gene's one of those rare commodities that no matter which party is in the majority, he'll do all right."

Contacted at his Washington office, Green paused to consider his options before heading out for a floor vote.

"I just can't decide what district I want to run in," Green declared with tongue firmly in cheek. He ridicules the Davis formula as the product of a group of Republican state senators, including Ratliff, who couldn't agree on their own plan in the last legislative session.

"It's not just in our area, it's around the state," explained Green. "You can tell that other members of Congress's districts were drawn for a state senator." Green believes Ratliff was simply working to help a host of state officials with Washington ambitions.

Green then humorously referred to his own political history. "You know, I can't believe a state senator would do that, having served there in '91 and helping draft the lines we have now."

Looking at the outlines of the proposed District 25, Green finds much to like.

"A lot of it is not only my current district but my old state senate district," notes Green, ticking off areas like north Spring Branch along I-10. "The basic generic is that it's 60 percent Republican, but I typically run ahead of the Democratic ticket because I do a lot of grassroots stuff. I don't ask people their party affiliation or ethnicity. We work with everybody, and typically we're rewarded with their confidence and their vote."

On the other hand, Green says he's equally at ease with the redrawn District 29. "I've spent ten years now working in a predominantly Hispanic district. Maybe I ought to be happy with my two options," the congressman concludes. He notes that others, like Bentsen, will have no district at all if the plan is approved.

The proposed District 29 may be the elusive Hispanic district that planners intended a decade ago. Wholly within Harris County, its population is more than 60 percent Hispanic, 19 percent black and 23 percent Anglo. The Hispanic percentage is actually a little less than the old district's, but the overall effect is more conducive to electing a moderate Hispanic who can appeal to whites.

If approved, the new 29 could stir up the sort of political war that raged in the Hispanic community in 1992 among Al Luna, then-councilman Ben Reyes and future city controller Sylvia Garcia. They all sought the seat. The question is whether a collision of egos in 2002 might allow history to repeat itself with a win by a moderate Anglo.

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