The incumbency protection proposal would place new districts in the Houston and Austin areas, while all North Texas incumbents will have “safe” districts.
The Texas Senate gave initial approval to new congressional boundaries Friday that solidify the Republican majority in the state’s House delegation, but fails to expand the clout of minority voters who powered the Lone Star State’s population surge.
The bill, drafted by state Sen. Joan Huffman, R-Houston, passed 18-13 along party lines and still faces a final Senate vote. It would give Republicans and Democrats the advantage in winning one of the two new congressional districts earmarked for Texas. A Republican candidate would be favored to win a new district in the Houston area, while a Democrat would have the edge in another new district in the Austin area.
The Dallas-Fort Worth area is denied a new district under the Senate’s map, even though the area’s growth outpaced most of Texas.
According to the U.S. Census Bureau, just under 1.1 million people moved into Dallas, Tarrant, Collin and Denton counties from 2010 to 2020. To compare, Travis, Williamson and Hays counties gained over 500,000 people during the same period, but still netted a new congressional seat under the GOP proposal.
Minority voters represented the overwhelming majority of the growth in North Texas and the state at-large. Of the 4 million people who moved into Texas over the past 10 years, 3.8 million were minority residents, with most of that number representing Hispanic residents.
The two new congressional districts would favor white candidates, analysts say.
“You’ve had an increase in population in the state and then you end up with two congressional districts and, frankly, neither one of them is representative of the population growth here in the state,” said state Sen. Royce West, D-Dallas.
But Huffman on Friday said her proposal was legal and fair.
“I did this map fairly, racially blind and as fair as I knew how to do it,” Huffman said. “And then I followed the law and checked on compliance to make sure that I had preserved the rights of the minorities who had minority opportunity districts.”
Huffman said a new minority opportunity district is not required under the Voting Rights Act. She said the map is driven by data.
“I just go by the data,” she said. “The data does not support that.”
Near the end of the floor debate Friday, in a 12-19 vote Senators rejected an amendment by Sen. Roland Gutierrez, D-San Antonio, that would have drawn new minority-opportunity districts and moved one of the state’s two new U.S. House seats to the Dallas-Fort Worth area.
“[This] map reflects the growth of cities and the decline in rural areas,” Gutierrez said. “You can’t deny that. It isn’t my fault, nor your fault, nor Sen. Huffman’s fault, that urban areas vote more blue. That isn’t our fault, that is a reality.”
Huffman rebuffed the proposed D-FW-based Congressional District 38 as “the result of a detailed and painstaking racial gerrymander.”
“Based on the district’s bizarre, non-compact shape, I do not believe that the relevant population that was placed in the district is sufficiently, geographically compact to give us a basis for a legally-required draw,” Huffman said of the proposed CD-38, which would reach from Dallas County into Tarrant County.
When the Senate gives final approval, it would head to the Texas House and must be signed by Texas Gov. Greg Abbott before becoming law.
Criticism from minority advocates
The redistricting proposal has drawn sharp criticism from minority voting rights advocates and proponents of developing “fair” legislative boundaries that are not steeped in politics or marginalize communities of color.
“Whether this is a racially discriminatory map or simply a partisan gerrymandering map or simply incumbency protection, it is accomplished at the expense of communities of color and that’s the problem,” said Michael Li, senior counsel for the Brennan Center’s Democracy Program.
Li said Dallas and Fort Worth together have a larger Latino population than the state of Colorado. Yet, Republican map drawers didn’t put a Hispanic opportunity district in North Texas.
“They didn’t even try,” Li said.
The Senate redistricting proposal focuses heavily on incumbency protection. Currently some GOP districts, particularly in suburban areas, are ripe for takeover by Democrats because of the demographic shifts spurred by Texas’ population growth.
In order to preserve their solid majority in the state’s congressional delegation, the proposal transforms boundaries that were trending toward Democrats to areas that are much stronger for GOP incumbents or candidates. Their goal is accomplished, in many instances, by packing minority voters into seats controlled by Democrats. While that assures Democratic Party incumbents of an easy path to reelection, it stunts the ability of minorities, especially Hispanic residents, to have political influence in additional districts.
The proposed boundaries would carve up Dallas County into six districts, represented by three Democrats and three Republicans. The new map packs non-Anglo Dallas County voters into the districts represented by three Black lawmakers, Reps. Eddie Bernice Johnson, Colin Allred and Marc Veasey. Allred’s district is just 36% Anglo; Johnson’s is 18%; and Veasey’s is 13%.
Some minority residents are moved to more rural or small town districts, where white Republican voters control elections.
Congressional District 6, held by freshman Rep. Jake Ellzey of Waxahachie, would become minority-majority under the new map after taking in Black and Hispanic voter in Dallas. Non-white residents would comprise 52.6% of the voting age population. And the 5th District, held by Rep. Lance Gooden of Terrell, is on the cusp. That district takes in a quarter-million Black and Hispanic residents of Dallas County but dilutes them with rural white voters from counties to the east, leaving a 52.5% Anglo majority.
Leaders of Hispanic advocacy groups have blasted the maps as discriminatory and vow legal challenges if the Texas Legislature approves the plan.
Republicans now enjoy a 23-13 advantage in Congress. Under the proposed maps, they would have a 24-14 majority in the delegation. Congressional District 15 in South Texas would be one of the state’s two competitive districts. That area, represented by Vicente Gonzalez, has become favorable to Republican candidates. The other competitive seat is held by Tony Gonzalez in southwest Texas’ District 23.
The population growth in Texas suggests that more areas in the state should contain swing districts or minority opportunity districts that feature Hispanic voters. Under the current 36-seat map, 14 districts lean Republican and 10 favor Democrats. Another 12 seats are competitive, since neither party has a 10-point edge. The new maps reverse that trend, creating 23 GOP-leaning districts and 13 Democratic districts.
In North Texas, several Republican-controlled seats that are in what are considered swing districts will be fortified for GOP incumbents. In 2020, Republican incumbent Beth Van Duyne beat Democrat Candace Valenzuela in Congressional District 24, where President Joe Biden defeated Donald Trump by a 52% to 47% margin. Under the new redistricting proposal, Van Duyne would be in a district that Trump, the former president, won 55% to 43%.
Republican Van Taylor, who represents District 3 in Collin County, would be in an area that Trump won 57% to 44%. That district, with its fast-growing minority population, had been trending in the direction of Democrats.
Rep. Roger Williams, R-Austin, could see his District 25 made more Republican. The new district would shed Austin and take in Parker County to become a North Texas district.
Elsewhere, the Senate plan puts Reps. Sheila Jackson Lee and Al Green, both Houston Democrats, in the same district. One of the veteran lawmakers would be forced to run for reelection in a different district if the plan makes it through the House.
“This surgery seems totally without purpose,” Jackson Lee told the Senate Special Committee on Redistricting, asking for her District 18 to be restored.
The new map would move downtown Houston, the Third Ward, Texas Southern University, the University of Houston and Jackson Lee’s own home out of the 18th District. The historic district was once represented by Barbara Jordan, a trailblazing icon.
Changes hoped for in Texas House
West said he hoped the Houston Democrats would be unpaired when the House deliberates on a congressional plan. He added the issue could also be fixed in a conference committee with House and Senate members.
“That needs to get taken care of,” West said.
Huffman said Green and Jackson Lee have the opportunity to win in the newly configured Districts 9 and 18 because they are controlled by Black voters.
“There’s just no guarantee in this process that a district is going to stay the exact same way as it was … because of population shifts,” Huffman said.
West said lawmakers should consider changing the way legislative boundaries are drawn. Currently, the party controlling the Legislature dictates the process that occurs every 10 years.
“It’s a partisan power play,” West said. “It doesn’t matter whether it’s Republicans in power or Democrats in power. We’re still doing it based on the politicians electing the people, instead of the people electing politicians.”
Austin bureau correspondent Sami Sparber contributed to this report.