April 24, 2011 | Los Angeles Times | Original Article

Texas Latinos hope redistricting gives them a voice

On the outskirts of Dallas, Tom Landry Highway is flanked by a Starbucks and a Pollo Campero — a popular Guatemalan chicken joint. The local Wal-Mart sells sacks of chicharrones at the deli counter, and dried guajillo peppers next to the bulk bins of pinto beans and rice.

The explosive growth of Latinos is obvious everywhere in Texas but among the state's elected officials — something Latinos hope will change as lawmakers redraw the state's congressional and legislative districts this spring.

"It would just give us a voice," said Tiffany Tellez, 21, who works as a technician in a hospital radiology unit. "A lot of people are afraid to speak up. We need someone to lean on and relate to, and to speak for us."

Texas is gaining four seats in the House of Representatives — the most of any state — because it grew 20% over the last decade, twice the national rate. The state has added more than 4 million new residents since 2000, and two-thirds of that growth has come from Latinos.

That presents a quandary for the Republican legislators who control the redistricting process. Latinos lean Democratic, and their growth threatens to eventually undermine the GOP's domination of Texas. But the federal Voting Rights Act prohibits legislators from diluting minority voting power as they draw congressional districts.

Redistricting is controversial throughout the nation, but in Texas it has always been particularly contentious. Both political parties have gerrymandered, marginalized minorities, cemented power and protected their incumbents. Every plan in recent decades has ended up in the courts.

In 2003, the state's Democratic lawmakers went into hiding in Oklahoma to avoid creating a quorum that would allow a vote on new maps. Former Rep. Tom DeLay's 2010 conviction for money laundering and conspiracy was linked with redistricting.

This year's battle is expected to be just as explosive. Two lawsuits have already been filed.

"It's going to be as torturous a process as it has always been," said E. Mark Braden, a Republican redistricting lawyer.

And it's likely to take years to resolve.

"We're at the beginning of a long process that's probably going to drag on until 2014, 2015," added political scientist Richard Murray of the University of Houston. "At the end of the day, it's probably going to end up, again, before the U.S. Supreme Court."

Currently, Latinos make up 38% of the state's population, and have the power to elect their preferred candidates in seven of the state's 32 congressional districts. Latino activists are urging lawmakers to give Latinos two of the four new seats, one each in the Dallas-Fort Worth area and South Texas.

Republicans control the statehouse, the governor's mansion and a five-member redistricting panel. While they are in an enviable position, they face challenges. The party won some seats in 2010's GOP surge that it will find difficult to hold on to over the long term. And while they want to hold sway over as many districts as possible, they must be careful not to shave the margins so thin that the demographic tide overwhelms them over the next decade.

One GOP faction wants to try to use its power to draw at least three seats that are safe for the GOP.

"Hispanics vote Democratic two to one," said Cal Jillson, a political scientist at Southern Methodist University in Dallas. "The people in charge are saying, 'No, I don't think so' " to the proposal for two Latino districts.

This has led to a battle in Texas' congressional delegation. Rep. Joe L. Barton, who is pushing for the GOP to take at least three of the new seats, was reported by Politico to have launched into a profanity-laced diatribe at fellow Republican Rep. Lamar Smith, who is calling for an even split.

Both congressmen declined interview requests, with a Barton spokesman calling the discussions "a family affair."

Republicans hold 23 of the existing 32 House seats. State party officials say it is simplistic to assume Latinos are all Democrats and that their voting pattern won't change, and note that in 2010, two Republican Latinos won congressional seats, and a third GOP candidate won in a Latino district.

"The census numbers came out a few months ago, but these people didn't arrive here a few months ago," said Chris Elam, spokesman for the Republican Party of Texas. "We've worked hard to recruit and find candidates who can run strong campaigns in areas traditionally underrepresented by Republicans."

(Democrats also hope to tap the growing Latino vote by enticing retired Army Lt. Gen. Ricardo Sanchez, a Rio Grande native, to run for the Senate seat being vacated by Kay Bailey Hutchison.)

Any new Texas maps must pass muster with the U.S. Department of Justice. This year marks the first time during a redistricting that the department has been in Democratic hands since the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

Concerns about partisanship have led some Republicans to propose bypassing the Justice Department and having their maps reviewed by a three-judge panel in Washington, D.C.

But state legislators who are drawing the maps said the law is preeminent in their minds.

"There's lots of competing issues but clearly the rules relating to minority representation are one of the first things that we consider," said state Sen. Kel Seliger, chairman of the Senate redistricting panel.

Seliger said he hopes to have proposed maps out by early May, and said he has been hearing from a wide range of people, including Latino community leaders and members of the congressional delegation.

The congress members "are concerned because it is a process that is important to them over which they have no control," he said.

Among the areas that have seen notable demographic changes is the one in which the Wal-Mart sits. That seat is held by 14-year House veteran Pete Sessions, a Republican.

In 2000, the district was 50.1% white, but it is now 42.4% white, 42.4% Latino and 8.2% black. Officials drawing the redistricting maps are likely to shift the district north to insulate Sessions, decreasing the number of Latinos while increasing the number of white residents. A new minority district in the area would allow Latinos a new seat while protecting incumbents.

Political observers say that even if the redistricting plan attempts to minimize Latino power, it's only a matter of time until the group demonstrates its clout.

"This is a finger-in-the-dike sort of strategy," Jillson said. "Over the next three decades, Texas, like California, is going to become majority Hispanic.... Really, it's a question — even if turnout among Hispanics is low now, it's not always going to be low. How do you want them to be thinking of you as they close the curtain of the voting booth?"