Black, Latino leaders hit voter remap bias

AUSTIN, Texas – A three-judge panel Jan. 6 upheld a districting plan conceived by House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Texas) to add eight or more Republicans to the Texas congressional delegation. But Black and Latino leaders and Democratic Congress members from Texas vowed to appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court, charging that the scheme is a racist attack on the 1965 Voting Rights Act.

Veteran Democratic Rep. Martin Frost, who represents a multiracial district that includes parts of Dallas, said, “By judicial fiat, a three-judge federal panel has effectively repealed the Voting Rights Act and turned back the clock on nearly 40 years of progress for minority voters.”

The plaintiffs include the NAACP, the League of United Latin American Citizens, the Coalition of Black Democrats, the GI Forum, and Democratic members of Congress from Texas.

Democrats tried to stop the Republican attack on minority voting rights twice last year. In May, more than 50 Democratic members of the state House of Representatives broke a quorum when they left in unison for Oklahoma to derail the first Republican redistricting plan. Eleven Democratic senators slipped across the border to New Mexico in July to block a special session called by Republican Gov. Rick Perry to redraw congressional districts. It was only after the third try in October that Republicans finally passed their redistricting plan.

The judges made their ruling despite testimony demonstrating that minority voting strength had been substantially diluted by the Republican redistricting plan. Rice University professor John Alford, who in previous years served as a state expert witness on redistricting, testified that the Republican plan was an example of illegal racist gerrymandering, according to the San Antonio Express-News.

Alford said the map gives new clout to Anglo Republicans living in the suburbs by diminishing the power of minorities living in urban areas.

Also testifying was State Senator Rodney Ellis, a Democrat from Houston. Ellis told the court that the Republican plan violates the voting rights of millions of African American and Latino voters in the state. In an op-ed piece that appeared in state newspapers after his testimony, Ellis said that under the previous congressional redistricting plan, which was drawn in 2001 by a federal court and approved by the Justice Department, there were four districts that offered African Americans the opportunity to elect the representative of their choice and seven districts that did so for Latinos. In at least six other districts minorities could form coalitions that often decided the outcome of those elections. The Republican plan eliminates these six districts.

For example, the new plan eliminates the 24th Congressional District, which encompasses areas of Dallas and Fort Worth. This district was represented by Frost, who built a coalition of African American, Latino, and white workers that was responsible for his re-election to office. The new plan shifts the African American communities in Fort Worth into a district dominated by affluent white suburbs, thereby splitting up the district’s 400,000 minority residents and robbing them of their voting strength.

Despite this obviously racist gerrymandering, however, the court ruled that the GOP redistricting plan did not violate the Voting Rights Act. The crux of the court’s reasoning was that the Republican plan was designed for pure partisan advantage, not specifically to disenfranchise or reduce the political power of minorities. Yet disenfranchise them it will, the plaintiffs argue.

Texas AFL-CIO Communications Director Ed Sills wrote to his activist list, “Millions of Texans may not even be aware at this point that they have been traded to other congressional districts. For Democrats who have been effectively run over in both the legislative and all but the final stage of the judicial process, the point now will be to remember in November.”

The decision, if it is allowed to stand, will significantly increase the clout of the state’s Republican Party and its big business backers, and will also work to the advantage of President Bush.

Progressive-minded forces in Texas warn that a larger GOP delegation will try to remake the U.S. to look like Texas – a state with the most regressive tax system in the nation, the weakest labor and environmental laws, the worst social service delivery system, the highest number of executions, and a government owned lock, stock and barrel by big business.

The author can be reached at pww@pww.org.