Led by US House Majority Leader Tom DeLay and Bush political mastermind Karl Rove, Texas Republicans have completed their ambush of congressional Democrats. After Delay spent three days huddled in private conferences with bickering Republican legislators, they gerrymandered US House districts in order to knock off as many as seven Democratic incumbents -- and help secure right-wing Republican dominance of the House of Representatives for a decade.
For months, Texas Republicans tried to re-open the can of worms known as redistricting in an unprecedented series of special sessions. Twice Democratic legislators fled the state to block a quorum. But power-hungry Republicans were relentless, and now they've finally crushed Democratic opposition. The battle moves to the courts, but it's likely that the carefully vetted map will stick.
Simply by rejiggering district lines in Texas, Republicans will pad their slim majority in the US House so that they can even more brazenly avoid any need to work with House Democrats -- or even moderate Republicans. Their dominance has little to do with how many votes they win, or how popular Republican candidates are, either nationally or in Texas. It's much more the power of computers and databases to slice and dice the electorate, creating precisely crafted "designer districts" for the candidates of the party in power.
Just as perniciously, the GOP plan is designed to wipe out nearly every moderate and white Democrat from the Texas congressional delegation. For instance, long-time Democratic House leader Martin Frost has been drawn out of a seat that is now 63% Republican. Richard Murray, a professor of political science at the University of Houston, predicted that the GOP plan eventually will leave Texas without a single white majority district represented by a Democrat.
"This plan basically envisions all Democrats elected to Congress being either from Hispanic-majority or African-American-majority districts," Professor Murray said.
And yet voting rights advocates like the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund aren't happy with DeLay's re-redistricting plan either. People of color were underrepresented in the old congressional map and had a legitimate case for increased representation. But even if minorities now pick up one seat, which is possible, it will come at the cost of hundreds of thousands of Latino and African-American voters now being "represented" by conservative Republicans rather than by more like-minded Democrats. In essence, the Republicans have sinisterly manipulated the winner-take-all districts to pit the electoral opportunities of people of color against white moderate Democrats.
Texas is just the tip of the rather gnarly iceberg of gerrymandering. With Republicans at a state level having controlled redistricting in such big states as Florida, Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania and now Texas, the GOP dominance in the House likely has been locked in for the remainder of the decade. In these states and others, GOP leaders like DeLay have encouraged attempts to draw districts that not only get rid of white Democrats, but also moderate Republicans. The nationwide result of this backroom brinkmanship has been nothing less than titanic. Increasingly, the House is populated by representatives considerably to the left or right of most of the state's voters, even as the political center of the House has moved sharply rightward. Safe seats have become the rule, two party politics is dead in most districts, and entire regions of Red and Blue America have become balkanized one-party fiefdoms.
Most alarmingly, these monumental shifts are cemented in for the foreseeable future. Nationwide, very few of the 435 House districts have any chance of changing parties anytime soon. Typically after redistricting occurs at the start of the decade, about 120 out of 435 House seats are up for grabs. But this time, when the power-hungry partisans were through carving up the map, a mere 35 or so seats were competitive, only 8% of all seats. Only four House incumbents lost to challengers in 2002, and fewer than one in ten races were decided by less than 10%. And it will get worse throughout the decade.
Will Texans really benefit from a polarized congressional delegation of 22 conservative white Republicans and 10 liberal minority Democrats, as the current plan envisions? Do Texans really want a state with a "white party" and a "racial minority party?" Is that good for Texas, or any other state? In South Africa, they used to call that apartheid.
South Africa, ironically, provides the best solution to this dilemma. Post-apartheid South Africa adopted a "full representation" voting method in multi-seat districts -- one that allows voters of all political persuasions and races to control and define their representation, not the map-makers. If Texas elected its US House delegation by a full representation method like ones already used by such cities as Peoria and Amarillo, a broader political spectrum would be elected. Representation of people of color would not be pitted against white, moderate Democrats.
Instead, DeLay, Rove, and the GOP have engineered our antiquated winner-take-all system to create a new kind of apartheid of representation. This cannot help but further undermine confidence in our already shaky political system.
Steven Hill is a senior analyst at the Center for Voting and Democracy (www.fairvote.org) and author of Fixing Elections: The Failure of America's Winner Take All Politics [Routledge Press, www.FixingElections.com]. Rob Richie is executive director of the center. The center is the lead organizer of the "Claim Democracy" conference in Washington, D.C. on Nov. 22-23. (For more info, see www.DemocracyUSA.org).