How Close Was Texas to Redistricting Reform?

As State Senator Jeff Wentworth tells it, Texas would have placed a bipartisan commission in charge of congressional redistricting -- a move that could have been the difference between a Republican and Democratic House of Representatives after the 2012 elections -- if it weren't for the sense of legislative courtesy of a single state senator. It makes a great story, but is it true?
by | July 30, 2010

As Jeff Wentworth tells it, Texas would have placed a bipartisan commission in charge of congressional redistricting if it weren't for the sense of legislative courtesy of a single state senator. I'm not so sure, but we'll get to that in a second.

Wentworth is one of the most persistent supporters of redistricting reform in American politics. He's been introducing more-or-less the same bill since 1993. It would create a redistricting panel with eight voting members to redraw the state's congressional lines. The majority and minority party in each house of the legislature would get to appoint two members, effectively meaning that the panel would have four Democratic appointees and four Republicans appointees.

Wentworth has limited himself to trying to change congressional redistricting because overhauling legislative redistricting would require a constitutional amendment.  As Wentworth told me when I sat down with him in Louisville on Wednesday, "I'm enough of a pragmatic and realistic politician to realize that's probably too steep of a hill for me to climb."

Without a doubt, some folks in Texas would laugh at that line. The senator is sometimes known as Jeff Wentworth, R-La Mancha. The majority party in Texas -- Democrats for decades, Republicans recently -- has remorselessly used the redistricting process to maximize its own partisan advantage. Wentworth stubbornly and against all odds has been trying to change that for 16 years.

In 2009, Wentworth thought he had his best chance ever. Joe Straus had ousted Tom Craddick as House Speaker. Straus supported Wentworth's bill, Craddick opposed it. In 2005 and 2007, the Senate had passed his bill, only to see it die in the House. Now, the House looked as though it wouldn’t be an impediment.

Problems, though, emerged in the Senate. In the Texas Senate, bringing a bill up for debate requires a two-thirds supermajority vote. The Senate has 31 members, so, when everyone is present, it takes 21 members to bring up a bill. Initially, Wentworth got 21 votes. On "third reading," though, he only had 20 votes. Sen. Dan Patrick, one of Texas' best-known conservatives, had changed his vote. (Wentworth was diplomatic enough not to name the senator who flipped to me, but it was Patrick). The bill couldn't be debated.

Having waited so long, Wentworth wasn't about to give up that easily. A few weeks later, five senators were absent. Of the absent senators, two were in favor of his bill and three were opposed. That gave Wentworth the chance for an 18-8 vote, enough for two-thirds. But, when the vote took place, another Republican senator had flipped.

Wentworth says the senator (Bob Deuell, per the Austin American-Statesman) told him that he was still for the bill, but didn't think it was right to push the measure through with five members absent.  Wentworth has a different sense of fairness. "We didn't fib to any of those people to get them to leave," he says, "They simply absented themselves early and weren't there."

Wentworth believes that vote was the last thing standing in the way of his bill. "Had we been able to get that Senate bill to the House in '09, I'm confident that we would have passed it in the House," he says. "The governor had told me quite some time ago that he wasn't going to take an upfront and vocal leadership position on the bill, but that if it ever came to his desk, passed by both the House and Senate, he would sign the bill."

If he's right, Deuell made a momentous decision. The difference between a bipartisan Texas map and a map designed to maximize Republicans' advantage is at least a few seats in Congress. You can see that from the results of Republicans' mid-decade redistricting.

The plan in place in 2002, designed by a panel of judges because the legislature couldn't agree, elected 17 Democrats and 15 Republicans. The plan in place in 2004, designed by Republican legislators, elected 21 Republicans and 11 Democrats. Today, the state's congressional delegation has 20 Republicans and 12 Democrats.

That five or six seat net gain for the Republicans probably overstates somewhat the difference between a neutral map and a Republican map in 2012. In 2002, Democrats had a group of moderate-to-conservative congressmen who were adept at winning on Republican turf. Plus, Republicans would describe the 2002 map as a Democratic map, since it was a modification of the Democratic-friendly plan from the previous decade.

Still, the difference between a neutral map and a Republican map in 2012 is probably two, three or four seats. Going into the 2012 elections, it appears increasingly clear that whichever party controls the U.S. House will do so with a narrow majority. The Republican seats Bob Deuell saved by not allowing a vote on Wentworth's bill -- a bill Deuell said he supported -- could be the difference between a Republican and Democratic House of Representatives.

That's assuming Wentworth is right. The big question is Perry. Wentworth told me that he had private assurances that the governor would sign the bill. I've seen Wentworth quoted elsewhere saying the same thing. But, if so, it's hard to explain what Perry told the Texas Tribune earlier this year:

I want to ask you about redistricting. A range of Republicans, from [former U.S. Secretary of State] James Baker to [Land Commissioner] Jerry Patterson to [San Antonio state Sen.] Jeff Wentworth, have told me recently that the process of redrawing the maps should be depoliticized — should be taken out of the hands of politicians. Given the controversy over redistricting the last time and the desire of many people at the Capitol to avoid it this time, what should we do on that issue?

Anyone who says “Let’s take politics out of redistricting” is either naive or has another agenda that I have a hard time identifying. You’ll have to ask those three whether they are naïve or they have another agenda. I don’t know what they’re thinking. I think the process will work. It has worked for a number of years. It has never been pleasant. And it can work without going into a special session. People need to stick around and do their jobs.

Of course, if Perry didn't want to be "upfront and vocal" supporting the bill, as Wentworth says, then he wouldn't tell a reporter he was supporting the bill when asked. Still, "naive or has another agenda?" This seems like an awfully harsh description of supporters of legislation that Perry supposedly quietly supported too.

More broadly, don't you think that the Republican congressmen and other Republicans bigwigs would have thrown a fit if this measure actually came close to becoming law? Or perhaps that they already were trying to kill -- or helped to kill -- the measure behind the scenes. Control of redistricting in Texas is an exceptionally valuable prize. Maybe I'm too cynical, but I have to wonder whether Wentworth's near success was just an illusion -- that enough Texas lawmakers felt enough loyalty to their party that, one way or another, it always was doomed to fail.

Of course, as a matter of substance, it doesn't really matter how close Wentworth came. Coming close doesn't change the process a bit. Here's what Wentworth has to say about that:

We're going to now go through the session in 2011 the same way we've done it the last umpteen decades. It will be a nasty, brutal, bloody, partisan distraction from what most Texans want us to be dealing with. They don't want us to be dealing with this nearly as much as they want us to be dealing with health care and education and the environment and transportation and tax policy and all those other things that are of much more importance to them than where our boundary lines are.

For his part, Wentworth is thinking about leaving the legislature for a job with Texas A&M. Even the senator from La Mancha has his limits.

Josh Goodman
Josh Goodman  |  Former Staff Writer

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