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Two Texas Cities Merge, Assuring Republican Control

The two Texas communities in Tarrant County have little in common, but state lawmakers united them under the same Senate district in an act of “defensive gerrymandering,” essentially guaranteeing a GOP advantage.

(TNS) — Clara Faulkner has never been to Brownwood, Texas.

The former Forest Hill mayor and City Council member knows little about the semi-rural city 150 miles away, in the northern reaches of the Texas Hill Country. Brownwood has about 18,800 residents and is known as a manufacturing hub and the home of Howard Payne University.

Brownwood Mayor Stephen Haynes, likewise, has never visited Forest Hill, a spartan stretch of residential areas that house about 14,000 people. Strip centers line Interstate 20, with hotels that promise cheaper rates than ones 10 minutes north in downtown Fort Worth.

Forest Hill leans Democratic and has a majority population of nonwhite residents. Brownwood, meanwhile, is majority white and votes conservative.

Though the two communities have little in common, Texas lawmakers united them under the state Senate district represented by Sen. Beverly Powell, a Burleson Democrat who ended her campaign for reelection as a result of the redistricting.

Senate District 10, one of more than 200 districts in the Legislature and U.S. House that lawmakers redrew, illustrates what the Brennan Center’s Michael Li calls a “defensive gerrymander” — a shoring up of the GOP’s advantage in Texas, which had in recent years flirted with becoming a swing state.

Li and other experts say gerrymandering has diluted the voting power of Texas’ nonwhite voters, creating districts that don’t reflect the booming Hispanic and Asian American populations that have fueled Texas’ growth in the last 10 years.

The result? The state’s elected officials are largely chosen in low-turnout primaries, and critics say they often don’t represent the needs of the broader community they serve.

“There’s a multiracial future for Texas, and Republicans just gerrymandered that away,” Li said.

Powell said urban communities like Forest Hill that remain in Senate District 10 are incongruous with the rural counties that were added to flip her seat red. Cities like Mansfield and Arlington have massive school districts with tens of thousands of students and far different issues than those facing rural communities.

“Our economic structures are different, our public schools are different,” Powell said. “They are a manufacturing and agrarian society. We are an urban society that has high-density populations in our schools and our districts.”

Faulkner was less delicate in describing how the Legislature reshaped Senate District 10.

“It pissed me off,” said Faulkner, a Black grandmother, Democrat and retired United Auto Workers unit president. “This redistricting mess the GOP designed to suppress my vote. Now I can’t elect who I want since they brought in folks from the west.”

Haynes, who typically votes Republican and whose family traces its roots to the area to the late 19th century, said his hometown is more culturally connected to Abilene than Fort Worth. But Brownwood’s reshuffling didn’t bother him, he said.

“Anytime you redistrict, someone’s going to feel like they were a winner and someone’s going to feel like they were a loser,” he said. “That’s just inevitable. Right?”

Reducing the Voting Power of Nonwhites

While the latest Census Bureau estimates show Hispanic people outnumbering white people in Texas for the first time, 40.2 percent to 39.4 percent, Latinos are the majority race in only seven state Senate districts — 22.5 percent of the upper chamber’s 31 seats, according to the Texas Legislative Council.

It’s no different in Texas’ 38 congressional districts, which were drawn with a white majority in 23 seats, or 60 percent of the delegation.

In all three legislative bodies, white-dominated districts outnumber Hispanic majority districts by more than 2 to 1.

Only one Senate district — a seat in Harris County — and five of the 150 House districts have majority Black populations.

Defenders of the GOP-led redistricting effort, including state Sen. Joan Huffman, R- Houston, who drew the Senate and congressional maps, said the districts were drawn “blind to race.” Despite her assurance, the resulting districts reduced the number of Hispanic majority seats in the state House and Congress, in which Texas gained two new seats after the 2020 Census.

“Republicans in Texas took a look in the mirror at the future and had a lot to worry about, and so they decided to draw districts to give themselves insurance,” Li said.

Huffman did not answer messages seeking comment for this article.

During a deposition in January in an El Paso federal court lawsuit over the maps, she answered yes when asked if the ones she presented were a “partisan gerrymander.”

“Partisan considerations were taken into consideration,” Huffman said.

Austin-based Republican consultant Matt Mackowiak said either party would redraw districts in its favor, given the chance. But the Republican maps have withstood legal challenges so far, something he said is significant.

“The choice the Republicans in the Legislature faced this time is, do you want to be really bold and risk uncertainty and defeat in the courts? Or do you want to be fairly modest in what you try to achieve and basically eliminate the litigation risk?” he said. “In the end, their conclusion was the latter.”

What is Redistricting?

Every 10 years, elected officials are required to redraw political districts from the U.S. House all the way down to county elected seats such as commissioners and justices of the peace based on population shifts documented in the decennial census.

For Texas, the previous decade’s population growth garnered the state two more seats in the House of Representatives, bumping the state’s congressional delegation in Washington from 36 to 38.

The increase made Texas a key component in Republican efforts to flip the lower chamber and resulted in a series of districts Democrats gave pejorative names, such as “fajita strips,” for their odd shapes that in many places narrowed to tracts of land less than a quarter-mile across.

Huffman’s proposal created districts in the Rio Grande Valley that could flip as many as three congressional seats in the historically Democratic stronghold. But it also created a liberal district in Austin claimed by a long-serving Democrat, U.S. Rep. Lloyd Doggett.

Insiders call the strategy “cracking and packing,” a practice in which the party in power will draw some districts heavily in favor of the opposing party to dilute their opponents’ strength elsewhere.

In Texas, the result was far fewer competitive districts in all three chambers. Only one of 38 congressional districts had less than a 5-percentage-point spread between former president Donald Trump and President Joe Biden in the 2020 election, according to the Texas Legislative Council.

“It was demographically possible for Republicans to draw more districts where Republicans would have 52 percent or 53 percent of the population, which would ensure that they would control those seats,” said Doug Spencer, a Colorado University law professor and voting rights expert who has worked for plaintiffs challenging Texas’ new district maps in federal court.

“But they didn’t do so,” he said. “They opted for fewer Republican districts, but at a much safer advantage.”

In the Senate, one district would have been within that margin. And in the House, only nine of 150 seats would have been that close of a race between Biden and Trump.

Huffman redrew her district to one that would have favored Trump by a 17.3 percent margin. Her district voted for Biden by 4.6 percent. Huffman’s seat was not up for grabs in 2020.

Senate District 10

Powell’s District 10 is among those that saw the most sweeping changes in 2021. It went from favoring Biden by 7.7 percent to in favor of Trump by 15.8 percent

No one demographic dominated the district, which was contained within Tarrant County and included dense neighborhoods with people of color that created what Powell has described as a “minority coalition.”

The district required little to no alterations to meet population requirements under Texas law. And before Huffman released the first draft of the new map, Powell said Huffman explained to her the math that would drive changes to districts.

“The only conversation that she and I ever had about the map was that the district was perfect just like it was,” Powell said in an interview at her district office in Fort Worth. “We were within a standard deviation of where we needed to be and that we didn’t see that any changes to it were necessary.”

The new map Huffman presented showed a sprawling rural district stretching from the southern reaches of Fort Worth to the eastern borders of Abilene. It contained the entirety of six counties, growing in land area by nearly 15 times.

Fort Worth was split among four districts. What was left paired communities like Forest Hill and western Arlington with cities like Brownwood, Breckenridge and Mineral Wells.

What had once been a majority nonwhite district with about 57 percent of its population split between Black, Hispanic and Asian communities was now 62 percent white. Its Hispanic population was cut nearly in half.

“I was stunned,” Powell said.

Huffman defended the maps during a legislative debate last year after the maps were presented.

“I disagree with your assessment of how I drew the map,” she told Powell. “I told you that I drew blind to race. And that is what I did.”

The Census Bureau estimates that 92.5 percent of Forest Hill’s 14,000 residents are split almost evenly between Black and Hispanic people. They are now in a Senate district that is 62.5 percent white, which more closely represents the racial makeup of Brownwood. The seat of Brown County used to be in a district that extended to affluent, white communities in western Travis County, where state Sen. Dawn Buckingham lives.

Buckingham decided to run for land commissioner, creating an open seat, which freed state lawmakers to shuffle Brownwood and several surrounding rural communities into the reconstituted Senate District 10.

Weatherford Republican state Rep. Phil King announced he was running for Powell’s seat days after the new Senate map was unveiled. He did not respond to messages seeking comment.

Powell attempted to restore the district to its former boundaries at the Capitol to no avail. She then took the fight to the courts, where it and several challenges were consolidated into the lawsuit at federal court in El Paso.

That case was set to go to trial in October, but a judge delayed the hearing until 2023 after the U.S. Supreme Court announced it had taken up two cases that could further dismantle the Voting Rights Act of 1965 and give state legislatures near-absolute authority over redistricting congressional seats.

Once it became clear that the midterms would be conducted using maps Gov. Greg Abbott signed into law on Oct. 25, 2021, Powell threw in the towel.

“It seemed pointless for me to run a campaign for a district that was impossible for me to win,” she said.

Powell is slowly moving out of her Fort Worth district office along Interstate 30. She’s been fundraising to help rebuild a new elementary school in Uvalde instead of preparing for another legislative session in Austin.

Powell said she was sad but at peace with falling victim to the once-in-a-decade numbers game of redistricting.

“I absolutely loved being the senator for Tarrant County,” she said.

©2022 The Dallas Morning News. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.
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