The Education of a Texas State Politics Newbie

This was orginally posted on BlueTexas.org.  BlueTexas is a PAC committed to taking back a majority in the Texas House of Representatives in advance of legislative redistricting in 2011.

 

Lately, I’ve had something of a political epiphany. Or more accurately, I’ve been reprogrammed.

In terms of my political activity and contributions, I realize that I’ve had it backwards. I’ve been active in statewide and national races, which is rewarding but low-impact. I think I’m pretty smart on nuclear non-proliferation and the the evil of the escalating federal debt. But as inconceivable as it seems, nobody’s asked me for position papers.

Meanwhile, I’ve completely ignored state legislative races, where my time and money can have real impact. Hell, I didn’t even know that the Democrats are within 5 seats of taking back the Texas House. And I certainly hadn’t taken time to ponder the difference between a repeat of 2003–when the Republicans were limited in Congressional redistricting only by the rather tenuous bounds of their collective conscience–and a situation where the Democrats have the voice in redistricting afforded them by a House majority.

So herein, the education of a Texas state politics newbie.

THE BASICS

The Texas House of Representatives is currently comprised of 79 Republicans and 71 Democrats. All House seats are contested each even year. Democrats need only win 5 additional seats to regain the majority in the house

The Texas Senate is currently comprised of 20 Republicans and 11 Democrats. One-third of the Senate seats are contested each alternating even year. By a combination of Senate rules and tradition, a minority of one-third of the Senate may prevent a bill being called up for discussion. The Democrats currently possess that power, but by the slimmest possible margin.

MECHANICS OF REDISTRICTING

The Texas Constitution requires that the Legislature re-draw both State Legislature and U.S. Congressional districts in the first session following the decennial census. If the Legislature is unable to reach consensus on a map, the responsibility for redistricting the Texas House and Senate falls to the Legislative Redistricting Board which is composed of the lieutenant governor, speaker of the house, attorney general, comptroller, and land commissioner. In this instance the responsibility for redistricting the U.S. Congressional districts falls to a panel of judges, as occurred in 2001.

A LITTLE HISTORY

Democrats controlled both houses of the Texas Legislature for the 130 years preceding 2002. During that election cycle, a political “perfect storm” swept the Republicans to their first majorities in the House and Senate since Reconstruction.

A number of factors contributed to the success of the Republicans in the Texas Legislature in 2002, including the post-9/11 popularity of President Bush and a convincing sweep of statewide offices by Republican candidates. Perhaps most important, however, were the financial resources brought to bear on the Legislative races by three organizations: the Texas Association of Business (TAB); Texans for Lawsuit Reform (TLR); and Texans for a Republican Majority (TRMPAC), a political action committee created and run by House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, (R) Sugarland. Between them, the three organizations raised and spent roughly $4.5 million in 22 Texas legislative races. They won 21 of them.

With the new Republican majority in the Legislature, Rep. DeLay placed extreme pressure on the Republican leadership in Texas to undertake an unprecedented mid-decade redistricting which would be, in the words of redistricting expert Steve Bickerstaff, “as partisan as the law would allow.” After an extremely acrimonious special session of the Legislature, this plan was approved as the template that would be followed in the 2004 elections. The result was the resounding partisan victory that Rep. DeLay had sought, with significant gains in the Texas House and Senate. Even more dramatic was the expansion of the Republican majority in the Texas delegation to the U.S. House of Representatives.. Without redistricting, the Republican majority in the House would have shrunk to 17 (225-208); instead, it grew to 29 (231-202, with one independent and one vacancy). The establishment of this voting majority would have an immediate and dramatic impact budgetary, health care, environmental, and civil rights issues. In retrospect, few events in the Bush Presidency were more important to the Republican agenda than the DeLay engineered and TRMPAC-financed takeover of the Texas Legislature in 2002.

SOUND FAMILIAR?

Lately, it seems that we could have another pretty swell storm in 2008, with the wind blowing decidedly in the other direction. Although redistricting won’t occur until 2011, the time to strike is now.The Republican leadership is unpopular, embattled, and more on their heels than they’ve been since Watergate. As one Republican governor quipped last week of the Republican “brand,” “if we were dog food, they’d take us off the shelf.” Add to that a primary that has elevated voter participation and interest levels in Texas to unprecedented heights, and it begins to look a lot like tornado weather. All we’re missing to pull off the same run of the table that Tom delay pulled off is—well, you guessed it—money.

BANG FOR THE BUCK, BABY!

That’s where BlueTexas comes in. For less than the cost of running for Congress in a mid-sized district, we can influence as many as 8-10 U.S. Congress seats into Democratic hands—and get a majority in the Texas House for free!

Supporting BlueTexas–and redirecting much of our focus as politically aware Democrats to races in the Texas Leg–seems like a no-brainer to me. But then again, sometimes the most obvious things are hidden in plain sight. We can all use a little reprogramming every once in a while.

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