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Redistricting plan upheld by federal court

Wednesday, January 7, 2004 by

Decision sets stage for Doggett to run in Austin to Valley District 25

The three federal judges considering a challenge to congressional redistricting ruled against Austin, Travis County and several voters and civil rights groups yesterday, making it likely that Congressman Lloyd Doggett would have to run in District 25—as he predicted—rather than District 10.

Two of the three judges, Republicans Patrick Higginbotham of Dallas and Lee Rosenthal of Houston, stated in their opinion that “the plaintiffs failed to prove that the State statute prescribing the lines for the thirty-two congressional seats in Texas violates the United States Constitution or fails to comply with Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act. We also reject Plaintiff’s argument that the Texas Legislature lacked authority to draw new districts after a federal court drew them following the 2000 census.” The entire opinion is available online at http://www.txed.uscourts.gov .

Judge John Ward of Marshall, who was appointed by President Bill Clinton, concurred with his colleagues that the state is not prohibited from mid-decade redistricting. However, in his dissent, Ward expressed his misgivings about the revised District 23, which had previously been “a protected Latino opportunity district.” Under the 2001 plan, Latinos had the opportunity to elect a candidate of their choice in District 23. However, the legislatively drawn plan reduces the percentage of Latino voters. “All of the experts agree that (the 2003 plan) alters District 23 to the point where it has no hope of functioning as an effective Latino opportunity district.”

“When it enacted (the 2003 plan), the State altered the racial composition of District 23 not to increase the likelihood that the Latino community therein would elect a candidate of its choice, but to ensure it would have no practical influence on the congressional election. There is no dispute that the State altered District 23 to help re-elect Congressman Henry Bonilla because it predicted that if Latinos continued to constitute a majority of the citizen voting age population in District 23, Congressman Bonilla would ultimately lose. The evidence is that he is not the Latino candidate of choice. The 2002 congressional election foreshadowed the need for this change: Congressman Bonilla received only 8 percent of the Hispanic vote.”

District 25 stretches from East Austin to the Mexican border and has been compared to fajita strips and dumbbells. Travis County’s portion of the district contains about the same number of voters as Hidalgo County on the other end. That district was drawn in order to offset the dilution of minority voter strength in District 23.

Judges Higginbotham and Rosenthal wrote, “We decide only the legality of Plan 1374C, not its wisdom. Whether the Texas Legislature has acted in the best interest of Texas is a judgment that belongs to the people who elected the officials whose act is challenged in this case.”

Attorney Renea Hicks, who represents both the city and the county, said at least some of the plaintiffs would appeal the case to the US Supreme Court, asking for a stay of the order so the districts would not be changed until the court has decided on the merits of the lawsuit. Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott, who praised the decision, said he expected plaintiffs to appeal the case, but believed the Supreme Court would not grant the requested stay.

Hicks said, “I am sure that they will be seeking a stay, probably this week.” Since there are a large number of plaintiffs in the case, neither the city nor the county is required to pursue the appeal. However, the City Council had already scheduled an executive session during this week’s Council meeting to hear from Hicks. Travis County Commissioners are scheduled to meet on the matter at 1:30pm Friday.

Hicks said he expects to ask the court to consolidate consideration of the Texas case with a Pennsylvania redistricting case, which the court has already heard.

Council Member Brewster McCracken told In Fact Daily, “The court’s ruling today means that Austin will become the nation’s largest city without congressional representation based in our city. We won’t even be the largest city in any of the congressional districts into which Austin was split. This is going to hurt us with highway funding and airport funding. It’s really not in the community’s best interest.

“One of the things that is the most unfortunate for Austin is that Austin will not be the largest community in any of these Congressional districts. So when it comes to competing for highway money or health care money, we’ll be competing in every instance with communities in our own district that are larger,” he concluded. McCracken declined to speculate on whether the Council would vote to appeal.

Council Member Daryl Slusher said, “I do favor an appeal. I think we ought to see it through all the way.”

Asked whether he thought there was a chance the court would grant the stay, Democratic political consultant Peck Young said, “When they quit laughing they’ll throw us out of court.” However, Young said he would not be surprised if the court agreed to consolidate the appeal with the one from Pennsylvania.

The League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC) put out a press release saying the group was “extremely disappointed” and would seek an immediate stay of the decision. Margaret Moran, state director for the organization, said, “The Voting Rights Act has effectively been eliminated by political ideologues in Texas. A clearly retrogressive and discriminatory redistricting plan has been upheld in order to further the divisive agenda of political operatives regardless of its impact on minority voters.”

If the Supreme Court declines to grant the stay, which seems likely, Doggett will face District Judge Leticia Hinojosa of McAllen, who has previously indicated she would run for the seat if the court did not change the map. Austin political consultant James Aldrete of MAP (Message Audience & Presentation) said his firm would probably be working for Hinojosa in the race, and that she would make an announcement on Thursday. However, Hinojosa must withdraw from the race for the 139th District Court bench by 5pm today in order to prevent her name from being on the ballot. So, if she does that, there will be little question about her intentions by Thursday.

Senator Gonzalo Barrientos, who was angry at Doggett for announcing early, said last night that he will be considering his options and make his own announcement on Thursday. “I was saddened and greatly disappointed in the decision of the court after we fought so hard against an attack on our political system, our democracy. I think it’s wrong; it disregards communities of interest and I think it negatively impacts minorities in Texas,” Barrientos said. Even though he is in the middle of a four-year term, the longtime Austin Senator said that would not be his main consideration. “I think more important than that is the welfare of the people in Texas, the priorities of the people who live in the district.”

In a press release following the decision, Doggett said, “Only by my convincing a diverse group of people across 350 miles of Texas that I can be as effective for them as I have been for my hometown, can we ensure that Austin has a continuing voice in our nation's decision-making. Otherwise, the capital of Texas will become the largest city in the country without one of its citizens serving in Congress.” He also released a list of women leaders from the Valley who support his candidacy. The announcement was obviously timed to let Hinojosa know that she cannot necessarily count on the support of some of her colleagues, including McAllen City Commissioners Hilda Salinas and Aida Ramirez.

Attorney General Abbott told those gathered for a press conference, “I want to commend the court . . . for basing its decision upon the law and the Constitution and not upon any passion arguments.

“The decision by the court sets up something truly historic. Under the new map, there is the distinct probability that Texas will elect a record amount of racial minorities to the U.S. Congress in this next election cycle. That’s one thing that is so critically important about the map. It not only ensures that the Voting Rights Act was complied with . . . it also insures that the voting rights of minorities across the state of Texas are fully protected. We are very pleased with the panel’s decision, because on virtually every issue the panel was unanimous.”

Unsung heroine to take her place on Congress

Heroine Angelina Belle Eberly is about to take her place in Austin history, although her name certainly doesn’t roll off the tongue as easily as Susanna Dickinson or Lady Bird Johnson.

Eberly was a one-time tavern keeper and boarding house owner who sounded the alarm when she discovered then-President Sam Houston was trying to move the Capitol from Austin to Washington-on-the-Brazos, back in 1842. Upon discovering a small contingent of soldiers loading up the Texas archives from the General Land Office, she sounded the alarm.

The life-size bronze statue proposed for Congress Avenue at Sixth Street is known as “The Lady Cannoneer.” The history books say that Eberly was so enraged by the betrayal that she loaded a six-pound howitzer kept since the Indian wars, aimed it at the Land Office and fired away. No one was hurt. And while government forces ultimately hauled away the archives, they were surrounded by indignant Austin citizens the following morning and forced to return to the Capitol.

Capital Area Statues of Texas, Inc., or CAST, has commemorated the moment with a bronze statue of Eberly. In a quintessentially Austin way, sculptor Pat Oliphant cast the bronze in a tongue-in-cheek tribute to the plucky Eberly. The original statue was in fact two pieces: on one side of the street was to be Eberly and on the other the errant Texas Ranger, trying to escape the firing cannon.

CAST is best known for its gift of the Philosopher’s Rock at Barton Springs Pool in 1994. Planner Pollyanne Melton told the Design Commission this week the Eberly statue has been in the works for three years. It has already earned the endorsement of the Downtown Austin Alliance, Capital Metro, the Historic Landmark Commission and the city’s Transportation Planning and Sustainability Department.

The City Council approved the gift by ordinance in 2001.

The Art in Public Places program consulted the Design Commission on the exact positioning of the statue. A commission subcommittee, headed by Commissioner Eleanor McKinney, made a recommendation to turn the statue to the north toward the trees—historically somewhat accurate and more pedestrian friendly—and place the names of the donors in the pavement at the base of the statue rather than on the statue itself.

The Eberly statue will be on the west side of Congress, facing north toward the trees, near the Capital Metro bus stop at Sixth Street. The other statue across the street was removed from the final plan, Melton said, because the property owner who would have to accommodate it considered the somewhat mocking nature of the statue demeaning to the Texas Rangers.

Despite her heroics, history papers indicate that Eberly did not stay in Austin for long. She purchased the Tavern House in an area now known as Port Lavaca only five years later. She eventually purchased lots in Indianola on Matagorda Bay, where she died in 1860.

For news from last year:

Buzz about PIO . . . All the buzz is about former mayoral chief of staff Kristen Vassallo, who moved with Mayor Kirk Watson from City Hall to the campaign trail. Vassallo is currently working for TateAustin but visited the old digs this week in apparent preparation to take over as the city’s Public Information Officer. Michele Middlebrook-Gonzalez left the job to take on public relations for Seton Healthcare Network. . . Lamar reconstruction delayed . . . The city rejected all the bids to repave and refurbish Lamar between 6th and 24th Streets. Texas Gas Service Company and the city’s traffic engineers have started their work, but according to Project Manager Paulinda Mackie, reconstruction will not begin until sometime in March. Mackie said she would put the item out for bids next Monday and hopes to select a winner on Jan. 29. Since the City Council has to approve the contract, that puts off a decision until at least mid-February at the earliest. Mackie said she hopes the project would get underway “sometime in March” . . . Round Rock news. . . The westbound inside lane of Texas 45 will be closed through Friday. For updates on traffic projects that affect Round Rock, visit the Texas Department of Transportation's lane closures page at http://www.dot.state.tx.us/aus/newsrel/laneclos.htm or Texas Tollways.com . . . Tourism plan . . . The Round Rock City Council has adopted a tourism plan presented by Destination Development. The approved plan is based on seven months of study and targets ways to improve tourism. The plan is available on the City’s web site in PDF at http://www.ci.round-rock.tx.us/news/tourism_plan.pdf(may be slow to download) . . . A chance to serve . . . Round Rock is accepting applications for its Historic Preservation Commission. If you have any questions, call Christine Martinez at 218-5401. The application is available in PDF at http://ci.round-rock.tx.us/news/board_app.pdf.

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