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Proposed Senate map would further divide Travis County

Thursday, May 12, 2011 by Kimberly Reeves

A new map of the state Senate districts unveiled Wednesday draws and quarters Travis County the same way as a controversial proposed Congressional map.


Travis County is currently split between Austin Democrat Kirk Watson and San Antonio Republican Jeff Wentworth. This new proposed map, which the full Senate will consider within the next week, has added Laredo Democrat Judith Zaffirini and Horseshoe Bay Republican Troy Fraser.


Watson said he’s confident he can win his newly configured Senate District 14, which is still anchored by Austin and adds Bastrop County. On a broader stage, however, splitting Travis County takes away from one of its key strengths.


“For decades, minority voters have successfully joined in coalition with like-minded others to elect the candidates of their choice,” Watson said. “There is no good reason to divide this coalition – just as there is no good reason for Travis County, which easily has the population and communities of interest to entirely contain one Senate district, to be split up in this way.”


Zaffirini’s new district now stretches from Laredo to Austin and cuts out Bexar County. It’s oddly reminiscent of the district drawn for Democratic Congressman Lloyd Doggett during the mid-‘90s. Zaffirini calls it “being Doggett-ed.”


Her newly configured district picks up an additional 163,000 people in south Travis County, with the other end of her district anchored by 250,000 people in Laredo. The new lines are intended to add Hispanics to Zaffirini’s district.


And while Zaffirini said she has an affinity for Austin – she chairs the Senate’s Higher Education Committee – she doesn’t think her successor would share her preferences. She hopes to negotiate some trades with senators along the border to bring more parity. San Antonio and Laredo have far more in common, Zaffirini said, than Laredo in Austin, which are 240 miles apart.


Sen. Kel Seliger (R-Amarillo), chair of the Senate Redistricting Committee, has said the lines for minority opportunity districts represented by Sens. Juan “Chuy” Hinojosa and Eddie Lucio Jr. in South Texas must be protected under the federal Voting Rights Act. On the other hand, Hispanics need to be added to Zaffirini, Leticia Van de Putte’s, and Carlos Uresti’s districts. That ended up pushing Zaffirini’s district lines to the north.


Zaffirini said Democrats had little input in the process, although they had submitted a map supported by the majority of the Democrats in the Senate. She rejected Seliger’s argument that this was the logical map.


“He needs to work with us to address those issues,” Zaffirini said, speaking of the Democrats in the Senate. “We know the region better than he does, better than anybody from outside the region.”


One long-time Democratic observer, who asked not to be named, said it might be difficult to get the 21 votes necessary to get the map to the floor of the Senate. Fraser, for instance, picks up Westlake Hills, where residents are both liberal Republicans and spoiling to run for office. Fraser also represents Abilene in the same district. Staunch conservative Republicans in North Texas would pick up established minority communities with residents who won’t be inclined to vote for them.


And districts don’t necessarily work well for long-time Democrats like Rodney Ellis or John Whitmire in Houston, said the observer. The map certainly will mean costlier, more time-consuming campaigns for Watson. Watson insists he has good contacts in Bastrop, contacts he made as chair of CAMPO.


The first committee hearing on the Senate map is on Thursday, with a potential vote on Friday. The map could be on the Senate floor for a vote next week.


Seliger said his non-negotiable principle has been preserving the existing percentages for Hispanics and African-Americans in existing minority opportunity districts.


“I’m very careful that every minority opportunity district remains a performing district,” Seliger said. “It’s all driven by the numbers and meeting those legal requirements. We must meet the law in regards to performing districts.”


No incumbent voluntarily surrendered a county, Seliger said. That forced him to make the best case for each district on the map. So he has serious doubts that changes are going to be made on the floor next week.


“It’s going to be very difficult to amend this bill because every change has an impact clear across the state,” Seliger said. “Everybody is impacted by any change, so everyone is going to have to be involved and consulted. Any amendment is going to have to have rigorous legal scrutiny, as we have had so far. There’s not going to be a lot of freehand drawing on this map.”

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