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Battle continues over redistricting for Travis County Commissioners

Wednesday, August 17, 2011 by Michael Kanin

With the clock ticking toward a target decision date of Aug. 23, the Travis County Commissioners’ Court yesterday continued to delay official action on the details of its redistricting plan. However, two votes, each decided by a 3-2 margin, over the proposed boundary lines between Karen Huber‘s Pct. 3 and Margaret Gomez‘ Pct. 4, and between Ron Davis‘ Pct.1 and Sarah Eckhardt’s Pct. 2 seem to telegraph the probable direction of the court’s decision.


At Tuesday’s meeting, County Judge Sam Biscoe submitted a series of motions intended to offer more detailed instruction to the county’s redistricting consultants. He told his colleagues that he felt they should do so in order “to give an inclination today” of where they were headed. 


The resulting action found Davis and Gomez siding with Biscoe on measures that would, unless voted down next week, preserve the disputed boundaries as Gomez and Davis preferred.


“If my counting is accurate—and I was always good up to 10—a majority of the court wants to do something similar to what we have decided today,” said Biscoe.


At issue are precincts in the Shady Hollow region of southern Travis County and in the Austin Colony area in the eastern portion of the county. Shady Hollow hosts a set of residents who are angry at the court’s decision to not construct the Southwest portion of SH 45. Austin Colony is a region with a historically African-American population.


Pct. 3’s Huber presented a map that, among a number of changes to the borders of each precinct, would move sections of Shady Hollow into Gomez’ district. She told the court that she had tried to “take…into consideration what everybody wanted,” while also including some “sacrifices.”


Huber also read from a prepared statement that took the issue to a wider place. Citing recent bitterness over the national debate about the debt ceiling, Huber said that she hoped “this Commissioners’ Court shows its constituents that we actually use fairness, compromise, and friendly assistance—fine attributes, all—in (our) deliberations, especially on something as important as redistricting.”


In the statement, Huber further argued that her map raised the Hispanic population percentage in Gomez’ district to a more acceptable level.


Eckhardt used a somewhat similar argument to question the intransigence of Davis and Gomez. “I think that it is imperative that rather than doing what is right for us, we need to do what is right for the constituency,” she said. “The Voting Rights Act…requires that we maintain or improve upon the voting strength of our minority populations, most especially when we are a majority minority county—which we are now.”


She further noted that, “under that statistical fact” she felt that she and her colleagues have “no real policy excuse not to achieve almost perfect parity among our precincts.”


Gomez objected to her gain of Shady Hollow along racial lines. “The population of Shady Hollow is like 17 percent Hispanic,” she said. “That will go not only toward the dilution of the Hispanic population (in Precinct 4) but…there’s no commonality between those neighborhoods.”


Though Eckhardt stands to lose all of Pflugerville to Davis, she was ultimately realistic. She responded to Biscoe’s suggestion that the court had had more or less made up its mind. “That’s a good point. It may be a fight simply not worth fighting,” she said.


Huber’s vote against the SH45 effort left some of her constituents feeling as though she had gone back on a campaign promise. When the court took that action, Shady Hollow Homeowners Association Board Member Pam Baggett asked Huber if she denied that “during a fundraiser at the Umlauf Sculpture Garden that (she’d) get (her) road.”


“It’s always difficult when there’s adversity,” Huber told In Fact Daily at the time. “I’m one of those people who likes to make everybody happy. This is one of those situations where there’s no way to make everybody happy. At least right now.” (See In Fact Daily, May 12, 2010)


Gomez, Biscoe, and Eckhardt each won reelection in 2010. Huber and Davis will face the voters in 2012.


Meanwhile, a primary challenge from current Austin Independent School Board member Lori Moya may also play a role in redistricting proceedings. Moya told In Fact Daily that, as of now, any consideration of a run for a Commissioners’ Court seat would be a “distraction.”


“I’m elected to the school board and I’ve got a very big job there,” she said.


However, Moya acknowledged that she hears that “there are people in the community talking about” the possibility of her candidacy for a court seat. Moya lives in voting precinct 310, which is currently in Precinct 3. Under a handful of iterations of the redistricting map–including one from Huber and one from Eckhardt–that district would move to Precinct 4. Should Moya decide to get into a race for a court seat, that set of circumstances would pit her against Gomez.


Moya’s father, Richard, was the first Mexican-American elected to the Travis Commissioners’ Court. That was in 1970. He served in the seat currently held by Gómez until his defeat in 1986. Gómez was his administrative assistant for seven years and he supported her first bid for constable and the Pct. 4 commissioner’s seat. However, he ran against her unsuccessfully in 1998.

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