One thing I’ve learned from having written about redistricting for a couple of years now is that whenever map proposals get filed, I can expect a round of complaints by emails (not, mind you, that I had anything to do with drawing the maps).
Some of the complaints come from what I’ll call the “hyper-partisans” - people who judge everything by whether their political party comes out ahead or falls behind. And that’s probably inevitable. Redistricting, after all, involves a healthy dose of the political.
But another set of complaints come from people who object to the shape of a district. Usually these complaints are about how districts ‘look funny’ or connect different parts of town or stretch into adjacent counties.
And these are also probably inevitable. No map will ever leave everyone happy, and some natural boundaries invariably will be broken.
But what I’ve noticed, after getting enough of these “geography complaints,” is that the most vocal complaints are often about opportunity districts and that those, by and large, come from Anglos - sometimes Republicans and sometimes Democrats but most often Anglos and by a large margin.
The gist of the objection usually runs something like this: “Dallas and Fort Worth are totally different. It makes no sense to put them in the same district.”
When you get enough of these, you come away with the definite sense that Anglos tend to define their communities of interest in very tight geographic terms - a cluster of neighborhoods, a part of town with a shared school district, a town, a county, etc. And that vision of a community of interest is something that Anglos defend with a particular and vocal vehemence.
This geographic definition of a community of interest seems much less dominant with non-Anglos. It exists to be sure but is often counterbalanced by other considerations.
And I’ve come to realize that ironically what Anglos don’t like about districts that cross city or county lines is exactly what non-Anglos often don’t like about the maximally compact districts favored by Anglos.
In other words, Anglos in Dallas might feel submerged if they were drawn into a district consisting mostly of people in Fort Worth (a neighboring city in the same media market with similar urban issues, common sports teams, etc.), but African-Americans and Hispanics frequently have the same feelings when they are drawn into districts dominated by Anglos, even if those Anglos happen to be ones that live close by.
And as I’ve written elsewhere, the reality in Texas today is that even in non-partisan races, voting often tends to polarize along racial and ethnic lines, even when progressive Anglos are involved. Recent Dallas city council elections are just one exemplar.
In Dallas Council District 1, heavily (progressive) Anglo precincts gave nearly 85% of their vote to an Anglo candidate over a Hispanic candidate who was heavily favored in Hispanic parts of the district. Their vote proved to be decisive in a district where Hispanics are a large share of voters. And this was in a trendy, ethnically mixed part of town (North Oak Cliff) with a large gay and lesbian population where Anglos don’t move if they are openly hostile to Hispanics.
Sometimes it’s worse. Sometimes that polarization breaks out in open hostility, as in Farmers Branch just north of Dallas where the city council passed a controversial (and, as a court ultimately found, discriminatory) housing ordinance sharply opposed by the Hispanic community.
But even where such overt hostility does not exist, the fact is that for all the real and meaningful advancements of the last 45 years, a substantial part of the state’s African-American and Hispanic communities still form separate solitudes (to borrow a term used to describe Québec’s English and French language communities in the 1960s).
That’s not to say that people go home, take off their ties and jackets or heels, and start cursing out people of other ethnicities.
But it is to say in a state where there still are significant economic differences between ethnic groups, where public schools are alarmingly segregated, and where we spend less time together in a meaningful way than we like to admit, it is often easy to fail to understand, or fully appreciate, each other’s worldviews and priorities. Or worse to fall victim to stereotypes.
This tendency is only exacerbated when districts are drawn in a way that only one political party’s primary matters. Though members of the Legislature like to say how they treat all their constituents equally (and I don’t doubt the sincerity of the statement), the reality is that some constituents are more equal than others. Members would probably have to be superhuman for it to be otherwise.
For proof, you need only consider the House elections committee, which on the last day that House bills could be voted out of committee during the regular session - and after a long floor session that had already stretched the day into the evening - the committee spent a large part of its limited time patiently hearing a bill to require presidential candidates to make their birth certificates available. Regardless of what you think of the bill, it’s not hard to see that the bill was getting a hearing mainly because of its importance to party activists.
All this would be amusing if the stakes weren’t so high. But marginalizing - rather than engaging - the authentic voices of key parts of Texas’ population isn’t good. Especially not when those groups accounted for 90% of the state’s population gain during the past decade. Not good for Republicans. Not good for Democrats. Not good for Texas.
As hot as the debate about districts can be, the differences are not always irreconcilable.
It almost goes without saying that the Texas Legislature’s 2011 maps - substantial parts of which were incorporated wholesale into the interim maps - did little to satisfy proponents of either type of community of interest. Some parts of the maps are just plain awkward. Take the state house map in Dallas County:
HD 113 stretches from Garland and Rowlett in the northern part of the county to the border with Ellis County in the south, taking in bits and pieces of various cities. As anyone who lives in Dallas County can tell you, that’s no one’s vision of a natural community of interest nor is it geographically compact.
In a similar fashion, HD 105 on the other side of the county has a gnarly taproot that dices through Grand Prairie managing at once to split non-Anglo neighborhoods and to be stretchy and not very compact.
While people can differ on what a natural community of interest is or should be, the only people happy with the 2011 configuration are the most partisan of Republican partisans.
On the state house map at least, there are multiple options for satisfying both proponents of geographically compact districts and those who want to ensure that non-Anglo voices are unfarily submerged through fragmentation. Plan H312 is just one example: