May 12, 2011
Austin, now split into two state Senate districts, would be divided into four districts under a controversial new plan made public Wednesday.
One of those districts would stretch to Laredo, 240 miles to the south on the Mexican border.
The proposed Senate district map comes less than three weeks before the end of the legislative session and drew immediate criticism from some Democrats, who blasted the plan as a Republican attack on minority voters and a move to dilute the capital city’s voice at the state Capitol.
Sen. Kirk Watson, D-Austin, whose District 14 is now entirely in Travis County, would be pushed to the south and east into Bastrop County. He said he is confident he can win re-election in the proposed district but that he intends to work to change the map.
“This isn’t about me,” Watson said in a statement. “This is about the people of Travis County, who may soon be divided yet again for no good reason.”
Sen. Jeff Wentworth, a San Antonio Republican , would continue to represent parts of South Austin. He represents District 25.
Parts of Southwest Austin would be in District 24 for the first time, represented by Sen. Troy Fraser, R-Horseshoe Bay .
And parts of Southeast and East Austin would be in District 21, represented by Sen. Judith Zaffirini, D-Laredo . Her district would also include parts of Hays, Caldwell and Guadalupe counties, including Seguin.
“I feel like I was Doggett-ed,” Zaffirini said, referring to a 2003 redistricting plan that extended Democratic U.S. Rep. Lloyd Doggett’s district from Austin to McAllen before it was redrawn along with others under court order. “I’m very dismayed about the changes. They’re uncalled for.”
Watson questioned the need for “dividing historical constituencies in Travis County,” when the county has enough population to warrant having its own district. “This is about Travis County and Austin, and whether they’re best served by four senators instead of one,” Watson said.
Other Democrats were even unhappier about the proposed new district lines.
In Fort Worth, Sen. Wendy Davis blasted the new map that would draw her into a GOP-dominant district and shift most of the minority voters in her district into the adjoining district of Sen. Brian Birdwell, R-Granbury .
“I am very sure we will be in a court battle,” said Davis, who beat a Republican incumbent in 2008 with a coalition of minority voters. “I will not allow the voting rights of hundreds of thousands of constituents in Tarrant County to be trampled to satisfy the partisan greed of the Senate leadership.”
Currently, the Senate has 19 Republicans and 12 Democrats.
GOP Sen. Kel Seliger of Amarillo, chairman of the Senate’s redistricting committee , said he didn’t know how many members of each party would be elected under the proposed map, but conversations with other senators indicated that the GOP hope is to elect 20 or more Republicans.
In other parts of Texas, incumbent Democrats retained districts in which they probably would be able to win re-election. Republican senators kept safe districts.
Despite the criticism that accompanied the release of the Senate maps, Seliger said Travis County ended up with four Senate districts because Zaffirini’s district has “protected status” because of its large minority population.
“Three Senate districts in South Texas – Zaffirini, (Carlos) Uresti and (Leticia) Van de Putte – were short on population,” Seliger said. “There was no place else to go to pick up minority voters for Zaffirini except into Austin. We had to find the additional population for Van de Putte and Uresti in the San Antonio area, and that meant (Zaffirini) had to be drawn into Austin.”
“This map puts her into (state Rep.) Eddie Rodriguez’s district in East Austin,” Seliger said. “That will protect the status of her district.”
Zaffirini took issue with that explanation, noting that she has represented areas of Bexar County for years and that additional population for her district could have been found in neighboring South Texas senatorial districts – both held by Hispanic Democrats.
“I will be working with them to draw a new map that makes more sense than this one,” said Zaffirini, a member of the redistricting committee. “I was not consulted about this. … The first I knew about it is when I got my map.”
Seliger said the redistricting committee staff drew the map after senators proposed their own districts.
Any changes to the map will be difficult to make, Seliger said, partly because of the expedited schedule planned for their approval and partly because moving one boundary line can require redrawing numerous others.
A single public hearing on the proposed Senate districts is set for 9 a.m. today in the Capitol Extension Auditorium, E1.004. Seliger said he intends for the committee to approve the redistricting map and send it Friday to the full Senate for a final vote early next week.
“People have enough time to review the maps and propose changes they want to,” he said. “But you take your chances.”
Although Davis suggested the map would not receive federal approval, as required under the Voting Rights Act, Seliger and other Senate leaders said they are confident it will.
“I believe this plan will withstand scrutiny, yes,” he said. “I know there are some members who are not happy, including Sen. Zaffirini. … In her case, I am confident those areas of Austin will be exceptionally well represented.”
If the Senate cannot get a map passed by the end of the session May 30, the Legislative Redistricting Board – the lieutenant governor, House speaker, attorney general, state comptroller and land commissioner – would be convened to draw a map.
That’s what happened in 2001, when senators could not muster the two-thirds vote needed to bring up the redistricting bill for debate.
County’s POTENTIAL senate delegates
District 24 Troy Fraser, R-Horseshoe Bay
District 14 Kirk Watson, D-Austin
District 25 Jeff Wentworth, R-San Antonio
District 21 Judith Zaffirini, D-Laredo