April 5, 2011
I’ve noted before how surprising it is (amazing, really) that more people don’t know that I starred as Tevye in the now legendary W. E. Boswell High School production of Fiddler on the Roof. (In fact, I’m holding out hope that I’ll be called away from this oh-so-fun legislative session to play the part in a Broadway revival. Really. Please. Someone call.)
And given that this defining point in thespian history occurred in the Fall of 1975, I’m equally surprised that I seem to be able to remember the words to all of the songs from that musical and lots of the lines – yet I have trouble remembering where my parking spot is at the Capitol.
This legislative session, we all sort of get to play Yenta the Matchmaker. That’s because this is a redistricting session. Yenta’s job was to match a young husband and wife. We get to match voters with potential office holders.
And just like Tevye’s daughters worried about whom they might get matched up with, voters might feel concerned that match-(map)makers are just throwing people together with no good reason (or for reasons that are less than pure), pretty much screwing up any chance that we’ll really end up loving one another.
The official guide to redistricting probably says that redistricting is the process by which political districts are re-drawn to reflect population changes in the census. In practice, it’s far more political – and oftentimes, the goals are far less lofty.
Regardless of motivations, legislators will begin by drawing maps to determine who your state representative, member of Congress, member on the State Board of Education, and – without question most importantly – your state senator is (though, as you know, I do now and will continue later to consider myself your state senator, real or adopted, wherever you live).
Map lines are drawn with a focus on putting people in specific districts. They are matched up with other people and, ultimately, matched with an official elected to represent the group of people living in that district.
As with most things, there’s a process to redistricting. You’ll probably be seeing a fair amount of news about that over the next few months. To help with that, I’ve put a page on my website with news and notes about the process.
I’ll wager that news will break down into two general categories: the silly political stuff, and the really important basics-of-democracy of stuff.
The silly political stuff revolves around how legislators act or react to various maps of their districts. I won’t get into it too much here, but suffice it to say that if you see someone at the Capitol voting a surprising way on someone else’s bill, or if they just seem a little too happy or a little too unhappy about something, then one of your first two or three questions might be, “I wonder what’s going on with redistricting?”
But there’s another aspect of redistricting that matters a lot more.
It’s fundamental to the rights of citizens to have their voices heard – which pretty much means it’s fundamental to democracy. Period.
District lines dictate whether communities are able to elect the officials of their choice, which in turn determines whether their values are represented whenever that official votes on legislation.
In Texas, standards for redrawing district boundaries are guided by two overriding concerns — legal compliance with the U.S. Voting Rights Act, and respect for established and recognized communities of interest.
If these two concerns take priority – and folks in the Capitol can resist the temptations of partisan fights and political land grabs – then Austinites and Texans generally will realize the process as it, arguably, was intended.
The seat I currently serve in – Texas Senate District 14 – demonstrates how important both of these principles will be over the next few months.
Austin and Travis County have for decades served as the core of District 14. Even before my longtime home had enough people to contain an entire Senate district, it provided the most population and the most votes in the district.
Over the last 20 years, Travis County has grown rapidly, and the district now includes most of the City of Austin.
So let’s be clear – this is Austin and Travis County’s seat, which ensures this area is represented in the Texas Senate.
Very importantly, the minority population in Senate District 14 has grown in numbers and influence. Currently, Hispanics, African-Americans and other minority residents make up more than 50 percent of the population.
Year after year, these voters have elected their candidate of choice. Before me, former Senator Gonzalo Barrientos won against well-funded opponents on the strength of minority voters. There’s no question that my service in the Senate also depends on my continuing to be the candidate of choice of minority voters.
Of course, our district is also held together by our shared interests, shared assets, shared points of view, and our ability to work together successfully. That means our neighborhoods consistently come together to form a unique and effective community of interest.
We see the results. Hispanic, African-American and integrated neighborhoods unite to elect a diverse slate of public office holders – planning and passing initiatives that make our community stronger.
What does that mean in terms of redistricting?
First, the Department of Justice has made clear that in districts like ours, where minority voters have the strength and numbers to elect their candidate of choice, it would violate the Voting Rights Act to change boundaries in ways that reduce those voters’ strength. (But don’t take my word for it. In 2001, when Texas asked the Department of Justice to approve District 14’s current lines, the state noted the growing strength of the minority vote as justification for the boundaries.)
Second, our distinct – and its effective community of interest – has been recognized and reflected for decades in previous redistricting plans that have been approved by the state.
So redistricting doesn’t have to be a battle this session. Legislators just need to follow the law, recognize our diversity and our voting strength, and respect the community of interest that we’ve all worked so hard to build and protect.
Unfortunately, there are some pretty partisan folks out there who probably wouldn’t mind turning redistricting into a blood sport. It certainly has been that before. And let’s face it: our voting strength and unity could be viewed as political threats to some partisan interests.
But if redistricting does get ugly, we can’t turn away or hide until it’s all over. No, we’ll do as we always do — come together with a united voice to defend each other and to protect our community.
Luckily, the facts and the law are on our side.