“If you’re going to act like Mexicans, then you will be treated like Mexicans.” The crude ethnic slur referring to Democratic senators’ response to the majority party’s redistricting plan was uttered within the oak-paneled confines of the Texas Senate lounge — directly across the chamber from a painting of General Antonio López de Santa Anna’s army of crude, violent Mexican caricatures being routed by General Sam Houston’s valiant Anglo-Celtic volunteers. So we’ll probably never know who said it. Call it senatorial courtesy. Or a Texas take on the code of omertà. The Anglo Republican senator who said it privately apologized. So the Mexican-American Democratic senator who reported it to the media isn’t naming names.
End of story.
And maybe race and ethnic demographics are not the story. That’s what the governor, Republican legislators, House Majority Leader Tom DeLay and the White House would have us believe. They insist that the redistricting bills that sent 51 Democratic state reps to Oklahoma and 11 Democratic state senators to New Mexico in two failed attempts to deny the Republican Legislature a quorum, had nothing to do with race — or with what Education Secretary Rod Paige sometimes refers to as “ethnic affiliation.”
It’s all about racial and ethnic demographics. As well as an exercise of political power so crude, muscular and Machiavellian that it would have made LBJ blush. Democrats in the statehouse should have seen it coming, even as Republican Governor Rick Perry said there would be no redistricting bill this session. Perry is a Pygmalion politician. He was a handsome, unremarkable Democratic state representative whom Bush presidential adviser Karl Rove turned into a handsome, unremarkable Republican governor. To be fair, maybe Perry wasn’t lying. At the time, he probably had no clue about what was coming. The man a prominent Republican U.S. Senator recently referred to as “the dumbest governor in the United States” was a bit player in his state’s redistricting fight. The governor who summoned legislators to Austin for two special sessions devoted exclusively to redistricting wasn’t even in Austin on the most critical day of House-Senate negotiations on the redistricting bill. He had been dispatched to New York, to ring the bell as trading opened at the stock exchange, while Majority Leader DeLay shuttled back and forth between the offices of the speaker and the lieutenant governor.
Redistricting was a deal driven by DeLay and Rove. Democratic legislators might have seen it coming when the majority leader of the United States House of Representatives showed up in Austin on the first day of the legislative session in January. DeLay sat in the front row, arms folded and smiling, as Tom Craddick took the oath that made him the first Republican House speaker in Texas since Reconstruction — itself a precedent for majority response to minority political power. But the Democrats were not fully aware of how much Craddick owed DeLay, a Republican from the Houston suburb of Sugar Land.
Two years earlier, DeLay and his political aide Jim Ellis devised the scheme that delivered the House to the Republican Party. It involved the novel use of federal PAC money to influence statehouse races. The money DeLay brought home to Texas — $1.5 million — delivered the House to the Republicans.
DeLay’s fund-raising operation has been examined by the Texas Observer, the Washington Post and the Washington advocacy group Democracy 21. It was more than a money dump into campaigns. The effort was coordinated by Jim Colyrando, a former colleague of Karl Rove. Colyrando did more than write checks on the account of DeLay’s Texans for a Republican Majority political action committee (TRMPAC). Colyrando and his staff carefully selected Republican candidates, provided each one of them a cut of the $1.5 million, plus, as the Washington Post reported, $35,000 in political research, $52,000 in phone banks, $12,600 in direct mail, $27,000 to a Washington polling firm, and $27,600 to the fund-raising operation run by DeLay’s daughter, Danielle Ferro. (Ferro also was paid $3,300 herself.) In a word, a campaign was provided for each Republican candidate funded by DeLay’s Texas PAC.
The results were stunning. Not only did DeLay’s PAC elect 17 Republicans to the Texas House; by systematically marking for elimination moderate Republicans in contested primaries, as the Texas Observer reported, it provided the right-wing majority needed to make Tom Craddick speaker. So when DeLay showed up again at the end of the regular session and ordered Craddick to re-draw the state’s congressional map, the speaker had no choice. The lone protester holding up a “Tom DeLay’s Bitch Lives Here” poster in front of the governor’s mansion was picketing the wrong residence.
This was not redistricting but re-redistricting. The Legislature had tried to re-draw the state’s congressional districts in 2001, the first session following the national census, as required by the U.S. Constitution. Republican senators blocked the congressional redistricting bill, and it was turned over to a panel of three federal judges, who took the map drawn by the Legislature after the 1990 census and drew new district lines. This year, DeLay and Rove decided that because Republicans control the House and Senate, the map drawn by the federal judges should be replaced by a map that would add five to seven seats to the state’s Republican delegation in Congress.
DeLay was refreshingly honest about his motives: “I’m the majority leader, and I want more seats.” There’s only one way for Republicans to get more Republican seats in Texas. DeLay had to pack African-American and Latino voters into electoral Bantustans, where they will elect their own members of Congress but cannot work in coalition to influence any other elections. It’s a smart political move. Electoral apartheid, after all, allows whites to elect whites, Latinos to elect Latinos, and blacks to elect blacks. Where they can’t pack minorities, they disperse them. So the Texas Republican Party is celebrating the creation of “minority opportunity districts.”
Houston Representative Garnett Coleman doesn’t buy it. The dweeby African-American policy and politics wonk who represents a big slice of Houston’s black community calls the DeLay plan exactly what it is: a continuation of Richard Nixon’s Southern Strategy. By eliminating white Democrats, even white Democratic conservatives like West Texas Congressman Charlie Stenholm, DeLay is creating a Democratic Party of Color. It’s an arrangement that allows Republicans to characterize white Democrats as “nigger lovers,” said Coleman.
Not only are conservatives and Democrats wiped out by Plan DeLay; urban white liberals are also retired from Congress. After you carefully carve up minority communities in rural Texas to eliminate white conservatives, you slice cities like Houston, Dallas and Austin like a pie, with the point of the slice in the urban core to dilute urban minority representation and eliminate white liberals. In a state in which the racial and ethnic minority will be the majority in a few years, the Republicans have held the future at bay.
Coleman finds amusing (and offensive) that Republicans are suddenly interested in creating minority opportunity districts. Given his choice, he would have African-American members of Congress representing African-American voters. “When possible, you want to have the pigs represent the interests of the pigs, like in Orwell’s breakfast story,” he said. “If that can occur, that’s what you want. If it can’t occur, you want the next best option. You want someone who represents your interest. When we can’t elect representatives who have walked in our shoes, or literally walked in our skin, we are smart enough to elect someone who will represent our interests.”
Coleman would prefer an urban Democratic liberal like Austin Representative Lloyd Doggett — or even a conservative rural Democrat like Stenholm — to a suburban Republican like DeLay. Anybody who believes Tom DeLay is interested in what is good for black and brown people, Coleman said, also believes “the Grand Dragon of the Ku Klux Klan is interested in what’s good for black and brown people.”
“The Voting Rights Act is about the color of voters,” Coleman said, “not of elected officials.”
So the DeLay-Rove redistricting plan signed into law by the governor now moves on to the federal courts. But Republicans, and a few cross-dressing black and brown Democratic surrogates supporting them, have a hard time making the case that this is a good deal for black and brown folk. Joining Texas Democrats in line at the state’s federal courthouse are the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, the League of United Latin American Citizens, the (Mexican-American) GI Forum and the NAACP.
“Black people and other people of color are not as stupid as the general public thinks we are,” Coleman said. “We’ve already been through these times. It’s all part of the Southern Strategy.”
Lou Dubose is co-author with Molly Ivins of the New York Times best-seller Bushwhacked: Life in George W. Bush’s America. He currently divides his time between Austin and Washington, D.C., where he is working on a political biography of Tom DeLay.