The GOP’s Texas Power Grab

Salim Muwakkil

One of the major goals of the “southern strategy” pioneered by the Republican Party during the 1968 presidential campaign of Richard Nixon was to taint the Democratic Party as the party of “nigger lovers.” More specifically, the GOP understood they could use race as an issue to wedge whites away from a Democratic Party that increasingly seemed to have enlisted in the civil rights movement.

Mississippi Sen. Trent Lott lost his leadership post for publicly yearning for that era. But his party continues to work the angles of the southern strategy, and it still uses race as a political wedge. Demagogic use of immigration issues and affirmative action are two examples of how racial concerns still stir the pot. But the current legislative imbroglio in Texas best reveals both the subtlety and the persistence of this classic GOP gambit.

In case your hunger for governmental theater has not been satiated by the recall circus in California, let me fill you in on the drama in the Lone Star State: A second special session of the Texas legislature expired last month after 11 of Texas’ 12 Senate Democrats fled to Albuquerque, New Mexico, to deny the 31-member senate a two-thirds quorum on a redistricting vote. And now yet another special session has been scheduled by the determined governor.

The Texas GOP is seeking to redraw the state’s congressional electoral map to cram the state’s minorities into a few, already Democratic districts. Democrats argue the plan violates the Voting Rights Act by concentrating black and Latino voters into fewer districts, creating a majority of largely white congressional districts more likely to vote Republican.

They say this effort is part of a national strategy, designed by White House political director Karl Rove and House majority leader Rep. Tom DeLay (R-Texas), to use Republican-controlled state legislatures to help lock in a GOP congressional majority. The state that both Rove and DeLay call home is a major target of this strategy. Texas’ Republican Gov. Rick Perry is their main point man.

Perry tried to ram a GOP-friendly remap through the state legislature during the regular session. But Democratic house members fled to Oklahoma to prevent a quorum until the session expired. They argued that redistricting only made sense after a census revealed new population shifts. Federal judges drew the current state map in 2001 after the 2000 census. Democrats won a 17-15 congressional majority in the 2002 elections based on that map.

The Texas GOP’s attempt to redraw the electoral map so soon is clearly a power move based on partisan political advantage rather than democratic principles. Progressive activist groups, like MoveOn.org, have linked the Texas action to other GOP efforts like the California recall and a similar redistricting dispute in Colorado.

Perry next convened a special session of the legislature to pass the plan, but 12 of Texas’ 31 Senators opposed the remap, and under the Senate’s rules and tradition, a two-thirds vote was required to consider any bill. The plan was shelved. But the determined governor then called a second special session in which the Republicans imposed new rules ending the two-thirds requirement for a bill to pass the Senate. That’s when the senators bolted to Albuquerque.

“We do not take lightly our decision to leave the state,” explained Sen. Rodney Ellis in a public letter written from New Mexico. “It was the only means left to us under the rules of procedure in Texas to block this injustice.”

In addition to trashing the tradition of decennial redistricting, Ellis said the GOP’s effort elevates partisan politics above minority voting rights and “intends to decimate the Democratic Party in Texas.”

The racial aspect of this legislative dispute has been downplayed in media accounts, but the boycotting 11 Democrats—nine of whom are minorities —contend it is the major issue. “Our Senate colleagues think we did this for show. They’re very uncomfortable every time we bring up the black or Hispanic issue,” said Sen. Leticia R. Van de Putte, head of the Democrats’ Senate caucus, at a recent news conference. “But this is about the consolidation of power and trying to direct control of the U.S. House for the next 20 years.”

Ironically, the Voting Rights Act also has been invoked to justify the creation of the kind of supermajority congressional districts that Texas Republicans now champion. Thus, the stand by the Texas legislators also illustrates the growing maturity of minority-elected officials. No longer are they satisfied by the limited, symbolic benefits of an additional black or Latino member of Congress. If the congressional agenda is smothered by GOP dominance, those black or brown faces mean little.

A successful GOP effort in Texas will likely ensure that Republicans control the U.S. House for at least a decade. Even worse, it will further polarize political parties along racial and ethnic lines by making electoral coalitions more difficult. White Democrats with moderate-to-liberal leanings will be increasingly rare in Texas, as their integrated electorates disappear.

If DeLay has his way, Republicans increasingly will be white suburbanites and urban minorities will be Democrats. When partisan politics becomes electoral apartheid, that’s southern strategy for the 21st century.

Salim Muwakkil is a senior editor of In These Times, where he has worked since 1983. He is the host of The Salim Muwakkil show on WVON, Chicago’s historic black radio station, and he wrote the text for the book HAROLD: Photographs from the Harold Washington Years.
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