The Other Big Winner in Texas Redistricting

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Former US House majority leader Tom Delay

After the battle royale over Texas redistricting, it all comes down to a brawl on the streets of Laredo. It is there, in the rough and tumble of South Texas politics, that Democrats may have a chance to gain a congressional seat following Wednesday's U.S. Supreme Court decision that, for the most part, upheld the controversial redistricting orchestrated three years ago by former Congressman Tom DeLay. But the fight over the seat currently held by Republican Henry Bonilla also could reopen old wounds between the Democratic Hispanic base and liberal Anglo leadership.

"What we had in the lawsuit was a triangle of interests," said Nina Perales, the attorney who successfully argued the case for the Mexican American Legal Defense Fund. "The Republican Party argued their interests, the Democratic Party had their interests and we argued Latino interests."

Winning one seat would be small satisfaction after the High Court's decision to uphold the Texas redistricting plan, which turned a two-seat Democratic advantage in House seats and into a 10-seat advantage for Republicans.

The justices mostly ignored the political food fight over the DeLay plan. "It's impossible to take all partisanship out of the political process," wrote Justice David Souter said. But in Wednesday's 5-4 decision, signed by Justice Anthony Kennedy, Texas was ordered to redraw the map and undo the split that had divided Laredo between Bonilla's West Texas district and that of Democratic Congressman Henry Cuellar. The addition of Democratic-leaning Latino voters to Bonilla's district could make him vulnerable in the next election. The opinion also suggested possible changes for the district represented by Democrat Lloyd Doggett, whose "fajita" district stretches from Austin to the Mexican border. In a redraw that would presumably reduce the number of Hispanic voters in his district, the good news for Doggett is that he may not face a perennial Hispanic challenger in the primary; the bad news is he could find himself in a new conservative district further north.

"When Justice Kennedy asked the state lawyers whether the plan was an insult to Latino voters, I was electrified," Perales said. "One party takes us for granted, the other ignores us." The court's decision now means neither party can ignore the "2.3 million new [Latino] Texans who brought us two new districts," Perales said.

The state legislature has the opportunity to redraw Bonilla's district, but given the divisive battle over redistricting and a pending gubernatorial election, few observers expect the lawmakers to take on that task again. That leaves it up to a three judge federal panel to look at maps submitted by the parties, or to simply draw its own.