The Bluest Guys in Texas

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Because their legislature meets only every other year, most Texans still believe legislator is a part-time profession, a chance to serve the public for a few months before returning to your day job. So when Governor Rick Perry recently called lawmakers back to Austin for a month-long special session, you would think it was for something important, like rescuing the struggling school funding system, or restoring state health insurance to 170,000 low-income kids who lost it last month when the budget got too tight. But this special session will be devoted entirely to sending more Republicans to Congress — legislators will be voting on redrawn congressional districts.

Perry and GOP lawmakers are still ticked off that a federal court stepped in to draw the district lines two years ago when the legislature couldn’t agree on a plan, resulting in districts that sent 17 Democrats and 15 Republicans to Washington despite GOP control of the entire state government. So even though redistricting has been a once-a-decade event for more than a century, the Republicans tried to implement new, more elephant-friendly districts last month. That’s what sent 51 Democratic state representatives scurrying across the border to Ardmore, Oklahoma, preventing a quorum for four days until the session — and the redistricting bill — expired. But Perry’s not giving up so easily. Still, while Republicans have the power to pass this bill, is the long-term cost to bipartisanship worth it?

The Constitution requires states to redistrict once a decade, but it doesn’t forbid them from doing it more often. And despite Democrats’ cries of foul play, redistricting has always been a no-holds-barred business where pure politics is the name of the game. The Supreme Court even ruled in 1993 that while states cannot draw districts based on minority populations — making sure there are enough blacks in a district to guarantee a black representative — drawing districts based on the population’s party membership was fine. While Perry, U.S. House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (a big force behind the bill) and other Texas Republicans claim they want new lines because they don’t want judges deciding who represents the people, the redistricting bill’s sponsor is admirably more honest: “I am a Republican so I’d like there to be more Republican seats,” Rep. Phil King told the Dallas Morning News.

OK, there’s not much to keep the Republicans from redrawing the districts, but should they? This was the state where George W. Bush was able to craft several compromises with Democratic legislators in order to pass most of his agenda. Remember the whole “uniter, not a divider” thing? But if his party drags Democrats back to Austin for another go at redistricting, after all the ugliness of last month, how easy will it be to find common ground next session? And voters may not be pleased when they get the bill for Perry’s special session: $1.7 million. Remember those kids who lost their health insurance?

Texas isn’t the only state where politicians need to choose between hanging together and hanging separately. California Republicans detest Democratic Governor Gray Davis, and they’re torn between working with him to pass a budget — the deadline went by last week — or throwing all their weight behind kicking him out of office. Republicans have been pushing a recall petition, an odd quirk of California politics. If 900,000 voters, or less than 3% of the population, sign the recall, a special election will be held in which the entire state decides whether to remove Davis from his seat. The second question on the ballot is who would replace him.

Has Davis done a good job in office? Absolutely not. A year ago it was easy to say he was just struggling with the same budget problems facing every governor; but since then he has mishandled every move he’s made. But what kind of precedent is set when a governor can be defrocked a year into his term? If Davis is replaced, Democrats could spend the next three years launching constant recall efforts against Gov. Schwarzenegger. There will be no incentive to sit down and work with the guy in office.

The Holiday Inn in Ardmore, Oklahoma need not bother reserving a block of rooms for the Texas Democrats this time; they’re not planning on hiding for an entire month. (Perry could just call another session anyway.) But the redistricting bill may not pass. Lt. Governor David Dewhurst, the Republican who presides over the state Senate, isn’t as eager as the rest of his party to pass the bill. He sees a lot of problems like school funding and the state’s budget woes that will be harder to solve next year if Republicans shove redistricting down the Democrats’ throats. Both parties should remember: Politics is about winning today, governing is about working for the future.