In a recent post I related the four primary tools in the gerrymanderer’s toolkit, as defined in an informative Propublica piece: Kidnapping, Cracking, Packing and Hijacking. Astonishingly, all four of these tactics have been employed against a single congressman, Lloyd Doggett, an exasperatingly liberal Democrat from deep in heart of blustering, bullying Republican Texas. Doggett’s decade-long dodging of Republican’s obsessive cartographic attempts to politically obliterate him remind me of those old Wile E. Coyote and Roadrunner cartoons I used to love as a kid.
Doggett’s tale begins serenely enough in 1994, when he was elected to the Texas 10th CD, which had represented Austin for close to a century. The 10th had been held by a Democrat for decades, having once been Lyndon Johnson’s district early in his career.
In 2003, Texas Republicans developed the novel theory that, though redistricting was only mandatory every decade, it could be done anytime, especially when there were opportunities to lock in Republicans for a generation. So they began Cracking liberal Austin for the first time, dividing it among 3 districts. Doggett still lived in the newly-drawn 10th (shown in red below), but now the district spanned from Austin’s Republican-leaning northern suburbs to Houston’s Republican-leaning western suburbs. Most of Doggett’s previous support had been Kidnapped to the 25th District (shown in yellow below). The 25th — evocatively dubbed the Fajita Strip by Texas political wags — was one of 4 parallel districts that appeared to be taking a tasty nibble of urban voters before making an unseemly dash across Latino southern Texas to the Mexican border. Despite his being forced to move, Doggett won in the 25th in 2004.
The tale took an unexpected twist in 2006, when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the 23rd district (in pink above) was illegally drawn — on the basis that Latino voters in the district were being disenfranchised — and eyeing skeptically the lack of compactness in Doggett’s Fajita strip that had the effect of Packing far-flung Latinos into the same district. The ruling resulted in forcing five South Texas districts to be redrawn. Doggett regained more of his Austin-centered constituency, winning handily in 2006 and 2008 but just eking out victory in a close race in 2010.
Ahead of the 2012 elections, Republicans Cracked Doggett’s Austin stomping ground once again, into five districts this time, and left him residing in a heavily Republican district. But he lived only a few blocks from the new 35th District shown in yellow above, that spanned the urbanizing corridor between Austin’s southern suburbs and San Antonio, and was Packed with Democratic votes. So in 2012, Doggett was confronting Kidnapping, Packing, Cracking… AND Hijacking, because the 35th district bridging Austin and San Antonio was also home to Joaquin Castro, an attractive rising Latino Democrat. Assuming Doggett’s only way out was to move to the 35th (prompting his remark that he would live in a Winnebago if necessary to run in the 35th), Wile E. Republicans seemed to have forced a situation where one of the two popular Democrats would have to lose.
Doggett’s current 35th district along I-35 between Austin and San Antonio, perfect for a Winnebago residence.
Doggett and Castro wriggled out of the trap (Beep! Beep!), but not without offering a glimpse into the cynical “bipartisan” deal-making that gerrymandering enables. Doggett darkly but plausibly implied that Castro and Republicans were conniving together to reward Castro a safe seat at Doggett’s expense. The situation threatened to become a Democrat’s nightmare and a Republican’s fantasy, but a safety valve conveniently appeared when Henry Gonzales, longtime Democratic Congressman in the reliably Democratic 20th District (shown in red above) announced his retirement. Castro moved to the 20th, Doggett took the 35th, and both were elected to the 113th Congress.
Why was all of this necessary, though? And how was any of it helpful in representing the interests of Texans in Washington? If some form of hands-off redistricting had been in place the last 10 years in Texas, the self-dealing that inspires cynicism would have been absent, federal judges would not be ruminating on the merits and demerits of “Latino” or “White Democrat” or “Republican” Congressional Districts, and we would have been spared the stories of Texas Democratic legislators fleeing the state rather than accepting Republican-gerrymandered districts.
I’m not sure if Lloyd Doggett would have survived in Congress all this time, or that he deserves a seat in Congress. But if hands-off redistricting had been in place, and if he had been able to hold onto office, it would be because he was assiduous in representing a fairly-drawn region of diverse voters.