Slicing the Map

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Despite the dramatic change in the local political landscape, on the streets of downtown Austin, gerrymandering isn't exactly a word, which falls trippingly off the tongue.

Many don't even know the term. "Gerrymandering. I don't know him. I have no idea who that is," says one person.

"Um, I'm not quite familiar with that," says another.

One man's response to 'gerrymandering' is: "Nice to meet you, Jerry. How are you?"

But then, this is the epicentre of Texan politics, and soon we meet people who aren't short of an opinion or two.

"Well, I don't like it," says one woman, "because that's what the Republicans have done to us, especially down in our district."

A man next to her adds his thoughts. "Down in our district, they're trying to get rid of our real senator and favor a Republican dip, because he's got a lot of money."

The woman continues, "And they've gerrymandered the whole district to fit their needs, where they wanted it to be."

So are they totally opposed to it?

"Um-hmm," says the woman, "unless it's in my favor." She laughs. "Then I'm okay with it. But this one wasn't."

One man takes a larger view of the problem. "Democrats, Republicans, they all gerrymander, and it's part of the process. Strategically, over time, you know, we all beat each other up, and it works out to the betterment of the people."

That may have been the perception in the past, but this time round many Democrats claim there was interference from the highest levels of the Republican party. Bitter accusations abound that the Texas gerrymander was engineered, not in the air-conditioned backrooms of the state capitol, but 1,500 miles away in Washington D.C., by Tom DeLay, the hugely influential Republican House Majority Leader. The argument goes that DeLay, who's from Texas, wanted to ensure a rock solid Republican majority in the U.S. House, as well as retain his own job. And gerrymandering Texas was the best way to achieve that.

"As this process moved along in 2003, of redrawing these lines in this very unorthodox and oddly-timed way, every time the train was about to go off the rails, DeLay, personally, would fly from Washington to Austin to basically twist the arms of the state legislators on the Republican side and get them back on track," says Samuel Hirschm, a Washington attorney who represents the Democrats in redistricting cases. "Because every time a Republican state legislator tried to do what was right for his community, as opposed to what was right for Tom DeLay, he got his arm broken. He's a very powerful guy; he's a very determined guy. He's a very effective politician, and he's very unprincipled. And he basically, in my view, coerced the state legislators into doing something that was almost unheard of in modern American history, which is to redraw a perfectly lawful map for no reason other than partisan maximisation."

Tom DeLay's office declined repeated requests for a response. However, Republican Texas House Member Phil King sees nothing wrong with partisan maximisation. He says his ultimate goal was to block a Democrat majority in the U.S. House.

"If you have a Democrat majority in the U.S. House," says King, "you have a Democrat speaker in the U.S. House. If you have a Democrat speaker in the U.S. House, you have a very liberal group of committee chairs that will be defining public policy out of that body. It was very important to me to make sure that our president from Texas, George Bush, had a Republican House to work with him on his agenda in his second term."

So by insulating their majority against any possible swing in the U.S. House, the Republicans get to set the legislative agenda and keep the Democrats on the sidelines.

Go to part 4

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