How Much Is Too Much?

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Independent Commissions

Nathaniel Persily, professor of law at Pennsylvania University, talks his students through the finer points of congressional map redrawing. "Four thousand eight hundred twenty-two. This is set up as a marginal Democratic district, right? You look at it and it's either Hispanic Democrat, because you look at 4822 and it's about 60% Hispanic. Right? About 10-9% African American. You're going to take the Republican suburbs and throw them into the district of a Democratic incumbent. You've learned something from Tom DeLay."

Persily says there's no broad tradition of independent commissions in American politics. In fact, they're viewed with suspicion. "In other countries, the idea of an independent commission works. So that in Britain and in Canada, and, I think to a lesser degree, in Australia, you have independent boundary commissions that draw lines. And Iowa, like these other countries, has a tradition of non-partisan civil servants who have the respect of political parties and are pretty much left to do what they want. But there's nothing about the Iowa system which is easily transferable to other states. What happens in Iowa, the head of the legislative services council, serves at the pleasure of the speaker of the House of Representatives. And I can tell you, if you take that institutional form and put him in New York, that person's job wouldn't be there for more than a week. The first person to say, 'Look, I'd like to draw a non-partisan redistricting plan for New York,' would be shipped off to Connecticut pretty quickly."

Texas Republican Phil King comes down firmly against independent commissions at state level. After all, he argues, politicians are public servants and can therefore be held accountable.

"We're a citizen's legislature," says King. "Nobody's doing this for the money. The idea is that we send people to Austin to represent the needs of my community. If I don't handle redistricting the way they want, then they have the power to vote me out of office for going against their will. If you give this authority to a commission, then you take away the authority of the voters to be a part of that process. And as long as we have the legislature doing the redistricting process, if the voters don't like what we're doing, they can vote us out and put in somebody that does what they want. If we give it over to a commission, we remove the electorate's influence on redistricting."

It's the early hours of November 3, 2004. In District 32 of Dallas-Fort Worth, the people have spoken. After a bruising campaign, in which both sides hemorrhaged cash, Democratic Congressman Martin Frost concedes defeat. His opponent Pete Sessions won 55 % of the vote to his 45%.

Frost speaks to the crowd. "The fight that we put together, the campaign that we put together, in this district in this year, against all odds, I believe will set an example for future Democrats who want to run in Dallas County and who want to run in the state of Texas, because I believe that the tide - the long-term tide - is on our side."

Radiating defiance, after 26 years of continuous service, the senior member of Congress from Texas, bids an emotional farewell to his supporters to prepare for a life beyond fundraising, lobbyists and the D.C. Beltway.

"This was a race that I couldn't win," Frost continues. "We sure as hell tried. This was a very tough district for a Democrat, and I did well as a Democrat running in a district that was drawn for Republicans. I congratulate my opponent on a hard-fought campaign."

Frosts' campaign team wastes no time in blaming their political foes. They say, unequivocally, that Republican gerrymandering did their man in. All over the state, the news for Texas Democrats is bad. Their congressional delegation has withered from 17 to 15 seats in their favor to 21/11 split in favor of the Republicans. Four of the five targeted Democrats lost their seats. Frost campaign chairman Mark Stanley cries foul.

"It is a blatant manipulation," says Stanley, "and it achieved its intended purpose. It eliminated effective, good people from Congress. And it's insane, in my view, to eliminate a guy like Martin Frost, who's had the seniority and the clout and the effectiveness in Congress. It's sad for the people of this region."

As one of the architects of the 2003 plan, State Representative Phil King is satisfied with the outcome and shrugs off suggestions that his new map has eliminated competition.

"It's quite the opposite," says King. "But for Texas redistricting, there would have been no competitive seats up in this election cycle in Texas. All 32 would have been decided before the voters went to the polls. As it was, we had seven or eight competitive seats. We had changes in a number of those. So, but for our redistricting, there would have been no competition."

Go to part 3

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