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November 21, 2006

Press Contact: Kirston Fortune, Assistant Dean for Communications, (512) 471.7330 or kfortune@law.utexas.edu.

Web Editor's Note: The following op-ed appeared in the Austin American-Statesman on Friday, Nov. 17, 2006. It is reprinted with the author's permission. Several other Texas newspapers also published this op-ed with different headlines. Those newspapers included the Houston Chronicle, Lubbock Avalanche Journal, Waco Tribune, Beaumont Enterprise, and San Angelo Standard Times.

Photo of Prof. Bickerstaff
Prof. Steve Bickerstaff

COMMENTARY – Bickerstaff: Delay's short-sightedness casts a long shadow

Steve Bickerstaff, LOCAL CONTRIBUTOR
Friday, November 17, 2006

When he delivered his farewell speech on the floor of the U.S. House of Representatives on June 12, the formerly powerful Rep. Tom DeLay was an insecure, pitiable figure. He evoked the names of former Presidents Reagan, Lincoln and Washington in a futile search for a worthwhile legacy for himself at the national level.

DeLay left a legacy in Texas. It is not worthwhile. DeLay's successful effort to enhance Republican interests through redistricting in 2003 was perhaps justified on a partisan basis. However, it was damaging to this state and our representation in Congress.

A state is advantaged by having representatives who, because of their years of service (i.e. seniority) in Congress, are eligible for positions of power within the congressional infrastructure (e.g. committee chairmen) or a political party's leadership. The Texas Legislature had pursued this judicially approved objective (for Republican and Democratic incumbents) with every congressional redistricting for at least 40 years through 2001.

This changed in 2003. DeLay targeted the 10 Anglo Democratic congressmen from Texas for defeat. He wanted to draw congressional districts in which none of these Democrats could win re-election. These Democrats had a total of 138 years of seniority in Congress and were the ranking Democrats on several important committees (Agriculture, Homeland Security, Rules). Even some Republicans complained about what DeLay was doing. Kevin McMahon, who chaired the Chamber of Commerce in the Republican stronghold of Lubbock in 2003, observed, "To get rid of seasoned legislators just so we can get some freshmen Republicans, I don't think that's good for Texas."

DeLay was unconcerned by such opposition or the state's loss of experience and seniority. He explained, "They (the Democratic incumbents) may look at themselves as important. I look at them as rather irrelevant" because they did not vote with the Republican congressional leadership. The DeLay-led redistricting in 2003 drew districts (often bizarre in appearance) designed to defeat each of these incumbent Democrats. Seven Anglo Democrats and a combined 102 years of congressional seniority (including Rep. Ralph Hall, who switched to the Republican Party) were lost as a result.

Several of these defeated Democratic congressmen would likely have become chairmen of important House committees in the 2007 Congress (Martin Frost of the Rules Committee, Charles Stenholm of the Agriculture Committee and Jim Turner of the Homeland Security Committee) if they had not been gerrymandered out of Congress.

Some targeted Democrats, such as Chet Edwards of Waco and Lloyd Doggett of Austin, survived DeLay's efforts. Other Democrats from heavily minority areas of the state continued in Congress and, ironically, DeLay's own alleged misdeeds led to the election in 2006 of a Democrat (Nick Lampson) to DeLay's previous congressional seat. These survivors can be expected to provide Texas a voice in the new Democratic-controlled Congress, but much influence and many important committee chairmanships have been lost to our state because of DeLay's partisan blindness in 2003.

A second priority for DeLay in 2003 was to draw districts that advantaged conservative Republicans by lessening the possibility that moderate or independent Republicans could be nominated in the Republican primary or elected to Congress from Texas. As with his goal of defeating Anglo Democrats, DeLay's objective of distorting district boundaries to favor pockets of conservative Republicans was largely attained.

DeLay, aided by the Republican leadership of this state, put the short-sighted, partisan interests of one segment of the Republican Party above the long-term interests of Texans. He was wrong in doing so. Texans will pay a regrettable price for at least the remainder of this decade. There is no legitimate role for such blind, ruthless partisanship (Republican or Democratic) in good government at the state or federal level. DeLay left a sad legacy for Texas and America.

Bickerstaff, an adjunct professor at the University of Texas School of Law, wrote "Lines in the Sand," about the 2003 redistricting in Texas. The new book will be published in February 2007 by University of Texas Press.