This morning my friend Andrea and I spent two hours at the House redistricting committee's public meeting. We knew it was going to be wild before we got there, and we were not disappointed. When we arrived at 8:45, the parking lot outside the Rod Paige Auditorium at Texas Southern University was already full. We were directed to a satellite lot a block away. As we milled about the foyer before we were seated, it was obvious that despite efforts from both parties to rally the troops, Democrats far outnumbered Republicans. A reporter from News24 Houston asked us if we were Republicans. When we told her no, she said that she hadn't found any yet. There were a few there, but I'd estimate the crowd was more than 95% Democrat. (There were also a couple of LaRouchies there, passing out literature and making a nuisance of themselves.)
The hearing itself started an hour late. There was a form that you had to fill out if you wanted to testify. For some odd reason, photocopied or faxed versions of this form were unacceptable. I'm not talking about forms on which the signature was not original, I mean any blank form that had been copied or faxed had to be redone even if it bore a genuine autograph. A lot of time was wasted while people redid their forms.
The panel was chaired by Rep. Geanie Morrison (R, Victoria). Members included Phil King (R, Weatherford), who was the author of the House redistricting bill that was killed by the Ardmore walkout, Ron Wilson, Sylvester Turner, Rick Noriega (all D, Houston), Robert Talton (R, Pasadena), Vilma Luna (D, Corpus Christi), Martha Wong (R, Houston), and a couple more whose names I did not catch. Morrison solicited and received a motion to limit testimony to five minutes per person due to the number of people present (all seats were taken, and folding chairs were brought in to handle the overflow), which was passed without comment. She also asked the audience to please refrain from making noise, as the proceedings were being recorded and transcribed. She may as well have asked everyone to suck their thumbs throughout, as events transpired. Two translators, one Spanish and one Vietnamese, were introduced and announced their availability for anyone who might need them.
First to speak were the members of Congress who were present. Gene Green and Chris Bell declined to testify. They requested instead that written reports they'd prepared be entered into the record, and they said that they opposed redistricting. Sheila Jackson Lee was the first to actually speak on the record, though she took only about a minute. Her statement welcoming the committee members to "the current 18th district" drew loud applause. When she finished her brief remarks, Ron Wilson started asking her questions, and that's when things started to get interesting.
Wilson, who did not walk out and who has been supportive of redistricting and critical of his fellow Democrats, noted that the current plan would make it easier for black candidates to win certain districts, such as the 9th CD, currently held by Nick Lampson. Under the DeLay/Weatherford plan, the 9th would include large swaths of east Houston and would be a "minority opportunity" district. In particular, it would be a district Ron Wilson could win. This was never explicitly said, but it was crystal clear from Wilson's questions that this was on his mind. he asked Jackson Lee if she favored or opposed increasing the number of minority Congress members from Texas.
Jackson Lee responded by saying that it was more important to her that the interests of minorities be represented. She noted that most Texas Congressional Democrats score 85-95% on the NAACP's report card. Even Ralph Hall, the most conservative member of the delegation, scored 47%. By contrast, the highest scoring Republican got a 33%. It makes no sense, she said, to trade a bunch of high scoring Democrats of any color for a bunch of Republicans who'd score 20% or less. She also referred to Nelson Wolff's statement that Rep. Henry Bonilla, the one minority GOP Congress member, would be in danger of losing his seat under the new map.
Wilson followed up by pressing his argument that it's better to have minority Congress members representing minority constituents rather than having white Congress members in districts that may or may not eventually elect a minority candidate. At one point, as Jackson Lee kept rebuffing his logic, he asked if she'd be willing to have her district split into two smaller ones that white Democrats would win. She refused to take the bait and stayed more or less on message.
Next up were the state representatives. Most of them declined to testify. The two who did were Joe Deshotel (D, Beaumont) and Garnet Coleman (D, Houston). Deshotel echoed a theme also heard in places like Austin and Abilene, which is that the proposed map effectively eliminates representation from his home town. He noted that the 9th CD, which elected a Republican in 1994 and which voted 53% for Perry and Cornyn in 2002, would have 150,000 voters in Beaumont and 500,000 in Houston if the plan went through, meaning that the representative would almost assuredly not be from Beaumont. He also stated that the 9th as it now stands is a minority opportunity district but that no such candidates have chosen to run because they're satisfied with Lampson.
Wilson took a crack at Deshotel as well, basically asking him the same questions as he did Jackson Lee. Deshotel said that he'd happily support a map that created a new black district, as long as that was all it did. He refused to accept trading seven Democrats for one new black district, likening it to trading seven All Star players for one Shaquille O'Neil.
It was when Garnet Coleman got up to speak that the real fireworks started. Coleman played to the crowd, calling the plan "Republican affirmative action", blaming Tom DeLay by name, and referring to the Ardmore walkout, all of which drew cheers and pleas from Morrison to the crowd to not make the court reporter's job any harder. He pounded on the fact that a mid-decade attempt to redistrict that wasn't ordered by a federal court was unprecedented. After a few minutes of this, Coleman pointed his rhetoric squarely at Wilson, saying "We're disappointed in you, Ron".
Well. At that point, I lost the ability to hear what was going on, between the roar of the crowd and Wilson's angry response. The two bickered loudly for several minutes before Geanie Morrison finally intervened by recognizing Sylvester Turner, who tried to play peacemaker. Coleman was pretty much finished at that point anyway, and he yielded the podium.
That was it for the elected officials, and that was when we left. The hearing was scheduled to run until 8 PM, with a two hour break for lunch at 1. The Chronicle story captures a little bit of what happened, but not much. According to a flyer I saw, there will be a Senate committee hearing on Wednesday at 1 PM at Cesar Chavez High School. I'll have to depend on the Chron report for that one, as I'll be at work. As Byron notes, there were hearings elsewhere today, and there was some pre-hearing drama in Dallas. I look forward to reading his report as well.
UPDATE: This updated story has some of the exchange between Coleman and Wilson:
The heat flared up between Coleman and Wilson when Coleman said, "I'm disappointed in you, Ron," and Wilson replied similarly.
Wilson accused Coleman of putting the interests of the Democratic Party ahead of blacks, noting that he has taken money from the party as a Houston political consultant. Last fall, Coleman helped coordinate a get-out-the-vote effort in Harris County.
That prompted Coleman to point out that Wilson, a Houston lawyer, drove a 2000 Lamborghini to the hearing.
"That's why you're shilling for the Republicans," Coleman screamed at Wilson, causing many in the crowd to start chanting "sell out."
"Well," Wilson yelled back, "I don't make my money running campaigns."