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Sports and the Texas Redistricting Battle

Rep. Joe Barton, R-Arlington, addresses BP chief executive Tony Hayward at an oil spill hearing in Washington.
Image courtesy YouTube
Rep. Joe Barton, R-Arlington, addresses BP chief executive Tony Hayward at an oil spill hearing in Washington.

Political redistricting is for real nerds, for those sometimes overly serious people who have spent a great deal of time learning and thinking about something that’s outside the day-to-day experience or interest of the rest of us.

For the political lawyers, the subject comes with layers of statutes and case law and the certainty that one or more cases will go all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court.

That’s nerd heaven, you know: dense, complicated, both dull and important and loaded with the chance to get the public’s full attention, if only for a second, every 10 years.

Political people get their bite, too. Politicians drawing maps are picking their voters — drawing this line to bring in a friend, and that one to exclude an enemy. They can draw rival candidates right out of their races, or stick their foes with opponents who can knock them off.

Election officials come to the maps like police officers watching changes to the penal code. They just want to know what the law is so they can get back to work. It’s their job to interrupt the nerds when the changes become impractical, like trying to put a map in place for an election that’s only a month away.

It’s a classic insider’s game.

That’s why it was such a relief to see the state’s attorney general and one of its senior congressmen barking at each other over Cowboys Stadium and Rangers Ballpark in Arlington, which sits next to it.

Finally, someone doing what a normal person might do in this situation: “Hey, as long as you’re fooling with that map, how about giving me something cool, like a stadium or an airport or a neighborhood with a bunch of rich people in it?”

Joe Barton, R-Ennis, was elected to Congress in 1984, a beneficiary of the landslide that gave Ronald Reagan a second term in the White House, and has served without a break since then.

His current district includes the two attractions, which sit alongside a stretch of highway that also includes the Six Flags Over Texas amusement park. And those attractions are the darlings for which he’s been fighting during the negotiations over the political maps.

He irritated Attorney General Greg Abbott, who has been trying to get compromise maps out of a band of litigants whose interests include politics, minority voters’ rights and prompt primary elections.

In a conference call talking about maps that had the approval of some of the plaintiffs and of the state of Texas, Abbott called out Barton, saying the congressman’s efforts don’t appear to be of any concern to the judges in the case and don’t involve any of the legal issues he’s trying to resolve.

That earned a reply from Barton, who said he was still looking at the maps and hadn’t decided whether he would support them. In a written statement, he didn’t exactly run away from the accusation, saying that Cowboys Stadium is in his district, that he would like to keep it there and that he hadn’t talked to Abbott about it.

It’s not unusual to ask for things like this. Rep. Lamar Smith, R-San Antonio, wanted the San Antonio Country Club pulled into his district. Congresswoman Sheila Jackson Lee, D-Houston, hit the fan when the cartographers took downtown Houston out of her district. Some were prosaic: Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson, D-Dallas, asked the state to draw her new congressional district so that it at least included her congressional district office.

Barton has other reasons to worry about the maps. In his current district, John McCain won 59.6 percent in the 2008 presidential race. Abbott’s map shaves that to 57 percent — not dramatic, but shaved just the same. And it includes a growing Latino population that, if current voting trends continue, could shift the district toward the Democrats over the next decade.

It’s a tense time. The three federal judges hearing the case will meet again Feb. 15 in their effort to pull maps together and finally set a Texas primary date for this year. Candidates, like the rest of us, are looking for a little certainty.

Maybe Barton just needs a place to relax. Like a ballpark.


Ross Ramsey is managing editor of The Texas Tribune and continues as editor of Texas Weekly, the premier newsletter on government and politics in the Lone Star State, a role he's had since September 1998. Texas Weekly was a print-only journal when he took the reins in 1998; he switched it to a subscription-based, internet-only journal by the end of 2004 without a significant loss in subscribers. As Texas Weekly's primary writer for 11 years, he turned out roughly 2 million words in more than 500 editions, added an online library of resources and documents and items of interest to insiders, and a daily news clipping service that links to stories from papers across Texas. Before joining Texas Weekly in September 1998, Ramsey was associate deputy comptroller for policy with the Texas Comptroller of Public Accounts, also working as the agency's director of communications. Prior to that 28-month stint in government, Ramsey spent 17 years in journalism, reporting for the Houston Chronicle from its Austin bureau and for the Dallas Times Herald, first on the business desk in Dallas and later as the paper's Austin bureau chief. Prior to that, as a Dallas-based freelance business writer, he wrote for regional and national magazines and newspapers. Ramsey got his start in journalism in broadcasting, working for almost seven years covering news for radio stations in Denton and Dallas.
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