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The Redistricting Score

Dallas’ congressional front four are fighting to hold that line

CONGRESSMAN JIM MATTOX stood, brow furrowed, just outside the Texas Senate chambers. It was two weeks before the end of the legislative session, and it looked for the world like Mattox’s rather tumultuous political career might have about that much time left also. As he glared owlishly at a crowd of reporters through his thick aviator glasses, he compared his experience with the Texas Legislature’s efforts to redistrict the state’s congressional districts to trying to grab a snake without getting bitten.

You either grab it by the head, he explained, or you grab it by the tail and try to pop its head off before it bites you. But this time, Mattox said, he seemed to keep grabbing the snake directly in the middle. And Jim Mattox was getting bitten.

To say that Mattox, the fiery liberal Democrat from East Dallas, was fighting for his political career would be like saying that the sun comes up every morning. But in this case, it might be more applicable to think of the sun going down. That’s what Mattox perceived to be happening with regard to his congressional future.

To Mattox, it seemed like it should be pretty simple, this business of congressional redistricting. After all, population gains shown by the 1980 Census meant that Texas was going to get three new congressmen in 1982, bringing the total to 27. And everybody knows that despite all that sanctimonious drivel about how redistricting is simply to make legislative representation fit our nation’s changing population patterns, the real priority when legislators sit down to redraw districts is to protect incumbents. With three new districts to play with, it should be child’s play to cut those districts so that Mattox and the rest of his House colleagues can quit standing around the halls of the legislature, wondering what may happen to their districts, and get back to Washington to write new laws and spend more money.

CHARLES WILSON, Mattox’s Democratic colleague from Lufkin, sat on the sidelines of the Texas Senate with Mattox seated nearby. Both men are former members of the legislature, Mattox having served four years in the House, and Wilson more than a decade in both the House and Senate.

“It’s a thin line to walk,” Wilson explained of congressmen approaching the legislators about redistricting. “Because, on the one hand, you don’t want ’em to think you’re being obtrusive. On the other hand, you don’t want ’em to think you’re not interested.

“If they could work Dallas out,” he said, “I suppose the rest of the state wouldn’t be so complicated.”

“Dallas ain’t hard to work out,” snorted Mattox, who was listening to everything.

Wilson looked down his long nose, barely concealing his humor at the political swamp in which Mattox has found himself. “I suppose that depends on your perspective,” Wilson said.

Yes, Mattox agreed. There was a bill from the House and a bill from the Senate, each of which allocated the new and old congressional districts.

“Both bills,” Mattox said, “create three new Republican districts, including mine.”

Yes, it’s a problem. Poor old Jim made few establishment friends on his free spending, quick-tempered tour through the Texas House, and he hasn’t added many since he was elected to Congress in 1976. He has twice been reelected to his seat with majorities so thin that a hiccup by an election judge would have beaten him.

Now he’s caught up in that process that happens every 10 years, after the census results come in: the redrawing of new boundaries by the legislature for its own districts and the drawing up of new lines for congressional districts. It is a time when old debts are paid off and vendettas are settled, when powerful incumbents marshal the economic and political forces behind them, and when those assuming no particular power base and possessing a lot of enemies suddenly find themselves up to their armpits in alligators.

It is at this stage that you hear people like Mattox, a political pauper, use phrases like “protect the integrity of the Fifth District.” That really means, “Let me keep more than a majority of those people who had the good sense to send me to Congress in the first place.” It is during the redistricting process that creative thinking comes in, as the powerful incumbents take their bites of the redistricting pie first, while the slower, thinner runts must content themselves with dividing up what’s left. And as the veteran analysts study the political stars, they know quickly what the formation of various political constellations will do to the fortunes of individuals. More importantly, they know what will happen to the political parties, which is basically what is at stake here.

The bottom-line issue is how many new congressional seats the Republican Party can add to its larder in 1982 in hopes of switching 26 seats to take over the U.S. House of Representatives. Republicans currently hold five of Texas’ 24 seats in Congress; they believe they should come close to doubling that total in their share of the 27 seats allocated for Texas next year, three new ones due to Sunbelt growth.

Democrats, in the creative system they have followed in the past, hope to draw the districts in such a manner that Republicans are all lumped together (the popular term is “packing”) in as few solidly Republican districts as possible, while Democrats are given districts with a comfortable Democratic margin-but not too much-so there will be as many Democratic incumbents in as many districts as possible.

Standing by to thwart this traditional Democratic effort is Governor Bill Clements, the short but mean Republican who can veto any redistricting plan he doesn’t like. He is gunning for Mattox. Clements, who has a posh home in Highland Park, wants that area put into the Fifth District, and he wants Mattox (who he has termed “a disaster”) put out.

Clements isn’t particularly fond of Dallas’ other Democratic congressman, Martin Frost of the 24th District; Clements says he, too, should be replaced.

In the end, Dallas provided the standoff that kept the legislature from drawing a congressional redistricting bill during the regular legislative session that ended June 1, which is one of the reasons the governor had to call the legislature into special session July 13. And unless there has been an early settlement since this magazine went to press, the long knives are still out in Austin.

During the regular session of the Texas Legislature, the Trinity River in Dallas became something of a Holy Stream for the Democrats. The reason the Trinity River is so important is that the bulk of the black population is divided by it. Blacks in the Fair Park and East Dallas area are currently in Mattox’s Fifth District; those in South Dallas and Oak Cliff (on the other side of the Trinity), are in Frost’s 24th District. If you put all 288,000 blacks in one district (526,977 people to a district) there is a fair chance of sending a black to Congress.

Lumping the blacks in one district would also have the effect of making the other two Dallas districts Republican. While Dallas is now represented by Democrats Mattox and Frost and Republican Jim Collins of the Third District, “packing” the blacks in one district could produce one black Democrat and two white Republicans.

To Clements, the choice is obvious, even if he is ironically in league with the likes of State Representative Lanell Cofer and John Wiley Price, two outspoken (some would say shrill and loudmouthed) Democrats who fervently advocate putting every possible black into one district so a black can be elected to Congress.

To Mattox, the idea of Clements and the Republicans embracing the blacks is a tawdry spectacle.

“The Republicans have opposed every piece of civil rights legislation since Abraham Lincoln,” Mattox told one reporter on the day the regular session of the legislature ended, deadlocked over Dallas redistricting. “It’s amazing to me that all of a sudden the Republican Party is trying to cloak itself in the arms of protecting minorities, while in Washington, they’re trying to destroy the Voting Rights Act.”

Clements says he has “never related this process to my personal advantage or my party’s advantage. I’m trying to do what I think is right for the people of Texas, and that means being sure it’s fair for minorities.”

Representative Craig Washington, the black Democrat from Houston also believes that Clements is running a scam. He believes blacks are a lot better off “selecting two congressmen whose faces happen to be white,” but who are responsive to blacks, than one congressman “with a black face,” and a Republican who would vote against black interests.

“I’m concerned that we become one society,” Washington said during one meeting of the House-Senate conference committee on redistricting. “I’m prepared to take whatever political repercussions I have to take (for that position). … Anything that attempts to pack black people to insure their participation is patronizing to me … and we’ll fight it wherever we find it.”

Paul Ragsdale of Dallas, another black state representative and a member of the House redistricting committee, stayed upset about the redistricting process. One night, he encountered Representative Tim Von Dohlen of Goliad (the white conservative who heads up the redistricting committee) in the legislative watering hole, The Quorum Club. Ragsdale threatened to punch Von Dohlen’s lights out. Von Dohlen walked away.

Ragsdale was amazed that even though Democrats controlled the legislature, he kept seeing plans like the one the House voted out that he thought were too favorable to Republicans, for whom he has no use. (The House plan would have created an all-black East Dallas district and sent Mattox into retirement at the next election.) He believes they are simply using the blacks and browns. “They just don’t give a damn about anything but killing off Democrats and taking over this state.”

ALL THIS WOULD be easier for Mattox to handle if he hadn’t been in the legislature before. Among establishment figures like Clayton, Mattox is about as popular as a rabid dog. It’s not that he is ill-motivated, necessarily; legislative observers agree that much of what he did during his tenure in Austin was necessary. But Mattox’s difficulty was that he fought on virtually everything, and he always used a howitzer, even when a derringer would do.

Mattox’s tough reelection battles did nothing to win him additional friends. He once referred to two-time opponent Tom Pauken as a “young Nazi.” By 1981, Mattox had almost nothing going for him politically. He was, after all, the Democratic incumbent in a district that, if switched even minutely, would go to a Republican.

That almost by itself was enough to earn him the allegiance of Oscar Mauzy, whose Democratic partisanship is so strong he would probably turn thumbs-down on God if He were from the wrong party. Wright’s district was Mauzy’s first priority, Frost’s second (he is Mauzy’s congressman, representing Oak Cliff), and Mattox’s third.

During the 1981 session, Lieutenant Governor Bill Hobby named Mauzy one of the five senators on the conference committee, and from that vantage point, with strong help from Senators Peyton McKnight of Tyler and Tati Santiesteban of El Paso, Mauzy was able to keep the Senate firm against going with the House plan that would have axed Mattox.

This is not to say that the redistricting of Dallas was done in a vacuum; there was controversy around Houston as well, and in South Texas, where incumbent Bill Pat-man of Ganado was also under attack. It was just that the main battle was in Dallas.

Therein lies the reason why the special session of the legislature is also a Dallas family feud. On the one side of town you’ve got Governor Clements, looking south from his Highland Park estate, dead set on ridding his home county of Jim Mattox and trading him for a Republican congressman. (City Councilman Steve Bartlett and State Senator Dee Travis are both considered prime candidates for the new predominantly Republican district seat that would be created by taking the blacks out of Mattox’s district.)

On the other side of town you’ve got Oak Cliffs Senator Oscar Mauzy, adamant about fighting back the Republican onslaught, keeping all the predominantly Democratic Congressional districts intact, which means saving Mattox. (Most Democratic insiders feel that if one of their ranks has to bite the dust, it might as well be Mattox, based simply on political clout.)

Clements and Mauzy now seem engaged in that old Texas political device, the Mexican standoff. Mauzy hopes the Democrats are strong enough in the Senate to keep any bill that would favor the Republicans from ever reaching the governor’s desk. And Governor Clements, by law, can keep vetoing legislative redistricting bills until hell freezes over. And most people who know the governor’s general demeanor know that’s about how long he would be willing to veto a bill that favors the Democrats.

It was made clear rather early in the process that it would be the legislature that would draw the lines, not the congressmen. At one point, when Senator John Traeger of Seguin had proposed taking some counties out of the traditional 10th District, which Lyndon Johnson had represented, he was told that it would destroy Johnson’s old district.

“Gentlemen,” Traeger told his fellow senators, “I’m sorry that Lyndon might not like it, but he doesn’t have a vote.”

And nonetheless, Mauzy took the precaution of clearing his special session redistricting plan with the Texas congressional delegation. And the plan he introduced would allow all 24 incumbents – Democratic and Republican alike-to have a good shot at reelection.

EVEN THOUGH the congressional re-districting did not pass in the regular session, some good was done in legislative redistricting. Steve Wolens is the junior member of Dallas’ 18-member legislative delegation. The delegation must shrink to 17 or less by 1982, because Dallas’ population growth has been slower than that of the state as a whole. The House redistricting plan would have paired Wolens with Ragsdale in the same district for 1982.

But early one morning, after hours of debate on the House redistricting measure, Wolens pleaded with his colleagues to at least let him go back to Dallas with a little respect; would they please pair him with Lanell Cofer, instead of Ragsdale?

You bet they would. The plan had Rags-dale’s blessing, and shot through the House as if it were greased. Probably two-thirds of the members of the House are hoping they can say adios to Ms. Cofer.

That the governor was a factor in legislative redistricting, but not to be bowed to unduly, was made clear by Craig Washington late in the process. Washington pointed out that the new districts would stand for the next decade; Clements’ term expires in early 1983.

“We’re talking about 10 years,” Washington said. “We’re not talking about something he can live with for two years. . . It’s too important. Our job is to put it (a redistricting bill) on his desk,” he added. “We shouldn’t worry about whether he signs it.”

The matter is almost certain to go to court. Mauzy and several others have already filed a court suit concerning the new lines for the Texas House of Representatives; they would have filed suit against the Senate districts as well, except Clements vetoed that bill, which sends it to a redistricting board, which will then have to share Clements’ political heat.

For Jim Mattox, it could be a long year.

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