Tuesday, November 29, 2022 Nov 29, 2022
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After the 1990 census, Dallas’s Fifth Congressional District will be a battleground for warring politicos.

Like a Rorschach nightmare, Texas’s Fifth Congressional District, which is represented by Democrat John Bryant, forty-one, snakes and sprawls through all or parts of downtown Dallas, Oak Lawn, South Dallas, East Dallas, Lakewood, Casa Linda/Casa View, Pleasant Grove, Irving, Lancaster, Seagoville, Balch Springs, Wilmer-Hutchins, Mesquite, and Garland. The Fifth is “Dallas’s white working-class district,” according to the Almanac of American Politics, the bible for politicos. But the Fifth also contains growing numbers of blacks (about 20 percent) and a healthy dollop of Hispanics (about 10 percent).

In short, the Fifth looks like prime Democratic territory. Bryant is expected to win his fourth term this month, and. given his reliable base of support and a great assignment-for a Texan- on the House Energy and Commerce Committee, the congressman should be planning on a long political career spent building seniority and influence.

But 1990 is approaching, and Bryant is anything but complacent. In fact, the Fifth is a hotbed of political jockeying because of the persistent rumors that Bryant will not run again in 1990. The reason? Redistricting, a once-a-decade process (following each national census) that will probably transform the Fifth into a solidly minority district, or stretch its confines to include many more Republicans. Bryant sees the writing on the wall, insiders say. “’In any scenario, the present Fifth District disappears as Democratic in 1992,” says Gregg Cooke, former president of the Dallas Democratic Forum.

Redistricting is always a dogfight within and among states. By law, congressional district lines must be drawn to create districts of approximately equal population (about 520,000 in 1980). But following the unwritten law of politics-thou shall always maximize thy advantage-the lines are usually manipulated by the party holding power in the state legislature to protect incumbents. That’s called “gerrymandering”-the art of creating oddly configured districts, like the Fifth, that contain plenty of friendly voters and as few of the enemy as possible.

In the hit film Who Framed Roger Rabbit, a sultry cartoon vixen sexily protests, “I’m not bad; I’m just drawn that way.” Similarly, Republicans have lamented for almost a decade that the Fifth is not Democratic; it was just drawn that way. And after 1990, depending on who holds the reins in the state legislature, the Fifth will be drawn another way. Whether that means a black Democrat (like county commissioner John Wiley Price) or a white Republican (like City Council member Jerry Rucker) will represent the Fifth, only time will tell.

To understand the crazy configuration of the Fifth requires an appreciation of the political axiom that “it’s not over till the fat legislator squeals.” In other words, the Fifth District has been through plenty of kneading and contorting before.

In the early Eighties, during the last wave of redistricting, the Fifth was represented by Jim Mattox, now Texas’s attorney general. Characteristically, Mattox had alienated a goodly portion of the state legislature, which, also characteristically, decided to fix Mattox’s wagon by fixing his district. If Mattox is so smart, they said, let’s see him get elected after we dump several thousand new Republicans into his bailiwick.

Mattox took a look at the initial boundaries proposed by the legislature in 1981 and quickly inferred that his days were numbered. The “new” Fifth looked promising for a Republican like Steve Bartlett, who soon threw his hat in the ring. So Mattox bailed out of the race to seek a more winnable contest.

But Mattox may have leaped too soon. The legislature’s actions brought a flood of protests and legal challenges from minorities and others who claimed that the new lines violated the Voting Rights Act by diluting minority voting strength. Meanwhile, the legislature’s plan had gone to the Justice Department, which must clear any new apportionment plan in the South due to the region’s history of racial discrimination.

As the 1982 elections approached, however, the Justice Department still had not approved the plan, objecting that the new system was not fair to minorities. So a three-judge federal panel essentially redrew the redrawn lines, by and large hewing to the legislature’s wishes except where Dallas County was involved. The legislature’s version of the Fifth would have made it a “swing” district, but the judges’ decision returned the district to the Democratic fold.

It was a classic case of gerrymandering at its worst or best, depending on your affiliation. The heavily Democratic state legislature thwarted the Republicans through “cluster dilution.” Every Dallas Republican within reach was shepherded into the Third, which became an overwhelmingly Republican district, in order to diminish GOP inroads in the Fifth.

Mattox was not the only one who was dislocated. Obviously, the new shuffle left Steve Bartlett out in the cold as well. With the stroke of a judge’s pen, Bartlett was no longer even a resident of the Fifth District; his home was now in the Third, where Kay Bailey Hutchison was the favorite to replace Jim Collins, who was trying a kamikaze run for the Senate against Lloyd Bentsen. So two strong Republicans, left with only one district between them, were pitted against each other in the primary. Hutchison finished first but failed to win a majority, forcing a runoff. Bartlett won in a squeaker and has represented the district since.

“You cannot look at Dallas County and say it’s fair to have two Democrats [Bryant and Martin Frost of the Twenty-fourth] and one Republican (Bartlett) representing us in Congress,” declares Hutchison. Nor are Republicans the only ones with bitter memories of the gerrymandering tussle. Dallas remains the largest metropolitan area in America without a black or Hispanic in Congress. But the judges’ final plan left blacks and Hispanics scattered among several districts, mainly the Fifth and Twenty-fourth. Ironically, the Republicans sided with black Democrats to support the creation of a minority district, because such a district would have siphoned blacks from the Fifth and boosted Republican fortunes in that district.

Both parties admit that a black district is long overdue in Dallas, and the odds are overwhelming that just such a district will be forged after the 1990 census. Even if the pols ignore justice and fairness, blacks are more numerous and more politically potent now than in the early Eighties. And if state Senator Eddie Bernice Johnson is still in the Texas Senate when the lines are redrawn in 1991, she will have a strong hand in the process.

But the Dallas delegation to Washington could change in another way. Many observers believe that a wholly new minority district may be created by taking large numbers of blacks from the current Fifth and the Twenty-fourth. Contenders for such a seat would of course include Johnson and Price.

If the Fifth is shorn of most of its blacks. Republican county chairman Tom James foresees the district becoming Republican. That’s why John Bryant is strongly considering giving up the seat after his next term and making a run for state attorney general. Of course, he has not formally announced any plans for 1990, which would be impolitic during a 1988 race. But everyone knows that the victor in 1990 may see his or her district change radically before 1992. And the race could easily cost the winner a million dollars. Given those dangers, who might represent the Fifth in 1990?

“Whoever runs for the seat in 1990 must realize that they’re going into a two-year scenario,” says Ken Molberg, a member of the state Democratic Executive Committee. Undaunted by the uncertain future of the Fifth, Molberg says it’s “a pretty good bet” that he’ll run for the seat. Other potential Democratic candidates include state Representatives David Cain and Al Granoff; attorneys Kathryn Cain and Rick Lannen; Democratic county chair Sandy Kress; City Council member Lori Palmer; and John Pouland, an aide to Bryant.

On the Republican side, the Mentioners are listing people like Jerry Rucker; District Judge Catherine Crier; Tom Carter, who ran against Bryant in 1986; and Lon Williams, Bryant’s opponent this time around. Williams should be the sentimental favorite if he runs well against Bryant this year. Whatever the results, one thing is certain: the change that should have come to the Fifth in 1981 will not be sidetracked in the Nineties.

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