- The Washington Times - Monday, July 30, 2001

DALLAS — A legislative redistricting board controlled by Republicans has offered a plan to redraw Texas Senate and House districts — a plan that might gerrymander the Democrat speaker of the house out of politics.

The plan — voted into law last week — must be approved by the U.S. Justice Department. Democrats are livid and promise legal challenges. The Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund quickly announced plans to file suit, claiming the new lines did not fairly reflect Hispanic voters' rights. More than a dozen suits already have been filed.

"The Republican redistricting plans are a severe blow to the voting strength of minorities and women in Texas," said Molly Beth Malcolm, the Democratic state chairman. "They are an insult to Texas voters."

Republican leaders, including Attorney General John Cornyn, Comptroller Carole Keeton Rylander and Land Commissioner David Dewhurst, said the new plan was fair. They voted "yes," while Republican Lt. Gov. Bill Ratliff and Democratic House Speaker Pete Laney, voted "no" and pleaded for "fairness."

Mr. Cornyn, chairman of the five-member board, praised the plan, saying it would create "competitive races, which reinvigorate our politics so that the public becomes re-engaged." He said politics now was "rampant with voter apathy."

The legislature — blocked by Republicans, who knew that their party would dominate the redistricting board later by virtue of holding four of the five top offices did not act on the realignment. The House passed legislation, but the Senate did not.

The new plan, affecting more than 150 districts, could remove as many as 15 to 20 incumbent Democrats and almost certainly give the Republicans control of both state legislative bodies. Democrats now control the House 78-to-72, while the Republican Party controls the Senate 16-to-15.

The biggest apparent loser for Democrats is the House speaker, Mr. Laney, a West Texas farmer who has been in the House since 1972. Mr. Laney's district was severely carved up, placing him in a considerably different district and one in which Republicans outvoted Democrats 2-to-1 in recent elections.

Analysts say that the plan assured Republicans 88 of the 150 House seats and probably 20 of the 31 Senate spots.

State Republican leaders were elated. "Our three [legislative-redistricting board] members have justly and legally corrected the course of Texas political history," said Susan Weddington, state party chairman. "Republicans will be the governing majority in the Texas Legislature when it convenes in 2003," she added, "and the Texas House will be presided over by a Republican speaker for the first time since Reconstruction."

A GOP press release stated: "Laney's days as speaker are numbered." But Mr. Laney, attending a fund-raiser in Houston for Democratic House members last week, vowed to fight hard for another term in 2003. That brought a retort from Mrs. Weddington, who charged that the Democrats and Mr. Laney were "in denial. "

"The only decision left for Pete Laney to make," said the Republican chief, "is how Texans will remember him — as a tenured statesman who gracefully exited the stage at the appropriate time, or as a bitter, past-his-prime politician who would stop at nothing to maintain political power."

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