April 6, 2001

Hispanics seek increased representation, and Republicans are very eager to help

By Eduardo Porter
The Wall Street Journal


NEW YORK
April 2, 2001 — More than 80% of the Hispanics in Congress and in state legislatures are Democrats, so those attending a recent seminar for Latino officials took notice here when a Republican National Committee representative waltzed up to the podium and offered to help elect more of them.

"The Republican Party supports Latino efforts" to reconfigure electoral-district lines in a way that will enhance the chances for Hispanics — even Democratic Hispanics — to get elected, RNC redistricting director Tom Hofeller told the largely Democratic crowd. Then, paraphrasing 19th-century British leader Lord Palmerston, he reminded them: "There are no permanent allies and no permanent enemies — just permanent interests."

Indeed, during political redistricting — an arcane but important rite in which boundaries for voting districts are redrawn every 10 years after the release of federal census data — traditional alliances often get turned on their head. In the eyes of many Hispanic politicians, it is the Democratic Party that stands as the biggest obstacle to changing voting-district lines in their favor. Republicans, on the other hand, interested in limiting Democrats' overall electoral reach, often act as minority groups' best friends.

By law, each electoral district in a region is supposed to include roughly the same number of residents. Following each census, state legislatures receive input from minority groups and others, and then recast district lines to reflect population shifts; the census office just finished releasing its state-by-state reports on racial makeup last week.

But exactly how a district is rendered — that is, which neighborhoods are included and which are carved out — can have a huge effect on who gets elected. Mr. Hofeller says Republicans are not only willing to provide minority politicians with data, technology and technical assistance to help them draw proposed district maps, but the GOP is also willing to help them fight unfavorable plans in court.

 

Matters of self-interest

This strange-bedfellows relationship boils down, in large part, to self-interest. Many incumbent white Democrats like to have minorities in their districts because Latinos and African-Americans tend to vote heavily Democratic. But these incumbents don't want to see their districts reshaped in ways that concentrate too many minorities there, lest they wind up getting drummed out of office by minority challengers.

White Democrats "don't want safe territory taken from them," explains Arturo Vargas, who 10 years ago headed the redistricting effort in California for the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, or Maldef. He now serves as executive director of the nonpartisan National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials, which held the seminar here.

As for Republicans, they perceive that they can make gains by backing the formation of new districts with populations that are predominantly minority — known in the trade as "minority-majority" districts. While this may well thrust Latinos or blacks into office — very possibly Democrats at that — it will also take minorities out of adjoining areas, thereby boosting the GOP's prospects overall.

The strategy isn't new, although the tremendous growth of Hispanics in the 2000 census raises the stakes. In the redistricting rounds following the 1980 and 1990 censuses, Republicans allied themselves with blacks and Hispanics from Louisiana to Illinois to Texas. "Republicans bent over backwards to create Latino and African-American majority districts in the city," says Miguel del Valle, a Democratic state senator from Chicago and the lead Hispanic plaintiff in a 1981 case in which a coalition of Hispanics, blacks and the GOP sued to contest a legislative map drawn by a Democratic-controlled redistricting commission in Illinois.

When the tactic works, minorities and Republicans both enjoy the payoff. In 1992, Republicans picked up nine congressional seats — an advance that analysts attribute, in part, to the establishment of more minority-majority districts in inner-city America. For Republicans, that "preserved their strength in the outer suburbs," says Juan Cartagena, a Latino civil-rights lawyer in New York who has worked on redistricting issues for Hispanic groups.

 

No guarantees

At the same time, minorities also enjoyed some of their biggest electoral gains ever in '92: They sent five additional Hispanics and 13 more blacks to Congress. "Democrats could have done better if they had spread minorities around some more," says J. Morgan Kous-ser, a political historian at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, Calif.

There are, of course, no guarantees that successful Hispanic-Republican alliances will be forged this time. Latino politicians in at least a couple of big states, such as California, are now in the Democratic leadership, making it less likely that they will team with the GOP. Unlike 10 years ago, when Hispanic outsiders were challenging maps protecting white Democratic incumbents, today they are often the incumbents drawing the lines.

In some places, Republicans have tried to reach out to Democratic Latinos, only to find them reluctant to play along. "We've offered to meld our plan with their plan ... but we haven't gotten a strong commitment that the Hispanics" will back a joint GOP-Latino map, says Kenny Marchant, chairman of the Republican Caucus in the Texas state House.

There are other potential obstacles as well. A series of Supreme Court rulings in the 1990s determined that race can't be the predominant justification for reshaping voting lines, making it more difficult to justify the formation of minority-majority districts. The landmark 1993 case Shaw v. Reno invalidated an oddly drawn congressional district in North Carolina that had been favored by Democrats. The Supreme Court has been fine-tuning its decision, and a new ruling from the high court is expected by June.

Some Democrats claim that minorities could be hurting themselves if their efforts to increase their political clout came at the expense of the Democratic Party, to which most minority politicians belong.

For their part, Republicans hope to do more than just use Latino Democrats to knock out white Democrats. Recognizing that Hispanics aren't monoliths when it comes to politics — a third voted for George W. Bush last November — the GOP is also trying to craft districts that might be won by Republican Hispanics. "By the end of the decade, many Latino seats in California could be Republican," predicts Mike Madrid, a GOP campaign strategist.

But for now, most minority gains are likely to come out of white Democrats' hides. Take, for instance, Rep. Martin Frost's congressional district in Dallas. Assemblyman Domingo Garcia, also a Democrat, is hoping to see the electoral map reconfigured so that a majority-Hispanic district will be created in an area that extends into Mr. Frost's home turf, conceivably leaving the 12-term congressman a casualty. "I'm sure he'll be opposed to it," Mr. Garcia says. Mr. Frost declined to comment on Mr. Garcia's plans.

Meanwhile, Mr. Garcia is looking for support for his map anywhere he can get it, including across the aisle. He hasn't yet cut a deal with the Republicans. But he says, "we're looking at each other to see if we're going to dance."

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