A haunted House story about Texas speakers and redistricting


By Ross Ramsey

Not everything that runs in cycles does so for a reason, but there’s a loose synchronization between the leadership of the Texas House and redistricting.

It doesn’t happen every time, but speakers who’ve been toppled in the last several decades have toppled around the time legislators draw new political maps.

Before this conversation even starts, it’s got some holes in it. It’s like a ghost story in some ways, a little true and a little not true.

House Speaker Joe Straus came into that office in 2009, and redistricting started in 2011, during his second session. (If you’re a fan of long-running litigation, you’ll be delighted to learn that some of that particular redistricting effort made it all the way to 2019.) Straus lived through it, though, and left voluntarily after a record-tying five terms as speaker.

But other departures seem tied by fate or coincidence to new maps.

Billy Clayton, a Springlake Democrat, was speaker for four terms, surviving, among other things, a bribery indictment — and an acquittal of said charges. That kind of dustup has sunk many a politician, but not Clayton. He left of his own volition. But just guess what the Legislature did during his fourth and last term in office?

Maps.

Gib Lewis, D-Fort Worth, followed. He had his own scandals, borne of his close relationships with lobbyists, but he was also the first speaker of the Texas House to serve five terms in that post — exactly the number needed to cap his leadership career presiding over the drawing of new political maps for legislators and members of the state’s congressional delegation.

There’s an old line in journalism: Once is an event. Twice is a coincidence. Three? A trend.

The state’s next speaker was Pete Laney, a Democrat from the Panhandle town of Hale Center. He, too, served five terms, managing to avoid scandal for an entire decade — a surprisingly hard thing to do, apparently, based on the evidence of the state’s last 50 years.

Laney was the speaker through the 77th legislative session, turning over the reins in 2003, when Republicans took the House majority for the first time since Reconstruction.

His last session, in 2001, was preoccupied with new redistricting maps.

Tom Craddick, a Midland Republican who is still in the Texas Legislature, served for three terms and presided over a House that wrote some remarkable redistricting history.

Craddick and other state leaders decided the new Republican majority should draw its own “mid-decade” maps in 2003 instead of sticking with the maps drawn when Laney and the Democrats ruled the House. Along with then-U.S. House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, R-Sugar Land, they set out to draw more Republican maps, even though the regular once-every-10-years exercise was supposedly behind them.

If you don’t remember that, you probably remember House Democrats fleeing the state — to Ardmore, Oklahoma — to make sure there weren’t enough people left in Austin — a quorum — for the House to meet. Senate Democrats later followed the same plan, but they went to Albuquerque, New Mexico, which has better restaurants.

They all eventually moved back to Texas. The maps were drawn, and the congressional delegation was more to DeLay’s liking. But the civil and criminal legal fights that followed undid DeLay’s career and eventually helped undermine Craddick’s hold on the House. It didn’t help that the Democrats increased their numbers to near parity with the Republicans in the House in 2009 — pulling in enough unhappy Republicans to replace Craddick with Straus.

The next run at this history will be in 2021, after the 2020 national census that triggers the requirement that the districts be remade to have the same population numbers, and politicians conspire — legally, most of the time — to choose which voters they’d like to have in their districts and to pick which voters might be most poisonous in the districts of their political foes.

Current Speaker Dennis Bonnen has seen a lot of this; he was elected to the House when Laney was speaker and served under Craddick and Straus. And he’s got his own controversy centered on so-far unsubstantiated allegations that he promised a political activist media passes to the floor of the House in return for help replacing 10 Republicans in Bonnen’s House. If that’s true, it’s a nasty piece of politics.

More to the point, Bonnen has seen the redistricting curse — if it is, in fact, a curse and not merely a scary political fable — up close.

Now it’s his turn.

This article originally appeared at the Texas Tribune.

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