The congressional district of a high-ranking Jewish Democrat is at the center of a dispute over whether a reapportionment plan pushed by Texas Republicans illegally diluted minority voting strength.
The Dallas-Fort Worth district, which Rep. Martin Frost represented from 1978 to 2004, was eliminated in 2003 by Republicans working on behalf of then-House majority leader Tom DeLay. DeLay was seeking to bolster the GOP majority in Congress by ridding the Texas delegation of some of its Democrats, who had a 17 to 15 edge in the delegation.
Last week, The Washington Post uncovered a 2003 Justice Department memo that determined that the Texas plan — and in particular, the elimination of Frost’s district — violated the 1965 Voting Rights Act. Under the statute, states with a history of racial discrimination, including Texas, must obtain advance clearance for any redistricting plans. The Post reported that the memo’s analysis was endorsed unanimously by six lawyers and two analysts in the department’s voting rights section, but was overruled by two political appointees who allowed the Republicans to proceed with the plan.
A political group with links to Frost, the Lone Star Project, has fought the 2003 GOP plan and now is appealing it to the U.S. Supreme Court, which is expected to decide whether it will take the case in the coming weeks.
Last year, after his district was eliminated, Frost, a former head of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, ran in another district against an incumbent GOP congressman and lost. From 1999 to 2003, Frost was the Democratic caucus chairman, the third-ranking House minority leader, making him the highest-ranking Jewish congressman before Rep. Eric Cantor, a Virginia Republican, was appointed chief deputy majority whip in December 2002.
In a telephone interview Monday, Frost called the GOP redistricting plan a “cynical effort to eliminate as many Democrats as possible” and himself in particular.
It was also the culmination of a trend about which Frost had been warning for 15 years. In 1991, Frost, who then headed the Democrats’ redistricting task force, warned that Republicans were working with black Democrats in state legislatures to pack minority voters into minority-majority districts, leaving neighboring white-majority districts more heavily Republican. He predicted that the effort could lead to a GOP takeover of the House in 1992 or 1994. He also said at the time that the plan would particularly hit Jewish lawmakers, whose numbers would drop by at least five in the next Congress. He turned out to be correct.
Frost told the Forward this week that the GOP effort was part of a national strategy to divide Jewish lawmakers from their minority backers.
“The Jewish Democratic members of the House always enjoyed strong support in minority communities,” Frost said. “Once you start packing minorities into [separate] districts, the Jewish Democrats were going to suffer. We had heard rumors all along. We were right.”
The number of Jewish House members reached its peak in the 1990 election at 34, up from 30 in the previous Congress. The number dropped by five in the 1992 election and another by five in 1994, when the GOP took control of Congress. It has risen slightly in recent years: 26 Jewish House members took seats in 2004, including two new women. The number of Jewish senators rose to 11 from 8 during the period.
The executive director of the National Jewish Democratic Council, Ira Forman, also linked the Texas plan to what he said was a national GOP strategy.
“The activities of the Texas GOP are just an extreme example of the strategy of the national GOP,” he said. “The Texas GOP, which calls America a ‘Christian nation,’ has actively worked to oust Jewish state legislators and the sole Jewish congressman in Texas. If the Republican National Committee had its way around the country, we’d lose another dozen Jewish congressional representatives.”
Jewish Republicans bristled at those remarks. “When Republicans redistrict, they try to get rid of Democrats. When Democrats redistrict, they try to get rid of Republicans,” said a Texas GOP activist, Fred Zeidman. “If more Jews were Republicans, they wouldn’t be so disproportionately displaced.”
Zeidman called the notion that the Republicans tried to get rid of Jews in Congress “absurd” and noted that some top GOP leaders are Jewish, including the chairman of the Republican National Committee, Ken Mehlman. “That’s the kind of comment that tries to polarize the nation,” he said.
RNC spokesman Danny Diaz also responded to the criticism.
“The Democrats today are a party that’s all about attack politics,” he said. “They’re just throwing everything against the wall and seeing if it sticks.”
At least one court has found that racial and religious considerations have figured in redistricting in Texas — under a 1990 Democratic-sponsored plan. In a concurrence in a 1994 case, Houston Federal Judge David Hittner agreed that three Texas congressional districts were racially gerrymandered and noted that religion had played a role in determining the lines. He wrote that an African-American Dallas congresswoman, Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson, had “expressly wanted” a Jewish area to be included in her district, Texas 30, noting that “the Jewish religious symbol — the Star of David prominently appear[ed] on the districting map,” according to a 1994 report in The New York Jewish Week.
In response to the disclosure of the Justice Department memo, Johnson issued a statement saying that the redistricting “divided communities of interest and violated the Voting Rights Act.”
Whether or not the GOP was targeting Jewish congressmen in the 1990s, the 2003 Texas redistricting certainly affected minority representation. The Justice Department staff memo concluded that the plan would have a “negative impact on positions of legislative leadership and influence of minority candidates of choice.” It also noted that “four of the five minority-preferred candidates who would lose their seat under the proposed plan have substantial seniority and experience in the House,” including Frost, who was then the senior House member from Texas and the ranking Democrat on the Rules Committee.
The memo noted that the plan “fragmented” the minority population of Frost’s then-district, which was 25.7% black and 20.8% Hispanic, dispersing it into six other districts. It said that the existing district would likely elect an African American after Frost retired, and that Frost was the clear choice of minority voters in the district.
The 2003 memo registers the remarks of several Texas Republicans, including State Rep. Phil King, who noted that “attorneys were concerned that there would be a violation of the Voting Rights Act” because the redistricting plan “creates no new district in the Dallas-Fort Worth area offering minorities the ability to elect” one of their own.
Last week, Texas Republicans were sounding a different note. “This is whipping a dead horse,” King, the Texas House GOP leader, said of the memo in an interview with The Dallas Morning News. “This thing is done, it’s over, it’s final. It doesn’t matter what some mid- or low-level staff attorneys in the Justice Department thought.”
The director of the Lone Star Project, Matt Angle, said the issues before the Supreme Court in the appeal are “whether the Texas legislature used partisan gerrymandering to draw the lines and whether the sole purpose was to gain partisan advantage.” He said the appeal also asks the court “to review whether the plan violated the Voting Rights Act by failing to protect the rights of African Americans and Hispanics to elect candidates of their choice.”
“If the Supreme Court takes up the case, it will do so in the knowledge that the professionals at the Justice Department who analyzed the plan concluded unanimously that the plan retrogressed or diminished the voting strength of black and Hispanic voters in Texas,” Angle said. “It reaches to the idea of whether the Voting Rights Act ever will be effectively enforced. If ever there was partisan gerrymandering, Texas is an example.”
Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, who was not in office when the department approved the redistricting plan over the memo’s objections, nonetheless defended that decision, saying it had been taken by people “confirmed by the Senate to exercise their own independent judgment.” He also noted that a three-judge federal panel had upheld the plan, according to press reports.
The DeLay-engineered congressional redistricting plan resulted in Democrats losing six seats in the 2004 election; the Texas delegation now has 11 Democrats and 21 Republicans. DeLay is facing criminal charges in Texas for alleged money-laundering related to the 2002 Texas statehouse elections, in which the GOP took control for the first time in 130 years, leading to the off-year redistricting. He denies those charges and says they are politically motivated.
House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi has called for an independent inquiry into the Justice Department’s decision to approve the Texas redistricting plan over staff objections.