Texas Democrats See Jewish Seats at Risk

By E.J. Kessler

Published May 23, 2003, issue of May 23, 2003.
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Those Texas Democratic state legislators who went on the lam last week to kill a Republican redistricting plan were defending, among other things, Jewish political representation, one Houston Democrat told the Forward.

Fifty-one lawmakers slipped across state lines in the dead of night on Mother’s Day, May 11, to deny Republicans the quorum needed to vote on the redistricting bill, which would have given Republicans as many as six more congressional seats in the state.

Scott Hochberg, a five-term legislator who represents the 132nd district in southwest Houston, told the Forward that Republican redistricting plans have steadily reduced Jewish representation in the Lone Star state.

“As a result of redistricting last session, we lost one Jewish member,” said Hochberg, reached by telephone last week at the legislators’ hideout at a Holiday Inn in Ardmore, Okla. “We were all put into essentially non-Jewish districts. Redistricting is something near and dear to our hearts.”

Texas has three Jewish members in the state house, at least one Jewish member in the state senate and one Jewish member in the U.S. House of Representatives, Martin Frost of Fort Worth. All are Democrats, except for the state senator, Florence Shapiro of Plano.

Hochberg’s contention angered the state’s top Jewish Republican, Houston venture capitalist Fred Zeidman, a leading political fundraiser and vice chairman of the Republican Jewish Coalition who was named by President Bush to chair the United States Holocaust Memorial Council.

“That antagonizes me!” Zeidman told the Forward in a telephone interview. “There are no Jewish issues in the state of Texas!”

Zeidman said he and Hochberg, whom he described as “a good friend,” had been sparring over the issue in the local Jewish press for years. “I would assure you Jewish representatives are not being disenfranchised by this,” he said.

The walkout riveted much of the nation, taking on a circus atmosphere after the Republican speaker of the Texas house sent state troopers after the “desperado Democrats.” The renegade legislators returned to their desks May 16, having run out the clock and denied the legislature its vote on the bill. But acrimony over the episode has raged on. Federal authorities have ordered an investigation to determine whether Texas Republicans tricked the Department of Homeland Security into using federal funds to track the private plane of one of the Democrats.

The dispute got even more convoluted this week when the man tapped to lead the investigation, Clark Kent Ervin, inspector general of the Department of Homeland Security, recused himself after being criticized for his ties to the Texas Republican party.

Hochberg, like other Democrats, laid the blame for the redistricting spat at the door of the House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, whom he accused of meddling in local affairs. A Texas Republican, DeLay has been pushing since the 2002 elections to change the party ratio of Texas’s congressional delegation, which now stands at 17 Democrats to 15 Republicans.

“We have never seen one party come down and try to control the Texas legislature,” Hochberg said. “It is not their job to tell us to do their bidding for them.”

Zeidman, however, said there was more than enough blame to go around for the standoff. “It’s nothing different than what Democrats did in the 50 years they controlled the state legislature,” he said. “It’s like watching a grade-B movie, watching Texas politicians go after each other.” Zeidman said that while he supported DeLay’s bid to add to the state’s Republican delegation, he did not support any expenditure of public funds to retrieve the renegade Democrats.

Hochberg said the other two Jewish Democrats in the Texas state house, Elliott Naishtat and Steve Wolens, were among the crew holed up in Ardmore. “We have the full Jewish caucus here,” he said merrily. Wolens even had a starring role in the drama when he represented the group on the CNN television show “Crossfire,” Hochberg said.

There were no Jewish religious ramifications to the Texans’ walkout, Hochberg said. None of the three Jewish legislators keeps kosher and so finding kosher food in Oklahoma was not an issue, he said. Even so, Hochberg said, “a constituent from Dallas sent us a kosher care package with rugelach, lox and bagels, but it was scarfed up as much by the non-Jewish legislators as by the Jewish legislators.”

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