Redistricting Should Reflect Latino Growth, Say Texas Groups

Census figures show the population of Texas has grown eighteen percent in the last decade. Hispanics account for sixty five percent of that increase, which has earned Texas four additional congressional seats. As new congressional districts are being created, some Latino groups argue that representation should reflect the changing demographic. To discuss the Lone Star state's redistricting process, host Michel Martin speaks with Texas State Senator and chair of the senate's redistricting committee, Kel Seliger and Nina Perales, director of litigation of the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund (MALDEF).

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

Coming up, the federal government's new push to figure out why minorities tend to have poorer health than the majority white population and to do something about that. We'll talk with a top official from the health and human services department about what's being called a first-of-its-kind effort to narrow the health gap.

But, first, in Texas and across the country, a battle is intensifying and lines are being drawn, literally. U.S. census numbers have come out and states now have the daunting task of redistricting, taking stock of their new population numbers and redrawing their congressional districts. People are watching states with huge population growth like Texas to see exactly how growing communities will be represented in the political process.

Texas' population surged 18 percent since the year 2000, allowing the state to pick up four congressional seats. That's more than any other state. And Latinos accounted for a 65 percent of that population growth. Latinos have also driven huge population growth in Florida, Arizona, Nevada and Georgia, helping those states pick up additional seats in Congress.

That growth also fuels a question - will states redraw their districts to better reflect their increased Latino populations, and if so, how? Some say that Latinos should be grouped in new districts that make them the majority to increase their political power. Others argue that Latino populations spread over multiple districts can still have significant influence.

We wanted to talk about how Texas is thinking about this, so we've called upon Texas State Senator Kel Seliger. He is chair of the state senate's redistricting committee. He is a Republican. He's serving a second term. And he's with us on the line from his office at the state capitol in Austin, Texas. Welcome, senator, thanks so much for joining us.

State Senator KEL SELIGER (Republican, Texas; Chair, Redistricting Committee): Thank you very much for having me.

MARTIN: We're also joined by Nina Perales. She is the director of litigation for MALDEF, the Mexican-American Legal Defense and Educational Fund. Her organization recently proposed its own redistricting map for the state of Texas, which would create two new majority Latino districts and she's with us now from her office in San Antonio. Nina, thank you for joining us.

Ms. NINA PERALES (Director of Litigation, Mexican-American Legal Defense and Educational Fund): I'm glad to be here.

MARTIN: So, senator, let me start with you. I mean, I think it's fair to say that the goal of each party in the redistricting process is to maximize its own opportunities. That's fair, isn't it?

State Sen. SELIGER: I think that's fair. Yes.

MARTIN: OK. So, how does the new Latino population figure into your goals and strategy for drawing these lines?

State Sen. SELIGER: Because we must have a process and a product that is fair and legal. And the Voter Rights Act makes certain requirements on us when we compose these districts. And those requirements perfectly align with what you're talking about in growth of the overall population in the Latino population. And we must address that growth and the location of the residents of the members of that minority population.

MARTIN: So the first thing is that the districts have to pass constitutional muster, and then the second thing is what? Of course you want to maximize opportunities for Republicans candidates. So, what does that mean?

State Sen. SELIGER: There are no legal requirements to maximize opportunities for Republicans or Democrats, but there certainly are when it comes to historically underrepresented minorities. And so as we draw lines, we look at the requirements of the Voter Rights Act and you can bet that that's exactly what Ms. Perales is doing. And at some point we're going to meet in a legal discussion over all of those lines.

MARTIN: OK. Nina, what are you looking for? As we mentioned, that your organization has recently proposed its own redistricting map. What do you hope for? How exactly do you want the new districts to represent the growth in the Latino population?

I should mention that the population of Latinos in Texas is now 37 percent and it's accounted for - that population has accounted for most of the growth in the population in Texas. So, what do you think should happen?

Ms. PERALES: Well, your numbers are correct. And from our perspective, we don't look at whether districts are Democratic or Republican. We look at whether the districts offer Latinos the opportunity to elect their candidate of choice. So, we work outside the partisan framework. We look at Latino population, we look at voting patterns and we try to draw redistricting plans that offer a fair opportunity for Latinos.

MARTIN: Is it the working assumption that a majority Latino district offers a Latino candidate the best opportunity? Is that the working assumption?

Ms. PERALES: Well, it is under the law when there is what we call racially polarized voting. When Latinos are voting cohesively for their preferred candidate, when non-Latinos or an Anglo majority are voting cohesively for a different preferred candidate, in those situations, you may need to have a Latino majority district to offer an opportunity to elect a Latino-preferred candidate.

MARTIN: And do you believe that that's the case in Texas - that there is racially polarized voting?

Ms. PERALES: Yes. And the courts have found that as well.

MARTIN: And, senator, do you think that that's true? Is that your understanding as well?

State Sen. SELIGER: That is my understanding, yes.

MARTIN: What are the implications there? One can see historically where that might be the case, but you also have new trends in politics throughout the country where minority candidates have been able to achieve electoral success in very diverse circumstances.

Like, for example, in New Mexico, Susana Martinez, who is a Latina, is the governor of the state elected by, obviously, a multiracial coalition. Marco Rubio in Florida, who is of Latino heritage, represents the whole state and statewide office. Not to mention, of course, the president of the United States, who is African-American. So I think that some would argue whether those patterns still hold sway. Nina?

Ms. PERALES: Well, I think it's important to keep two things in mind. First of all, the race of the candidate isn't necessarily tied to whether they're the minority candidate of choice. So, minority voters, Latino voters, can prefer a candidate regardless of his or her race. And we see that in Texas. We see that there are Anglo representatives both in the state house and also in Congress, who are the Latino candidates of choice.

So I think pointing to an elected official who is either African-American or Latino doesn't necessarily tell you whether that person was the candidate of choice of Latino voters. And, also, though, your point is very true that Latinos and other minority voters can be very diverse in their candidate preferences. And as we move forward in time, hopefully we'll become more diverse.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, you're listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News. We're talking about efforts to redraw the congressional map, following on new census figures. We're focusing our conversation on Texas, where State Senator Kel Seliger heads up the process. We're also speaking with Nina Perales. She's legislative director for MALDEF, the Mexican-American Legal Defense and Educational Fund.

Senator Seliger, is your - I don't know if you feel comfortable saying this at this point in the process - but do you feel at this point that it is likely that there will be two new majority Latino districts, given all that you know about the population patterns, prior voting patterns and so forth? Do you think - is that the direction that you're heading in?

State Sen. SELIGER: You're right. It's too early to say. But we will certainly assess the population as we go through there, because in some cases, it may very well be required. MALDEF and the coalition to which is belongs, has published a map that clearly shows increased number in Hispanic opportunity districts. And I venture to say since Ms. Perales was involved with it, it is a perfectly valid map.

MARTIN: Nina Perales, can I ask you this? Now, you've told us that your effort is not partisan, but the Latino vote does tend to trend to Democratic. Wouldn't your plan, in effect, add two Democratic seats?

Ms. PERALES: I can't tell you the answer to that because we've never run any political numbers on our districts. We take our role as a nonpartisan advocate very, very seriously. We don't know whether the districts that we've proposed will elect a Democrat or a Republican.

MARTIN: Senator Seliger, couldn't it be an advantage to state Republicans to draw Latino majority districts because that would, in effect, aggregate the Democratic votes in those districts?

State Senator SELIGER: Yes. But I don't know if that's the primary concern of ours. And keep in mind that in a couple of traditionally - that are both Hispanic and Democratic districts, congressional districts - that a couple of Republicans were elected. One Latino and one Anglo. And so it's hard to address any hard and fast rules.

MARTIN: What are you hoping for at the end of this process? And do you think that what you hope for is achievable, which is to say, a process that just about everybody thinks is fair. Senator, I'll give you that first word.

State Sen. SELIGER: That is absolutely the ideal. Whether it's achievable, I don't know. What is achievable, I think is a process, one that is both fair and it's legal. And as far as congressional redistricting goes, it has ended up -at least parts of it in the courts since 1971 - it may be a little bit too optimistic to think that that won't happen to one degree or another this time. But you described the ideal situation. Sure, we'd love to have it work out that way.

MARTIN: Nina Perales, what about you? Do you feel that at the end of the day that you can achieve a process here that all sides will feel is fair?

Ms. PERALES: Yes. I do believe that we can achieve a fair process. And I think we're off to a great start. Senator Seliger has been very open to proposals and very gracious in considering the proposals that we and others have put forward. And on the House side there is also an openness. We're seeing public hearings and so far, you know, we think the process is working very well.

MARTIN: Nina Perales is the director of litigation for MALDEF, the Mexican-American Legal Defense and Educational Fund. She joined us from her office in San Antonio. Also with us, Kel Seliger. He is the chair of the Texas state Senate's redistricting committee. He is a Republican. He's serving his second term. He represents Amarillo. And he joined us from his office at the state capitol in Austin. I thank you both so much for joining us.

State Sen. SELIGER: Thank you.

Ms. PERALES: Thank you.

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