In Redistricting, Where Do 50 Million Latinos Fit?

As states across the U.S. are redrawing their district lines to account for changing populations, some groups, like the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, are pushing for majority-Latino districts. MALDEF says such districts will boost Latinos' political power, but others say it'll bring limited influence. Host Michel Martin speaks with MALDEF President Thomas Saenz and Center for Equal Opportunity Chair Linda Chavez.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host: I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Coming up, former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice is with us on her new memoir, "No Higher Honor." She told her personal story last year. Now, she's focusing on the big foreign policy decisions of the Bush presidency. We'll ask about her role in those and what the other Bush-era memoirs have said about her. We'll have that conversation in a few minutes. But first, we want to focus on an issue that could influence elections around the country.

State officials are now trying to redraw the lines for legislative districts. That's something they are required to do every ten years after the new census figures come out. Now, it may sound like a dry academic exercise, but in many places it is fast becoming a bloody political brawl. On Tuesday, Arizona's Republican governor and Republican State Senate ousted Colleen Mathis, the chair of The Independent Citizens Commission, charged with redrawing the states boundaries. They accused her of skewing the process in favor of Democrats. And the U.S. Justice Department has declared that the new legislative map in Texas purposely discriminates against Latinos.

Federal judges will hear arguments this week. Texas and Arizona aren't the only two states fighting to redraw the lines in a way that satisfies legal requirements and political objectives. The New York Times reports that lawsuits have been filed in some 28 states, challenging how states have redrawn their maps. And at the center of many of these disputes is how best to represent Latinos, who now number just over 50 million in the United States.

We wanted to dig into this issue, so we've called upon two people with different perspectives about it. They are Thomas Saenz. He is the president of MALDEF, the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund. That organization is actively encouraging the creation of majority Latino legislative districts. Also with us Linda Chavez. She's the chair of The Center For Equal Opportunity. That's a conservative think tank that focuses on issues of race and ethnicity.

She also served in the Reagan administration in a number of posts, including a staff director of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights. And she was herself a candidate for U.S. Senate, a Republican trying to represent Maryland back in the 1980's. Welcome to you both. Thank you both so much for speaking with us.

LINDA CHAVEZ: Great to be with you.

THOMAS SAENZ: Thank you, Michel.

MARTIN: Now Thomas Saenz, I'm going to start with you because MALDEF has proposed its own redistricting maps in Texas, Illinois and California. What are your goals for the maps? Is it to try to create as many majority Latino districts as possible?

SAENZ: No. It's try to ensure that whatever maps are drawn adequately reflect the growth of the Latino community and the contribution of that growth to the sustaining or in the case of Texas the increasing of the amount of congressional representation to ensure that there's a fair opportunity for the Latino community to elect candidates that it chooses.

MARTIN: So, do - but do you think that in order to elect the candidates of their choice that those districts ought to be majority Latino? Is that the idea?

SAENZ: In most cases where there is a significant polarization among voters between Latino voters and non-Latino voters, in order to create that fair opportunity you have to craft a district that is majority Latino.

MARTIN: Linda Chavez, what do you think the objective of the districts should be? Or what do you think the guiding principles should be?

CHAVEZ: Well, I think the guiding principles should be that the district maps be drawn fairly. That they not be drawn intentionally to discriminate against any group but this is a very political process and both parties are accused every ten years of gerrymandering to try to increase their own political clout. I think the idea though that you're going to have to create districts that are either a majority or very heavily concentrated by race really is an anachronism at a time in which we've got two national governors who are Hispanic, when we've got a president who is black. The idea that in order to elect someone who is of a minority group you have to put all of the members of that group into a district to ensure their election I think just simply doesn't bear with the facts.

MARTIN: Is it your view that the ideal of creating as many majority Latino districts as possible is not necessary or that it's wrong?

CHAVEZ: I think it's wrong. I mean, I think the idea of the voting rights act that was passed in 1965 - I mean, that was at a time when Southern districts in particular were aggressively trying to deny blacks the right to vote and they were doing anything and everything they could to try to stop the kind of representation fair representation of that would have been, you know, guaranteed by the 1965 Voting Rights Act. So, I think, you know, that is still the goal.

That it should be color blind. That we should not - race should not be a factor in, you know, choosing who you admit to school or choosing who you hire or in fact, choosing how you draw district lines when it comes time to redistricting.

MARTIN: Thomas Saenz, Linda Chavez says that she feels that this the desire to create majority Latino voters as a means of allowing them to elect the candidate of their choice is wrong, but she also feels it's unnecessary. What's your response to that?

SAENZ: I think all one has to do is watch one presidential debate in 2011 to understand how much polarization there is in the voting community, particularly about the Latino community. The Latino community of voters, not in its entirety, but by and large has different views than many non-Latino voters, particularly about the issue of immigration, which is the issue around which so much of the demonization of the Latino community has been built in this day and age. The suggestion that this is an anachronism is really not in tune with what's going on politically in this country today.

Michel, I think it's also important to point out that this isn't about candidates or elected officials who are Latino. It's about the voters. It's about ensuring the Latino voters have the opportunity to select who they want to represent them. So, Linda mentions two governors who are Latino but I think neither one of those governors was the choice of Latino voters. In fact, those governors were elected by non-Latinos. This is not about candidates and candidates ability, Latino or non-Latino to get elected. It is about ensuring the Latino voters who's views may differ significantly from non-Latino voters. Those Latino voters have the opportunity to elect whom they would like to represent them.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us you're listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News. We're talking about how districting could affect Latino voters. Our guests are Thomas Saenz, President of MALDEF. That's the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund. It's a civil rights group. Also with us, Linda Chavez, of the Center for Equal Opportunity. She's also a former candidate for statewide office herself from Maryland, running as a Republican. So, Linda, what about Thomas Saenz's point? His point is that, yes, it is true that there are two governors of Latino heritage.

It also is worth pointing out, say, in Texas for example, which is one of the places where these districting lines were hotly contested, there are six Hispanic Republicans currently serving in the state legislature there along with, you know, many Democrats and they have their own caucus. So, his argument is that even if this is the case that these aren't necessarily the choice, the preferred candidates of the majority of the Latino electorate. He also I think is arguing that as others have argued that there are still efforts to intimidate and suppress the votes of minority voters, both Latinos and African-Americans and as a consequence of that this is necessary. What do you say to that?

CHAVEZ: Well, first of all, I mean, I think it's somewhat ironic. First of all, Thomas and I actually are closer on the immigration issue than listeners might suspect. I am though a Conservative and a staunch Republican, very much in favor of immigration reform and our positions are probably not terribly different. But one of the ironies in what Thomas is saying is that you in many instances in the past and even during this redistricting cycle have Republicans who are very happy to create majority minority districts that favor Latinos.

If it will take those Latino voters out of districts that otherwise would be more likely to vote Republican, and you can end up diluting the impact of those Hispanic voters by putting them all into a single district and thereby diluting their influence in districts surrounding that area. And this has been the case in the past. The Republican National Committee has often been on the side of MALDEF and the NAACP...

MARTIN: Well, can we hear him...

CHAVEZ: ...pushing these districts.

MARTIN: Can we hear him speak on that? Thomas Saenz, what about that point? And one of the arguments against concentrating Latino voters, or, frankly, voters of any particular ethnic group in one district, is that it leads to representatives in other districts who only speak for a narrow interest group and who don't consider the interests of those voters in making their decisions, that it leads to the kind of extremism that many people think of taking over political discourse in the country today. What about that? What about her point?

SAENZ: If you fail to create Latino majority districts, you end up with a situation where no elected official feels a necessity of being responsive to that community. When you create a certain number of majority districts, then those in neighboring districts are districts that are getting close to becoming majority Latino or having a significant Latino electorate understand that they must begin to be responsive to that community in order to maintain their office.

I also think, Michel, it's important to point out that one thing that Linda said is absolutely true. You can have vote dilution either by separating the community and spreading it among a number of districts where it is a minority in every district and unable to exercise influence over outcomes, or you can dilute the vote by concentrating - over-concentrating, if you will - a minority community in one district or a small number of districts.

Both of those forms of dilution, often called cracking and packing, are unlawful under the Voting Rights Act. So you also cannot engage in an exercise where you concentrate all of the Latino voters in a small number or a single district when you could create multiple districts where they would be a majority or of significant influence.

MARTIN: Okay. Finally, Linda, I gave Thomas the first word. I'm going to give you the last word. What do you think? You know, is there a way that these issues can be resolved short of the courts or do we just expect that pretty much all of the districting maps will go to the courts at some point?

CHAVEZ: I think we're seeing more than half going - right now going to the courts and I think until we get beyond the notion that you're going to make race a factor in drawing district lines, you're going to continue to see these kinds of court battles and I think that's unfortunate.

I'm an integrationist. I think it's wonderful that Hispanics, in fact, are not as heavily concentrated, at least not to those who are citizens. Newcomers are, but those who are citizens and capable of voting have spread out into many different areas, and that may mean that it's harder to concentrate them into a single voting block. But I think that's a good thing, not a bad thing.

MARTIN: Linda Chavez is the chair of the Center for Equal Opportunity. That's the conservative think tank. We caught up with her on the phone from Colorado. Also with us, Thomas Saenz. He's the president of MALDEF, the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund. He joined us from Marketplace Studio in Los Angeles.

Thank you both so much for speaking with us.

CHAVEZ: Thank you.

SAENZ: Thank you, Michel.

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