Gerrymandering not always a bad thing

Whether to gerrymander a congressional district, that is the question.

I’ve been stewing about this for years, believe it or not. It’s not that I don’t have many important things to ponder, but this one has been stuck in my craw ever since I landed in Amarillo back in January 1995.

The term “gerrymander” is named after Elbridge Gerry, who served as vice president during the James Madison administration. It’s come to identify the practice of drawn governmental boundaries in such a way as to protect certain political parties. It’s been vilified as a form of political protectionism.

Is it always a bad thing? I submit that it isn’t always a negative.

Consider what happened to Amarillo back in the early 1990s.

The 1991 Texas Legislature gerrymandered the 13th and 19th congressional districts in a way that split Amarillo in two. Potter County was included in the 13th district; Randall County was drawn into the 19th. The 13th was represented at that time by Democrat Bill Sarpalius; the 19th by Republican Larry Combest. The 1991 Legislature — which was dominated by Democrats — intended to protect Democratic members of Congress. Legislators believed that by carving out the Potter County portion of Amarillo into that district — which contained a good number of Democratic voters — that Sarpalius would be protected.

I came to work as editorial page editor of the Amarillo Globe-News, which was in the middle of a furious editorial campaign to put Amarillo back into a single congressional district.

What happened between 1991 and the time of my arrival in 1995? Well, Sarpalius was re-elected to the House in 1992, but in 1994, he was upset by upstart Republican Mac Thornberry, who at the time was serving as Larry Combest’s congressional chief of staff. Sarpalius wasn’t the only Democratic incumbent to lose that year, as that was the election featuring the GOP’s Contract With America.

Interesting, eh? Thornberry took office in 1995, which then meant that Amarillo was represented by two Republican members of Congress. Back when one was a Democrat and one was a Republican, you could count on Combest and Sarpalius voting opposite each other. Their votes and their constituencies canceled each other out. With Thornberry and Combest serving together in Congress, well, you had a two-for-one deal. Both men sang from the same sheet. You got two votes for Amarillo, even though they represented separate congressional districts.

Still, the newspaper kept beating the drum for a reuniting of Amarillo into a single congressional district. Our wish would be granted after the 2000 census and the 2001 Legislature returned all of Amarillo to the 13th district.

I look back, though, a bit wistfully on the time when Amarillo had two members of Congress looking after its interests. Combest was by the far the senior member of the two. He was a big hitter on the House Agriculture Committee and served on the Select Committee on Intelligence. He was a frequent visitor to Amarillo, where he maintained a district office.

I never challenged my publisher’s desire to throw over one of our two congressmen at the time. I wish now I had raised the issue with him.

My thought now is that gerrymandering, while it generally is meant as a tool to do harm, actually can produce an unintended positive consequence for a community — as it did in Amarillo.

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