Gerrymandering: sometimes it works!

A blog item I just posted reminded me of one of the few regrets I collected while serving as a journalist for nearly four decades.

I remembered a C-SPAN segment I was honored to do regarding the former 19th Congressional District representative, Republican Larry Combest and the sprawling district he was elected to represent in 1984.

My regret? I didn’t resist my boss’s dogged insistence that Amarillo be “made whole” by the Texas Legislature. You see, the Democrats who controlled the 1991 Legislature split Amarillo into two congressional districts during its once-a-decade redistricting ritual. The idea was to peel off Democratic voters in Potter County to protect the Democratic incumbent, Rep. Bill Sarpalius.

The Amarillo Globe-News went ballistic over that arrangement. It hated the notion of the city being split into two districts, represented by a Democrat, the other by a Republican.

Sarpalius got re-elected in 1992. Then something happened in 1994 that no one foresaw when the Legislature gerrymandered the city’s representation: Sarpalius lost to Republican Mac Thornberry, who happened to be Combest’s former chief of staff.

Do you know what that meant? It meant Amarillo would have two members of Congress from the same political party — which now controlled Congress — representing its interests.

I arrived at my post at the Globe-News in January 1995, the same week Thornberry took office.

But still the newspaper insisted on redrawing the lines and putting Amarillo into a single congressional district. I went along with the publisher’s insistence on that change. For the life me as I look back on that time, I must’ve had rocks in my head for not arguing against it.

Thornberry and Combest comprised a sort of one-two punch for Amarillo. Thornberry’s district covered Potter County, Combest’s included Randall County. I get the difficulty when two House members from opposing parties were representing the city. But after the 1994 election that all changed.

Did the two GOP House members always vote the way I preferred? No. That’s not the point. My point is that our city could depend on two elected members of Congress doing our community’s bidding when the moments presented themselves.

Eventually, the Legislature did as we kept insisting they do. They redrew the boundaries and put the 19th District much farther south and put all of Amarillo into the 13th.

Combest resigned from the House in 2002. Thornberry is still in office. I’m trying to assess what actual, tangible benefit Thornberry has brought to the city all these years later.

Well, you know what they say about hindsight. It all looks clearer looking back than it does in the moment.

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