Tag Archives: gerrymandering

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.

High court to settle redistricting dilemma?

I don’t expect the current U.S. Supreme Court to decide that Texas’s legislative and congressional boundaries were drawn in a manner that discriminates against people of color.

Why not? Because its ideological composition would tilt toward those who dismiss such concerns.

The court will decide Abbott v. Perez sometime this year. It involves the manner in which several districts were drawn. Critics say that Hispanics were denied the right to choose a candidate of their own because of the way a San Antonio-area district was gerrymandered.

I’ll set aside the merits of the case that justices will hear. I want to concentrate briefly on the method the states use to draw these districts.

They are done by legislatures. The Texas Legislature is dominated by Republican super-majorities. The custom has been that the Legislature draws these boundaries to benefit the party in power.

Legislators don’t like being handed this task at the end of every census, which is taken at the beginning of each decade. The late state Sen. Teel Bivins of Amarillo once told me that redistricting provides “Republicans a chance to eat their young.” I’ve never quite understood Bivins’s logic. To my mind, the process allows the party in power to “eat the young” of the other party.

The 1991 Texas Legislature redrew the state’s congressional boundaries in a way that sought to shield Democrats, who controlled the Legislature at the time. The Legislature divided Amarillo into two congressional districts, peeling Republicans from the 13th Congressional District to protect then-U.S. Rep. Bill Sarpalius, a Democrat. Sarpalius was re-elected in 1992, but then lost in 1994 to Republican upstart Mac Thornberry.

Gerrymandering not always a bad thing

My own preference would be to hand this process over to a bipartisan commission appointed by the governor and both legislative chambers. I favor taking this process out of politicians’ hands. Their aim is to protect their own and stick it to the politicians — and to voters — from their other party.

Perhaps the Supreme Court’s decision might include a dissent that spells out potential remedies to what I consider to be a political travesty.

One can hope.

Regretting a stance on Amarillo’s congressional alignment

Every now and then, as I wander through Amarillo, I encounter people I knew in my previous life as a journalist and with whom I maintain friendly relations to this day.

I ran into one of them today. He is former Bushland School Superintendent John Lemons. We chatted about this and that, about people we know and how they’re doing these days. Then the conversation turned to an old friend of his, former U.S. Rep. Larry Combest.

Our discussion pivoted to a position the Amarillo Globe-News had taken while I was working as editorial page editor of the newspaper: It dealt with congressional reapportionment.

I told John that I have grown to regret a position the paper had taken, and which I had expressed through editorials published on the matter. The G-N argued for the “reunification” of Amarillo into a single congressional district.

A brief history is in order.


The 1991 Texas Legislature, which was dominated by Democrats, redrew the state’s congressional districts. Seeking to protect Democratic U.S. Rep. Bill Sarpalius, the Legislature split Amarillo in half: Potter County would be represented by Sarpalius in the 13th Congressional District; Randall County’s congressman would be Republican Larry Combest.

The realignment outraged the G-N at the time. They paper began calling for the city to be made whole by being put back solely into the 13th District.

The gerrymandering worked through the 1992 election, as Sarpalius was re-elected to his third term in Congress; so was Combest. The paper kept up its drumbeat for unification. The city’s interests were being split between men of competing political parties, the G-N said.

Then came the 1994 election. Sarpalius ran into the Republican juggernaut. A young congressional staffer named Mac Thornberry defeated him. Thus, the city would be represented by two congressmen from the same party.

I arrived at my post in January 1995 — and the paper kept hammering away at the unification theme. Bring the city together, we said. I scratched my head a bit over that one. I couldn’t quite understand why we were so upset with divided representation, given that both Reps. Combest and Thornberry were of the same party. They were rowing in unison, singing off the same page, reciting the same mantra … blah, blah, blah.

I told Lemons today that the city was able to “double its pleasure, double its fun” with two members of Congress representing its interests. One of them, Combest, held a leadership position on the House Agriculture Committee.

But we kept it up.

I told my pal John Lemons today I regret not pushing my boss at the time to rethink the notion that Amarillo needed to be made whole.

So … now I’m sharing my regret here.

I had a wonderful — and moderately successful — career in daily print journalism. However, it wasn’t regret-free.

A rigged election? Yes, but not the way Trump calls it

Texas house of reps

Donald J. Trump likes issuing dire warnings about a “rigged election” on the horizon.

He means, of course, that the presidential election will be rigged and that the Republican nominee will lose only because of “crooked” politicians seeking to grease it for Democratic nominee Hillary Rodham Clinton’s election to the presidency.

Trump is mistaken, but only partially so.

Yes, the election at another level will be “rigged.” The rigging occurs in the election of members of Congress.

The culprit is the tried-and-tested method of gerrymandering, which the Republicans in charge of Congress and in many state legislatures around the country have fine-tuned to an art form.

David Daley writes in a blog for BillMoyers.com that the rigging will allow the GOP to maintain control of the House of Representatives, even as the Senate could flip to Democratic control — and as Clinton is swept into the White House in a landslide.


Yep. The GOP has done well with this totally legal process of apportioning House congressional districts. It’s done every 10 years after the census is taken and ratified.

They have gerrymandered the dickens out of the House districts, drawing lines in cockamamie fashion to include Republican-leaning neighborhoods and to shut out Democrats.

Now, to be totally fair and above-board, this isn’t a uniquely Republican idea. Democrats sought to do it, for example, in Texas when they ran the Legislature. As recently as 1991, the Democratic-controlled Texas Legislature monkeyed around with congressional districts, seeking to protect Democratic incumbents in the U.S. House.

Amarillo became something of a testing ground for that experiment. The Legislature divided the city into halves, with the Potter County portion of the city included in the 13th Congressional District, while the Randall County portion was peeled off into the 19th District. Potter County contained more Democratic voters and the idea was to protect then-U.S. Rep. Bill Sarpalius of Amarillo, a true-blue Democrat, from any GOP challenge.

Randall County, meanwhile, is arguably ground zero of the West Texas Republican movement and its residents ain’t voting for a Democrat to any public office.

The tactic worked through the 1992 election, when Sarpalius was re-elected. Then came the 1994 Republican wipeout, led by that firebrand Rep. Newt Gingrich of Georgia. Sarpalius got swept out by the GOP tsunami that elected a young Clarendon rancher and self-proclaimed “recovering lawyer” named Mac Thornberry.

The Republicans would wrest control of the Legislature from the Democrats after that and they have perfected the art of gerrymandering. Sure, the Democrats tried to gerrymander themselves into permanent power.

Republicans, however, have proved to be better at it.

You want a “rigged” election? There it is.

The GOP presidential nominee, quite naturally, isn’t about to call attention to the real rigging of the U.S. electoral system. Instead, he’s going to fabricate suspicion in a scenario that will not occur.

An end to gerrymandering? Sure, let’s do it


The Democratic Governors Association wants to back President Obama’s call for an end to gerrymandering.

I’m all for it. However, it’s not because the Democrats are for it. The practice has been used for political purposes since the beginning of the Republic. By both major parties.

The president was correct in his final State of the Union speech to demand an end to the practice of drawing districts to create a desired political outcome.

It’s just that Republicans who control most state legislators these days have turned the practice into an art form. Some of the congressional and state legislative districts in Texas, for example, simply defy all forms of logic.

There used to be a term used to describe how these districts should be constructed. It’s called “community of interest.” It means that all the residents of a particular district should have issues in common. They should be primarily rural or urban in nature. That’s how it’s supposed to go in theory at least.

But some of the districts in this state snake their way around street corners, winding their way from, say, Austin all the way to the Rio Grande Valley. What does someone living in, say, Laredo have in common with someone living in suburban Travis County?


There once was a time when Democrats ran the show in Texas. The 1991 Texas Legislature, thus, redrew congressional districts and created something of a monstrosity right here in the Panhandle. They split Amarillo in half, putting the Potter County part of the city into the 13th Congressional District and the Randall County portion into the 19th Congressional District.

The Legislature’s purpose? It was to protect Democratic U.S. Rep. Bill Sarpalius’s seat in Congress. The Legislature peeled off enough Republicans living in Randall County and put them into a district served by Republican U.S. Rep. Larry Combest, who lived in Lubbock.

The notion worked through one election cycle; Sarpalius was re-elected in 1992. Then came the 1994 Contract With America election. Sarpalius got beat by Republican Mac Thornberry.

There went the notion of protecting a Democrat.

The principle of gerrymandering really does stink, no matter who’s doing it.

There ought to be some rhyme or reason to the districts we create after every census is taking. The way it’s done now is meant to keep power in the hands of whichever party is in control.


Should Obama counter-sue Congress?

This isn’t going to happen, but a political author thinks President Obama should sue Congress, given that Congress has sued him.

Thomas Geoghegan’s reason? Gerrymandering.


What a concept.

House Speaker John Boehner has been given authority to sue Obama over the president’s use of executive authority as it relates to the Affordable Care Act. The president has chided Boehner over his threatened lawsuit. Some polling indicates the public is on Obama’s side, that the GOP is engaging in a purely partisan exercise to fire up its base in advance of the mid-term election.

Geoghegan thinks Obama should take it a step further. The gerrymandering of House congressional districts to favor Republicans has disenfranchised voters who cannot elect candidates of their choosing. The deck is stacked in favor of the GOP, thanks to legislatures’ redrawing of the lines to give Republicans a built-in advantage.

He writes: “In Ohio, for example, about half the votes in the House races of 2012 went to Democrats, but the GOP took 12 of the 16 seats. In Pennsylvania, it was more than half, but the GOP grabbed 13 of the 18 House seats.”

There’s more: “Does Obama have such a right to sue? You bet he does. The United States has standing to sue any state that interferes with any attribute of its sovereignty. And when state legislatures try to interfere with the right of the people under Article I of the Constitution to elect House members of their own choosing, they are interfering with such an attribute of U.S. sovereignty—indeed, disrupting a relationship that runs from the people to their national government. So, yes: If Obama chose to fire back, the administration would have standing to say: ‘State legislatures that engage in gerrymandering are interfering with a constitutional scheme that gives the states no role at all in influencing who does or does not go to the U.S. House.’”

Interesting, don’t you think? I do.

Will the president do it? I doubt it. He’s probably wise to let Boehner and the House Republican majority stew in their own juices, while continuing to chide them at campaign fundraisers across the country.

Besides, if he’s going to join the chorus that gripes about Boehner’s “frivolous” lawsuit, it hardly seems right to engage in yet another exercise in frivolity.

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.