Since 1994, Sheila Jackson Lee has represented the 18th Congressional District, which includes Third Ward, downtown Houston, the University of Houston and Texas Southern University. Congressman Al Green began in 2005 representing the 9th District, which includes most of southwest Houston, part of Fort Bend County and most of Missouri City. Now, a GOP plan is looking to shift the dynamics of those majority Black districts and pit the incumbents against each other. But not if some Houstonians have their way.
What’s at stake?
The new GOP proposed district map would basically change who represents 200,000 mostly Black residents. Under the plan, those areas represented by Jackson Lee would shift to the 29th Congressional District, represented by Democratic U.S. Rep. Sylvia Garcia. Jackson Lee would also lose Sunnyside and the MacGregor area to Green’s 9th District. Meanwhile, Green’s representation of the Texas Medical Center would shift into a redrawn 7th Congressional District now represented by Democrat Lizzie Fletcher.
“I think it’s important to see the massive surgery – the critical surgery – to leave this district not mending, but on life support,” Jackson Lee said during a recent Texas Senate Special Committee on Redistricting hearing on the matter. “With this state having the largest population of African Americans – 3.9 million – you’ve taken us from this region – a heavily populated area – from two districts where persons can select a person of their choosing, to one district.”
Green, who along with Jackson Lee are two out of five Black members of Texas’ 36-person congressional delegation, also pushed for a change before the committee.
“It doesn’t look right for the only two persons in the State of Texas to be running against each other in a Congressional district from the same party to be of African ancestry,” Green said. “The proposed plan has a good deal of the members’ constituents divided between two congressional districts.”
The Republican map would put Jackson Lee’s home in Riverside Terrace into Green’s 9th Congressional District, meaning she would not even be able to vote for herself unless she moved. It would also put Jackson Lee’s main district office for the 18th in Green’s district, forcing her to move it. Jackson Lee, a former Houston City Council member, is one of the longest-serving members of Congress from Texas, having first been elected in 1994. Only Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson, D-Dallas, has been in Congress longer.
Both Jackson Lee and Green said they were not consulted before the map was released to the public.
“Thirty-eight districts,” Green said, noting the two new congressional districts added to Texas because of population growth, which was fueled by people of color. “Two African Americans running against each other in the proposed map.”
The GOP plan brings massive changes to Harris County. The county would still have nine members of Congress, but the district lines would be dramatically altered to improve the re-election chances of current Republicans and create a new congressional seat that appears to have been drafted to ensure another Republican would be elected to Congress.
Why the change?
Once every 10 years after the U.S. census, the Texas Legislature is required to redraw all congressional lines to make sure each of the state’s congressional districts are equal in population.
This redistricting process is the state’s first since the Supreme Court in 2013 struck down provisions to protect voters of color from discrimination. For the first time in decades, federal law allows Texas to draw political maps without federal approval to ensure they don’t violate the rights of people of color.
Since the enactment of the Voting Rights Act in 1965, Texas has not made it through a single decade without a federal court admonishing it for violating federal protections for voters of color.
State lawmakers can draw maps to provide an advantage to political parties – known as gerrymandering – but cannot do so based on racial composition of areas as outlined in the Voting Rights Act.
In 2017, a panel of federal judges found state lawmakers violated the Voting Rights Act when drawing certain districts the last time redistricting took place. However, the U.S. Supreme Court – the majority of which is made up of Republican-nominated justices – overruled the lower court and upheld the maps except for one Fort Worth Texas House district.
The pitting of the two Black Congress members against each other is compounded by the fact that the proposed new districts underrepresent the growing diversity Texas experienced in the last 10 years.
According to the 2020 Census, more than 95% of the state’s almost four million new residents were Black, Hispanic, Asian and other non-White Texans.
Additionally, the new population data revealed the state’s White and Hispanic population was at a near-even split, at 39.7% and 39.3% of the total population, respectively. The Black population also grew to 11.8%.
However, the Congressional map has more than 60% of its districts in which white Texans have the largest population share, versus only 34% for Hispanic Texans and 5% for Black Texans.
State Sen. Joan Huffman, who leads the chamber’s redistricting committee, said the maps comply with the Voting Rights Act, adding that she did not look at racial data when drawing this map.
“As proposed, both [Jackson Lee’s district and Green’s district] comply with the Voting Rights Act,” Huffman said. “I want to reiterate that I welcome alternate proposals before we vote on this plan.”
Among those challenging the proposed plan is State Sen. Borris Miles.
“The changes to the Ninth District remove some of the most diverse and fastest growing communities in Fort Bend County, communities with a proven record of supporting the candidates of choice of Black voters. The proposed plan would add a number of new precincts from the City of Pearland in Brazoria County – a community with a history of opposing candidates supported by Black voters,” Miles said.
Miles is one of the state lawmakers discussing an amendment with Huffman to fix the issues with the boundaries for Jackson Lee and Green.
“We thought this would be important enough to our community that this committee hear from our Congressional members – our Congressional delegation – on how the proposed map would affect our community from a historical factor, as well as an economic factor in the communities of [Jackson Lee’s district] and [Green’s district],” Miles said during the hearing.
He added, “The map makes radical and unneeded changes to the two local congressional districts that include the majority of Black voters in Harris and Fort Bend counties. These changes have been made with no input from the sitting members, nor their constituent populations. No other member of the large Texas delegation is so severely impacted by the proposed map. We also note that for the first time since Barbara Jordan took the 18th District seat in January, 1973, the iconic Fifth Ward and Third Ward constituencies have been placed in separate districts with no input from these communities.”
Both members of Congress said it was important to make these fixes in order to allow for Black voters to continue voting for members of their choice.
Once the Texas House and Senate pass their own chamber’s political boundaries on the floor, state lawmakers say it is unlikely there will be major changes to prevent the chambers from making drastic changes to the other chamber’s map out of retaliation.
“It’s really shocking that the state would do this for a number of reasons. Number one, it’s overtly an anti-Black action by the Senate leadership that has tendered this map. It’s really mind-boggling that they would seek to destroy historical districts,” said Gary Bledsoe, president of the Texas NAACP and the attorney for Jackson Lee and Green. “The last time we had to litigate these issues, they did the exact same thing where they perform major surgery on two districts that did not need major surgery. They were near the optimum size as they are now. And they took out the important economic engines as they did this time. And they split communities of interest last time as they did this time. And the courts rejected that, and the courts held both the 9th and the 18th were historical African-American opportunity seats, which means they’re protected by the Voting Rights Act.”
Bledsoe says they will fight to change the trajectory of this legislation.
“They pack the 18th and put an unnecessary number of Latinos in the district when what they should be doing is creating another Latino district to accommodate the Latino growth. What they’re saying is we’re not going to give you a white seat. We’re going to give you a Black seat down the road. They’re trying to pit people against each other. It was just a really horrible map. And it’s very ugly and what they did to the 9th and the 18th is just shocking and appalling.”
Bledsoe and Miles say the community should join the fight.
“The community should write letters to share with Huffman on the Senate side and share that with your Congress person,” Bledsoe said.