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Richardson Rides to the Rescue

May Tackle Redistricting in New Mexico if Texas Changes Boundaries

With the Texas Legislature ready to convene in a special session next week to redraw the state’s Congressional district maps, New Mexico Democrats now appear likely to retaliate.

A spokesman for New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson (D) told Roll Call on Friday that if Texas changes the district boundaries to aid Republicans, as expected, Richardson could ask the New Mexico Legislature to take up redistricting during its special session scheduled for October.

Richardson had previously expressed his distaste for a new redistricting push in New Mexico, even though it could help the Democrats capture an extra House seat or two. But while the governor still does not like the idea, his communications director, Billy Sparks, said Texas Republicans may force his hand.

“Should states begin redistricting every time the state changes political power, then it creates chaos and a dangerous precedent, and Governor Richardson wants no part of it,” Sparks said. “However, if Texas and other states persist with their redistricting, he would be forced to reconsider.”

The evident change in Richardson’s position is the latest move in the ongoing struggle between Republicans and Democrats to extend the redistricting fight in the 50 states beyond the first legislative session after the decennial Census.

The Colorado Legislature changed the Congressional district lines this year in the GOP’s favor, and Texas Republicans attempted to do the same last month in a bitter episode that gained worldwide attention.

Now New Mexico and Oklahoma — both controlled by Democrats — may follow suit.

What these four states have in common, other than their borders, is that they all held their 2002 Congressional elections using House district boundaries drawn by the courts rather than the Legislature.

And all saw their state governments change to one-party rule after being divided between Democrats and Republicans before the 2002 elections.

The latest Colorado map, signed into law last month by Gov. Bill Owens (R), has been challenged in court by Democrats who are furious because the plan solidifies the GOP’s 5-2 advantage in Colorado House seats.

But the Texas redistricting could be far more debilitating to Democrats’ dreams of retaking the House. The plan expected to be debated in the Legislature next week could cost the Democrats between two and six seats in the 109th Congress. It targets several senior Members, including Reps. Jim Turner, Max Sandlin, Charlie Stenholm, Martin Frost, Chet Edwards and Lloyd Doggett.

Democrats have accused House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Texas) and White House political adviser Karl Rove — a veteran of Texas politics — of orchestrating the latest redistricting fight in the Lone Star State.

“Tom DeLay and Karl Rove are obviously abusing their power to deny minority voting rights,” said Kori Bernards, a spokeswoman for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.

But in a news conference last week, Texas Gov. Rick Perry (R) insisted that the decision to call a special legislative session on redistricting was his alone.

“This isn’t a White House issue,” Perry said, according to Friday’s Dallas Morning News. “This isn’t a Congressional issue. … This is between the [Texas] House and Senate.”

But it wasn’t simply a Texas matter when the state House took up the GOP redistricting plan last month. Then, 51 House Democrats fled to a hotel in Oklahoma to thwart a vote on the measure.

Their flight gained worldwide media attention, and Texas authorities used the state Department of Public Safety and the Homeland Security Department to find them.

While the Democrats won that battle by forestalling a vote, Republicans will win the war if they can get a redistricting bill passed in the special session.

Few political strategists expect the Democrats to stage another walk-out in the House, where the GOP appears to have the votes to pass its plan. Now, the Democrats’ best hope may be to use procedural levers to block the measure in the state Senate.

The next stage in the redistricting fight could be in October, when the New Mexico Legislature is scheduled to meet in a special session of up to 30 days to discuss tax reform. But Richardson controls the agenda for the session, and Democrats in New Mexico and Washington, D.C., said last week that they expect him to add redistricting to the docket if a new map passes in Texas.

“I think everybody’s keeping an eye on the special session in Texas,” said former New Mexico state Sen. John Arthur Smith (D), who was the Democrats’ unsuccessful nominee in the 2nd Congressional district last year and is considering trying again in 2004.

Bernards said Democratic House leaders have not been in touch with Richardson, their former colleague, to discuss redistricting.

“We haven’t had conversations with Richardson or anyone else in New Mexico,” she said. “We’re not involved.”

Republicans control two of the three House seats in the Land of Enchantment, but Democrats believe they have a shot at one — if not both — of those seats with a little tweaking of the lines. Rep. Heather Wilson (R) has never won more than 55 percent of the vote in her Albuquerque-based district, which gave Al Gore a 1-point victory over President Bush in the 2000 presidential election.

The 2nd Congressional district in the southern half of the state, where freshman Rep. Steve Pearce (R) could face a tough re-election contest, tilts slightly more heavily toward Republicans but could become more hospitable to Democrats with the right territory in it.

With only three seats at play in New Mexico, national Republicans do not appear to be sweating the possibility of a new Congressional map there.

“Redistricting is a state-run process,” said Carl Forti, communications director for the National Republican Congressional Committee. “If that’s what they want to do, they have the right to do it.”

Meanwhile, some Democrats hold out the hope that the Oklahoma Legislature and new Gov. Brad Henry (D) will attempt to redraw the House district boundaries there in an attempt to chip away at the GOP’s 4-1 seat advantage. But Kym Koch Thompson, a spokeswoman for Henry, said Friday that the governor has “no plans” at this point to tackle redistricting.

While the Legislature is in recess now, Thompson did not discount the possibility that Henry could call lawmakers into a special session later this year, though she said the state’s fiscal crisis would be the likely topic.

State Senate President Pro Tem Emeritus Stratton Taylor (D) said he and his colleagues will “closely monitor” what happens in Texas and could decide to act.

“If it’s a good idea in Texas it’s certainly a good idea in Oklahoma as well,” he said.

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