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When It Comes to Redistricting, Up Is Down for Tom DeLay

“If you have a small group of people in a back room drawing lines, what you’ll end up with is an incumbent protection system instead of a system that truly represents the will of the people,” House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Texas) told Judy Woodruff on CNN’s “Inside Politics” on Thursday. [IMGCAP(1)]

DeLay was responding to Woodruff’s question about California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s (R) redistricting reform plan, which would take responsibility for the drawing of Congressional district lines away from the Legislature and transfer authority to three retired judges who would draw, presumably, more competitive districts. The Majority Leader doesn’t much like the idea.

Woodruff very properly followed up her initial question by asking the Texas Republican whether there wasn’t already “a massive incumbent protection system” in place, given the microscopic level of turnover in the House in 2002 and 2004.

DeLay’s response was stunning.

“Yes, it’s called judges,” he said. “When the Democrats in Texas saw that they no longer were the majority party, they used judges to protect them. And they went 20 years being a minority party with a majority of the Congressional delegation. And they used judges to do it. That makes my point for me.”

DeLay is widely regarded, even by his political opponents, as a terrific strategist and a top-notch vote-counter in the House. When it comes to politics, he’s obviously no dope. But, boy, he gave one heck of a silly answer to Woodruff.

Woodruff, of course, was correct that an incumbent protection system is now in place, and she — and you, and I and DeLay, I’ll bet — knows that it was created primarily by state legislatures after the last round of Congressional reapportionment.

Judges drew Congressional lines in Colorado while an independent commission created them in Arizona, and each state has at least one tossup district: the 1st district in Arizona and the 7th district in Colorado. In contrast, in California and Illinois, where state legislators drew the maps, there is not a single truly competitive district.

Indeed, in Colorado, when Republicans tried to redraw the state’s Congressional lines after they won control of the Legislature in 2002, they attempted to make the most competitive House district in the state less competitive.

The court-drawn map had a 7th district that includes 149,765 Republicans, 144,563 Democrats and 137,944 unaffiliated voters, while the GOP plan, which was rejected by the courts, would have increased Republicans strength to 155,836 and dropped Democrats to 135,268, making the district far more partisan than it now is.

What state generated the most competitive redistricting plan in the country after the 2000 Census? The answer probably is Iowa, where the state’s Legislative Service Bureau drew a set of lines that threw two incumbents (Republican Reps. Jim Nussle and Jim Leach) together in one district. They eventually ran in different districts.

In Iowa, the Legislature can approve or disapprove the first two plans drawn by the LSB, and the Republican-controlled Legislature rejected the bureau’s first plan. A second plan was approved, and it too made at least three of the state’s five districts competitive.

The LSB’s guidelines specifically prohibit the bureau from considering incumbent’s addresses, past election results or demographic data other than population.

Given that, DeLay’s reference to Texas wasn’t idiotic, just disingenuous.

Yes, when the Texas Legislature couldn’t approve a redistricting plan before the 2002 elections, a three-judge federal panel drew a plan that basically kept the previous map intact while also adding two new districts.

Can you imagine how DeLay would have howled if a court had radically redrawn the state’s districts to the Democrats’ advantage? He would have gone ballistic (and rightly so).

And does anybody in Texas or Washington, D.C., doubt that DeLay would seek to “use” judges to protect the status quo (by creating legislative gridlock to prevent Democrats from drawing new partisan lines) if the situation were reversed?

The current “incumbent protection system,” to use Delay’s term, is not due to “a small group of people in a back room drawing the lines,” though that does happen. When it does, they are legislators, or Members of Congress, who get together to draw lines to protect themselves.

Whatever you think of Schwarzenegger’s proposal, the primary reason there are so few competitive House races is that hundreds of state legislators, who knew voters wouldn’t pay a lot of attention to redistricting after the 2000 Census, decided to draw lines that protected incumbents or created an opportunity for those same legislators to run for Congress in friendly territory. And I’m willing to bet that Rep. DeLay knows that too.

Stuart Rothenberg is editor of the Rothenberg Political Report.

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