News Column

Safe Seats Don’t Make Sound Politics

As the post-Census 2000 redistricting draws to a close, the big winners haven’t been minorities, but rather incumbents.

By Joel Russell
May 2002

Congressional officeholders from both parties have won safer seats for the next decade, and voters of all kinds may end up the losers. Hispanics accounted for 40 percent of the U.S. population increase during the 1990s, but experts agree those gains won’t translate into proportional gains for Hispanic lawmakers in the nation’s capitol. “This is probably the one redistricting where Latinos have fared the worst, certainly below what our demographic growth would indicate,” says Arturo Vargas, executive director of the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials (NALEO). “Most of the [redistricting] plans were incumbent-protection plans.” Robert Brischetto, demographic consultant and former research director at the Southwest Voter Registration Education Project, notes that after the 1980 redistricting, the number of Hispanics in Congress immediately jumped from five to nine. After 1990, the total rose from 10 to 17. Currently it stands at 19 (see table). “Every decade we see this jump,” Mr. Brischetto says. “Yes, it’s probably going to be less than the bumps [Hispanic representation] received in previous redistrictings, but I would be surprised if you don’t see a jump in the number of seats Hispanics hold in Congress.” At this point in the 2002 election cycle, only a few Hispanics show a good chance of moving into Congress. Favorites include Florida’s Mario Diaz-Balart, brother of Republican Congressman Lincoln Diaz-Balart, and California’s Linda Sanchez, sister of Democratic Congresswoman Loretta Sanchez. Demo-crat Dario Herrera faces a close election in Nevada, and Portuguese-American Dennis Cardoza looks likely to keep California Congressman Gary Condit’s district in Democratic control. Other Hispanic candidates appear on primary ballots, but most face incumbent Hispanic opponents or heavy odds in the November general election. The slow-growth outlook stems from changes in redistricting rules during the last decade. In 1990, the Justice Department encouraged state legislatures to design “majority-minority” districts that could elect minority members of Congress. A series of Supreme Court decisions, however, narrowed the acceptable limits of race- and ethnicity-based districts. As a result, state legislatures took a safer route this time around, considering incumbency as the main factor when drawing the map. “Courts are much more tolerant of partisan gerrymandering than racial gerrymandering,” says Mr. Brischetto. “After [the 1990 Census], you used race and ethnicity to draw the lines. You looked at the minority percentage [of voters] as a guide to create a winnable minority district. And then you drew other districts. … Now, you look at race as one factor, but not the predominant factor. You use traditional factors such as incumbency, other political boundaries, and no odd shapes. Naturally, you’re going to create districts that are less winnable by minorities.” He adds that most Hispanic members of Congress have majority-Hispanic districts (see table); for those who don’t, their districts qualify as majority-minority if African Americans and Asian Americans are taken into account. With stricter legal standards in place for racial gerrymanders, Mr. Brischetto expects political operatives to be on the lookout for any violations. Nathaniel Persily, a University of Pennsylvania professor who studies redistricting, agrees, saying the litigation will get “very political, with little attention paid to the Voting Rights Act or the Constitution.” Moreover, a split-down-the-middle national electorate will put extra pressure on party leaders to protect incumbents for the next decade. “Pro-incumbent gerrymandering occurs in a divided government,” says Mr. Persily. “At the congressional level, the potential impact is huge, because everyone believes [redistricting] could determine who controls Congress.” The incumbent-friendly strategy means lawmakers try to absorb more voters of their own party into their districts and shed those of the opposite party. This creates “safe seats” and less competitive elections, but Mr. Persily maintains it can also create more representative government. For example, if one district were 100 percent Republican, then all the voters would share the same political philosophy as their representative. At the other extreme, if the district were 50 percent Republican and 50 percent Democratic, either party could win the seat, yet “half the voters would be unhappy.” In reality, districts are neither 100 percent one party nor divided 50-50. Instead, a district that’s effectively controlled by one party contains a minority percentage of voters from the other – and the size of that percentage figures in governance, according to experts. In the Washington, D.C.–based newsletter Roll Call, political analyst Stuart Rothenberg has predicted that “the creation of safe seats is likely to produce a House of Representatives more inclined to partisan bickering and gridlock, not less. … Even though it is reasonable to argue that members from safe seats will be more politically independent (since they presumably are less vulnerable to short-term swings in voter sentiment), history teaches otherwise.” Mr. Rothenberg’s logic holds that a liberal member of Congress in a marginal district must make concessions to conservative voters or run the risk of losing in the next election. The same holds true for a conservative politician from a balanced district. But politicians who represent strongly right- or left-leaning districts can take absolute, ideological positions without any motivation to negotiate. A look at the voting patterns of current Hispanic members of Congress supports the argument. The Almanac of American Politics 2002 (National Journal, $56.95) rates lawmakers’ voting records relative to their peers. A 90 percent liberal rating, for example, would mean a legislator voted “more liberal” than 90 percent of his or her colleagues on selected issues. Comparison of conservative/liberal ratings with district voting data from the 2000 presidential election – a good measure of partisan leanings – shows that, indeed, members from strongly partisan districts tend to vote accordingly (see table). Nydia Velázquez, the only Hispanic who qualified for the Almanac’s list of “25 Most Liberal Members of Congress,” delivered 81 percent of her district to Democrat Al Gore. On the other hand, Democrat Solomon Ortiz, whose district split 50-50 between George W. Bush and Mr. Gore, has a “46.3 liberal” rating, meaning that he votes with conservatives more often than with liberals. Mr. Diaz-Balart’s district leans slightly Republican, whereas Congressman Ruben Hinojosa’s district is slightly Democratic. Those lawmakers’ ratings reflect their mixed constituencies. All Hispanic members of Congress except one (Henry Bonilla of Texas) represent “safe districts,” defined as those in which the incumbent won at least 60 percent of the vote in 2000 (see table). “One problem with our whole Congress today is you get these seats that are so safe, the representative doesn’t feel threatened,” comments Mr. Brischetto. “It does affect the politics. The congressman or congresswoman doesn’t consider the opinions of the loyal opposition, the other party. That’s not good for democracy.” NALEO’s Mr. Vargas believes safe districting “provides a disincentive to vote, because these elections are a foregone conclusion.” The only substantive competition occurs during the primary election, he says. In fact, the only Hispanic incumbent to lose an election in the past decade was Matthew Martinez, who lost to fellow Democrat Hilda Solis in California’s 2000 primary. Mr. Persily and Mr. Vargas expect the debate over redistricting to occupy federal courts for the next 10 years, but the 2002 election cycle will proceed according to each state legislature’s final version. “It’s all wrapped up except for the litigation,” says Mr. Vargas. “This year’s elections will happen under the plans as passed.”

Source: HISPANIC BUSINESS magazine

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