It's instructive to compare how the city of Houston and Harris County have handled redistricting of council districts and commissioners' precincts this year.
While the municipal effort was a lengthy, inclusive and transparent project that solicited and responded to citizen input, the county's proposed map to be discussed on Tuesday at Commissioners Court has been formulated by consultants behind closed doors with minimal influence from the public at four meetings.
Not surprisingly, the main impact of the county plan would buttress the positions of the four incumbent commissioners, who are effectively the clients of those drawing the maps: attorney and former Houston mayoral candidate Gene Locke and University of Houston political scientist Richard Murray.
Precinct 2 until this year was represented by the only Hispanic commissioner ever elected to the court, Sylvia Garcia. The proposed map would boost the precinct's Anglo strength while cutting Hispanic influence. That would solidify the position of Republican Jack Morman, who narrowly beat Garcia.
Although Latinos now make up 40 percent of the Harris County population and account for most of the county's population growth over the last decade, Commissioners Court consists of four Anglos and one African-American, all male. If the current redistricting plan is approved, that would likely continue.
A group called Latinos SOS/Save Our Seat contends the redistricting map violates the federal Voting Rights Act injunction against watering down minority percentages in existing electoral districts in Texas and other states covered by the law. Not waiting to see if commissioners approve the proposed map, Houston City Councilmen James Rodriguez and Ed Gonzalez, among others, sued the county in federal court Friday, claiming the redrawn precincts are an "illegal gerrymander" that diminishes Hispanic voting power.
Attorney Locke argues that the proposed lines actually increase Hispanic population in Precinct 2 from when the lines were drawn in 2001. But critics point out that the new boundaries dilute Hispanic voting strength from what it is now.
The consultants defend the proposed map as necessary to balance population between the precincts while preserving Precinct 1, represented by El Franco Lee, as a minority district. State Sen. Mario Gallegos counters that Precinct 2 could maintain its current racial mix by being redrawn to center on his Eastside district, while expanding to take in Hispanic neighborhoods on the near north and northwest sides of Houston.
When Hispanic activists made similar complaints about the initial city redistricting map, Mayor Annise Parker's administration took heed and acted to increase opportunities for Hispanics to elect representatives to City Council. We believe commissioners should follow that example and maintain Precinct 2's current racial balance.
At the same time, Hispanic leaders in Harris County must take responsibility for improving the abysmal voter turnout in their communities. Until that happens, Latinos will continue to be woefully underrepresented in both city and county government.