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At the center of Texas redistricting fights, a Senate district becomes a new type of battleground

U.S. District Judge David Guaderrama will hear a challenge Tuesday to the redrawn political boundaries for Fort Worth’s state Senate District 10.
Stephanie Federico
/
KUT
Texas Senate District 10, which was redrawn to cover seven rural counties in addition to Tarrant, is at the center of state redistricting battles.

Texas Democrats and Republicans have wrestled for control of state Senate District 10 for over a decade. However, a redistricted map that drew seven rural counties into a district that previously only covered Tarrant might change that.

District 10's March 1 Republican primary, and legal challenges from incumbent Beverly Powell, civil rights groups and federal agencies over the district's new demographics, make the area a battleground in more ways than one.

Powell and six Tarrant County residents sued the state in November, alleging the new maps purposely dilute voting power among Black, Hispanic and Asian residents. A three-judge panel in El Paso denied the suit's request in February to block the maps from being used in the primaries.

"It's not at all surprising that there was not going to be an injunction six weeks before the primary," said Rebecca Deen, a University of Texas at Arlington political science professor.

Powell declined comment through a campaign spokesperson.

However, she told the Fort Worth Reportthat she and her team would determine their next steps when the federal court releases its written decision on the injunction.

Though she was disappointed by the court's decision, Powell told the Report, she remains hopeful.

"We feel like this is obvious racial gerrymandering, and I think the evidence is clear," she said.

The lawsuit is the first of many redistricting challenges to go before federal courts. The U.S. Department of Justice sued the state for allegedly creating redistricting plans that minimize the voting power of Black and Latino communities. Organizations that represent Hispanic and Latino residents sued in October and claimed the redrawn maps do not represent their communities' voters.

But the two Republican primary candidates vying for the opportunity to unseat Powell doubt the courts will side with the map's challengers.

State Rep. Phil King, who represents Wise and Parker counties in District 61, announced he would run if the new district maps were finalized. Lt.Gov. Dan Patrick endorsed King 20 minutes after the longtime state representative's announcement. King also has endorsements from Sen. Ted Cruz, former Gov. Rick Perry and Tarrant County Sheriff Bill Waybourn.

King said the court's refusal to delay the primaries or change the maps in early February signaled that the law was on the state's side.

"I'm not concerned that the courts are going to intervene in the district," he said. "I think that, without any question, that the elections will proceed through November under the maps as they've currently been drawn by the legislature."

Warren Norred, an Arlington attorney who has spent more than 25 years as a conservative activist, announced in early August he would run, after Powell and dozens of other state Democrats broke quorum to block Republican-backed changes to voting rights legislation.

He decided to stay in the race after the district maps changed and King launched his campaign. The new maps, he said, undoubtedly favor incumbent Republicans, but are not racially discriminatory.

"All of their evidence shows we're looking at Republicans and Democrats. We don't make the assumption that every Black person is a Democrat. We just look at voters," Norred said.

Whichever candidate advances will face off in a district that, as drawn, voted for former President Donald Trump by over 57% in November 2020. President Joe Biden won the district as it was previously drawn (Tarrant County-only) with 53% of the vote.

Deen said Republicans in charge of redistricting went for areas like Senate District 10, which have swayed between Democrat and Republican victors since 2008, rather than making reliably Republican districts more Republican. That makes a district with an incumbent Democrat more enticing.

"Initially, it looked like the field was going to be a little more crowded than just the two," Deen said.

She added that Norred may have more work cut out for him on the campaign trail because King, who has held his post in the House since 1999, has more name recognition in Parker and surrounding counties.

As for Powell, Deen said the first-term senator should hope for national trends to help her, such as fewer COVID-19 cases and less inflation. The redistricted map, however, will make re-election difficult regardless of national developments.

"I think that it just is going to make it harder for a Democrat to win, which is what (lawmakers) were intending to do," Deen said.

Allison Campolo, Tarrant County Democratic Party chair, said she's confident the federal courts will find fault with the new maps and that Powell can outvote a Republican challenger — despite the odds. She said Democrats in other counties have fewer down-ballot races, meaning Powell's race will attract more attention.

"Somebody like Beverly Powell is someone that the Democrats are really excited to be able to vote for, somebody that would feel more local to them," Campolo said. "We are, despite the dilution of the maps, we're going to try our best to turn out as many Democratic votes as possible and work together with those counties."

A hard legal argument

Powell and others listed in the suit must prove that the new map was gerrymandered on the basis of race.

The lawsuit claims the newly drawn lines drew out minority voters in four parts of Tarrant County, including Mansfield and parts of south and west Fort Worth, and eliminates "crossover voters," or white voters likely to vote for minority-preferred candidates.

The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 2018 that federal courts cannot intervene in cases of political gerrymandering. In 2013, the Supreme Court also decided a case in Shelby County, Alabama, that struck down a section of the Voting Rights Act. The section required 16 states that have historically discriminated against people of color, including Texas, to obtain preclearance from the federal government on voting changes.

Both decisions lowered the bar for redistricted maps, Deen said, and put the responsibility to call out race-based discrimination on people and organizations. Additionally, race and party often run parallel.

"It has always been true that the Democratic Party was a place where people of color tended to gravitate," Deen said.

Republican legislators who drafted the changes say they adopted a "race blind" approach in redistricting. Sen. Joan Huffman, who oversaw the process, said she ran the approved map drafts by the attorney general's office to ensure they did not discriminate against voters of color.

Senate District 10 has flipped between Republican and Democrat control since 2008. Powell won the seat in 2018 from Republican Konni Burton. Burton succeeded Democrat Wendy Davis.

"You've just seen it switch back and forth, back and forth, and that's in part a function of the growth of Democratic voters in the area," Deen said.

Campolo said she believes the lawsuit lays out a clear case of race-based gerrymandering.

"I think the textbook definition of cracking and packing is going on here in Tarrant," Campolo said. "I guess we can be a little bit flattered that they feel like we're such a threat that they have to gerrymander us into oblivion. But as we have previously, you know, we've outvoted gerrymandered maps, and that'll be our goal here now," Campolo said.

However, Republican challengers Norred and King say the allegations don't hold much weight.

King said the district has never been classified as a majority-minority district under redistricting law.

"In fact, it has flipped back and forth from Republican to Democrat for each of the last four senatorial elections," King said. "In none of those elections has a minority ever held that office."

Norred said the lawsuit is based on the assumption that all voters of color vote for Democrats.

“She has to assume that race and party are indistinguishable based on stereotypes and she has to allege that we are trying to gather people along racial lines," he said.

Norred said he believes the district was redrawn, rather, to protect incumbent Republicans.

"Redesigning a district for one person to win so that Dan Patrick has control of the Senate to the extent that he does goes over the top and is bad form, but is not illegal," Norred said.

Got a tip? Email Kailey Broussard at kbroussard@kera.org. You can follow Kailey on Twitter @KaileyBroussard.

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Kailey Broussard covers Arlington for KERA News and The Arlington Report. Broussard has covered Arlington since 2020 and began at the Fort Worth Star-Telegram before joining the station in 2021.