by Janell Ross
In the 1940s, when Monica Cruz's grandfather tried to register to vote, officials in Los Fresnos, the small South Texas town where he lived, demanded a fee.
The fee was a poll tax, one of the many devices that Texas authorities used to suppress Latino and black voting, Cruz's grandfather told her. That’s an ugly part of Texas’ past and Cruz’s Mexican-American family history. But on Monday, when early voting begins for the primary in San Antonio where Cruz lives and elsewhere across the state, Texas politics will pass a milestone of sorts.
For the first time in the state's history, a quarter of all Texas congressional races will be held in specially designed districts where Latino voters make up the majority. That’s a figure that is in direct proportion to its share of eligible Texas voters who are Latino. And that’s a situation that would not have been possible without women like Cruz, who have been giving birth to new Texans. In the 10 years from 2000 to 2010, Texas added about 529,000 new people, including newborns and new arrivals, with about 65 percent of them being Latino. And all that new population growth helped Texas gain four new congressional seats -- more than any other state.
“Would any Texan, say, walking along the street know that [because] our population is growing considerably, we will get more representation in Congress as a state?” asked Cruz, a political scientist at St. Mary’s University in San Antonio. “Would they know where or who to attribute it to?"
"Yeah, I think so unless they have their head in the ground," she said. "It’s really simple: Latinas are having children, and now Texas will have a bigger voice in the House. That’s the way representative democracy works.”
But in Texas this year, that kind of population shift resulted in an epic battle over the new congressional seats and the beginning of a sea change in who wields political power.
What’s happening in Texas is of national interest because while the specifics might vary, the general demographic trend does not: Across America the Latino birth rate is poised to deliver more political power to Hispanics than many Americans may anticipate.
Of the nearly 530,000 people added to Texas’ population from 2000 to 2010, Latinos like Cruz's two children accounted for 65 percent of that growth, said demographer Steve Murdock, who led the U.S. Census Bureau from 2007 to 2009.
“I say that, or something like it, at least once a week in a presentation to some group or another, and it shocks people because they still think this is a Texas, California, Florida, New York thing,” said Murdock, now a sociologist at Rice University in Houston. “It’s not. It’s a national phenomenon.”
Every month, more of Texas’ disportionately young Latino population turns 18, or voting age. Nationwide about 50,000 Latinos reach this marker each month, according to federal data.
The census data that still occupies a lot of Murdock’s time isn’t merely a matter of creating a statistical snapshot. Every 10 years that data is used to assign seats in Congress to growing states and remove them from those that lost population. Once that process, known as congressional reapportionment, concludes, state authorities draw new political maps with new districts. Then the dominant party in a given state will try to hold onto the seats it has and expand that number, said researcher Antonio Gonzalez, president of the William C. Velasquez Institute, a nonpartisan San Antonio-based policy group that focuses on Latinos.
“Power protects and shepherds power; that is the way, unfortunately, it is done,” said Gonzalez, also a blogger for The Huffington Post. "But we have, thank goodness, reached a point [that] you can’t take the spoils of population growth and really expect that you won’t have to bother sharing. That age is over.”
Because of Texas' history of extreme discrimination against minority voters, it belongs to a small group of states that must send any political district maps its legislature develops for approval by a three-judge panel in Washington, D.C., or the Department of Justice, Gonzalez explained. These states must also create “opportunity zones,” districts designed to include a majority of minority voters who, when grouped together, would have the power to elect candidates of their choice. So state plans that try to eliminate opportunity districts or mitigate their impact on election outcomes are often declared illegal, he said.
After Texas won four new seats in the reapportionment process in 2010, its state legislature devised ways to abide by the letter rather than the spirit of the Voting Rights Act. In a November 2010 email, obtained by the Mexican American Legal Defense Fund and presented as evidence in court, a Texas legislative staffer suggested a method for drafting new districts: identify communities with a large number of voters with “Spanish” surnames and low voter turnout, then clump them together into an opportunity district. The proposal also would push areas with a large number of very active Hispanic voters into mostly Republican and non-Hispanic white districts. The impact of the more active and largely Democratic-leaning Latino voters would be diffused. Republicans in these areas would safely win re-elections.
“I think the legislature thought this would be the last time, their last chance to just do it the old way, protect the good old boys and hold on to nearly all the power,” said Nina Perales, vice president of litigation at the Mexican American Legal Defense Fund, a civil rights organization based in San Antonio.
In January the Supreme Court ruled that the new Texas congressional districts created by the state legislature violated the Voting Rights Act but that a replacement map drawn by a San Antonio federal court preferred by the defense fund could not be used either. The San Antonio court had overstepped its authority, the Supreme Court ruled.
In February the defense fund and the state legislature reached a compromise. Two of the four new districts the state gained would become Latino opportunity zones.
Creating opportunity districts -- with a majority of minority members -- is critical, said Perales, the lawyer who helped make the Mexican American Legal Defense Fund’s case at the Supreme Court. “People think we are partisan,” Perales said. “This is about Latino political power, not parties. We fight for opportunity districts -- districts called for in the Voting Rights Act, by the way -- so that minority voters have a chance to elect someone they want."
Added Perales, a mother of three, who started her job just months after her oldest, now 15, was born, "We don’t care if that candidate is black, white or brown, a Republican, an independent, a Democrat or a communist. We just fight for that chance. We do it so that in three years when young people like my son are eligible to vote, they will be heard.”
As it has turned out, the new districts have put Rep. Lloyd Doggett, a prochoice white multimillionaire lawyer from Austin who supports the president's health care package and federal funding for NPR, in significant danger of losing the congressional seat he has held since 1995, some analysts say. (Doggett also blogs for The Huffington Post.)Challenging Doggett in the primary are Democrats Sylvia Romo, a Mexican-American from San Antonio who is the elected tax assessor-collector, and Maria Luisa Alvarado, also of Mexican-American heritage from San Antonio, who was the Democratic nominee for lieutenant governor in 2006. If either of the women prevail, they would become the first Latina to represent Texas in Congress.
The potential changes in the state's political power landscape have unnerved and angered some Republicans and Democrats.
“But I think the opportunities that come with all the new people and the new seats really only matter if we use our votes," said Mary Gonzalez, 28, who is herself a candidate for a state House race in District 75, which includes El Paso." And this is a part of the country with a lot of disempowered voters.”
In more than 200 neighborhoods and communities in El Paso County, known as colonias, some residents do not have running water or reliable electricity. But as a candidate, Gonzalez is spending long days and some nights, with her 10 siblings and her parents to call voters and knock on doors to get out the vote -- and win herself a seat in the process. If she prevails, Gonzalez will become the first Latina to represent District 75 and the first out lesbian in the Texas House. She plans to dedicate herself to delivering basic infrastructure and services and expanding state funding for education.
Regardless of who wins in District 75, few would dispute that the Latino baby boom has led to redistricting and therefore increased political power.
“You can’t have a thriving economy or a prosperous country without a well-educated population and workforce," observed sociologist Murdock. "Those kinds of [population] numbers either need to influence how elected officials spend public money or they point to a pretty dire path."
For her part, Cruz, the San Antonio academic, is resolved that her own children -- a 11-year-old boy and a 9-year-old girl -- will be cognizant of the responsibilities of citizenship and wisely use their voting power. She reminds them that her grandfather had to pay a poll tax to vote in South Texas and that while they attend a Spanish-language immersion school in one of San Antonio’s best suburban school districts, their grandfathers were strictly forbidden to speak Spanish in their Texas public schools.
“My husband and I have made a point of talking to our kids -- frequently -- about what that means,” she said. “When you have advantages, you also have responsibilities and obligations to care about those who don’t.”