The Buffalo Soldier Gate at Fort Bliss | Corrie Boudreaux/El Paso Matters
El Paso’s Texas House delegation failed to convince their Republican colleagues Tuesday to revise a proposed redistricting plan that pits incumbent El Paso Democrats against one another in next year’s election.
The Texas House voted 83-63 along party lines early Wednesday after a marathon 18-hour debate to approve new state legislative boundaries that pair state Reps. Evelina “Lina” Ortega and Claudia Ordaz Perez in the redrawn House District 77.
State Rep. Joe Moody, D-El Paso, attempted to keep Ortega and Ordaz Perez in their current seats, Districts 77 and 76, respectively, by redrawing House District 75 so it would include far east El Paso County and eight West Texas counties. That amendment failed along party lines. Both Ortega and Ordaz Perez have said they plan to run for reelection in 2022.
The delegation was able to get the majority of Fort Bliss back into state Rep. Art Fierro’s House District 79 and Hueco Tanks returned to state Rep. Mary González’s House District 75. Those landmarks had initially been redrawn into House District 74, an expansive seat currently held by state Rep. Eddie Morales, D-Eagle Pass.
Because El Paso County lacks the population growth to keep five House seats within county lines, state Rep. Todd Hunter, R-Corpus Christi, unveiled a redistricting plan last month that placed part of the county in District 74. Hunter chairs the House Redistricting Committee.
Texas Democrats have criticized Hunter’s proposal as benefiting white Republican lawmakers at the expense of Black and Hispanic voters. Texans of color fueled 95% of the state’s population growth over the last decade but the map approved Tuesday reduces the number of minority-majority House districts. Districts are redrawn every 10 years after the U.S. census.
“Pairing District 76 and 77 was meant to ensure that one less Latina would be representing El Paso in Austin. This demographic, already underrepresented at the Capitol, deserves more voices — not less,” Ortega said in a statement following the vote.
During the debate she pressed Hunter on why a fifth majority El Paso seat couldn’t be drawn into part of the territory covered by District 74, which spans 11 counties.
“I want to know if there is any other constituent that will have to drive eight hours to meet face-to-face with their representative if the map stays this way,” she asked of the El Pasoans redrawn into the Eagle Pass-based district.
Hunter said he couldn’t answer that.
Under the amended map the House approved Wednesday, 56,066 El Paso County residents would comprise House District 74 — 28% of that district’s total population, according to Texas Legislative Council figures.
Fort Bliss still outside El Paso congressional district
Though Texas Democrats successfully kept Fort Bliss under an El Paso-based state representative, they have been unsuccessful — thus far — in keeping it within an El Paso-based congressional seat.
Under the congressional redistricting plan the Texas Senate approved Oct. 8, Fort Bliss and El Paso International Airport would become part of the 23rd Congressional District, currently represented by U.S. Rep. Tony Gonzales, R-San Antonio.
“Fort Bliss members are going to be trading a representative that lives five miles from the airport and five miles from Fort Bliss for a member of Congress that lives 550 miles away,” state Sen. César Blanco, D-El Paso, said when he introduced an amendment to keep the military installation in Democrat U.S. Rep. Veronica Escobar’s 16th Congressional District.
Fort Bliss has been part of Texas’ 16th Congressional district since the U.S. House of Representatives district was created more than 100 years ago.
Fort Bliss employs 47,000 people, including 29,000 active-duty service members, according to 2019 Texas Comptroller estimates. It is the largest employer in the county and one in five El Pasoans’ jobs are associated with the sprawling military installation, Blanco said.
It is imperative that an El Pasoan is representing Fort Bliss in Congress during the Department of Defense’s next Base Realignment and Closure process, he told his colleagues in the upper chamber. A 3,500 reduction in Fort Bliss’ soldier population would result in a 16% employment drop and an 11% population decline in El Paso — which would reduce local sales and property tax revenue, he said.
“When they’re closing bases throughout the country the strongest voice (against the closure) is the member of Congress typically that lives right next to the base,” he said.
State Sen. Joan Huffman, R-Houston, who chairs the Senate Redistricting Committee and drafted the new congressional boundaries, rejected the idea that Gonzales, a Navy veteran, wouldn’t adequately represent El Paso’s military installation.
But the inclusion of Fort Bliss, San Antonio’s Lackland Air Force Base and Laughlin Air Force Base near Del Rio into the redrawn 23rd Congressional District concerns El Paso’s state legislative delegation and its congresswoman.
“When you have a representative who is held accountable by voters and those voters live primarily in San Antonio, when there’s a competition for resources that representative will probably prioritize those assets in his or her home area,” Escobar said in an Oct. 1 interview. “It is a real threat to our ability to bring federal resources to our community.”
El Pasoans would comprise 13% of District 23’s redrawn population while Bexar County residents would make up 45%, according to Texas Legislative Council estimates.
Gonzales’ office did not respond to multiple requests for comment on his redrawn district.
Multiple redrawn maps awaiting approval ahead of session’s end
A redistricting plan that includes adding Fort Bliss and its surrounding areas to the 23rd Congressional District would make it more winnable for Republicans, according to a FiveThirtyEight analysis. It would go from a 5 percentage point Republican advantage to a 13-point Republican lean under the Texas Senate’s approved plan.
“There is really no reason to do this to El Paso except that the Republican-controlled (Texas) Legislature is trying to shore up Texas 23,” Escobar said.
Gonzales defeated Democrat Gina Ortiz Jones in 2020 with just over 50% of the vote.
District 23, which currently stretches from far east El Paso County to San Antonio, is among the state’s most competitive, alternating between Republicans and Democrats. Since 2015, it has been Republican-held, though Ortiz Jones narrowly missed carrying the seat in 2018 by less than 1,000 votes.
The Texas House Redistricting Committee will have a hearing on Senate Bill 6, the proposed congressional map, later Wednesday. Once it passes the committee, it will move to the full House for a vote.
Lawmakers in both chambers of the state legislature have until Oct. 19 to approve the redistricting plans for the Texas Senate, House and U.S. House of Representatives.
Gov. Greg Abbott has said he will call a fourth 30-day special legislative session if needed to finish the redistricting process.
During Tuesday’s marathon debate, several Democrats indicated that no matter how the Texas Legislature moves forward, there will be litigation in federal courts over the new maps. That means the issue won’t finally be resolved even after the Legislature finishes the process.
This is the first time in decades Texas lawmakers can redrawn the state’s political maps without needing federal approval. That requirement was in place until 2013 to ensure Texas’ redistricting process didn’t violate the federal Voting Rights Act, which protects voters of color. The Supreme Court struck down that Voting Rights Act provision.
Smith has been a reporter for the El Paso Times and The (McAllen) Monitor. She’s covered education, criminal justice and local government. A Seattle native, she’s lived in Texas since 2014, with stops in Austin, the Rio Grande Valley and now El Paso. She can be reached at email@example.com or 915-247-8857.