By GILBERT HOFFMAN
HARRIS COUNTY– As part of the redistricting process, Harris County Commissioners hosted four public hearings in their districts, to get public comment on the proposed new boundary map, labeled A-1. New boundaries were required because the 2010 census showed a population gain in Harris County of over 20 percent, but mainly in two precincts, Pct. 3 and Pct. 4 on the west and north sides.
The new map shows major expansion of Precinct 2 into areas such as Aldine, Atascocita and Huffman that are presently in Pct. 4, and also expansion of Precinct 1 into the area around Intercontinental airport. Concurrently, areas of Precincts 3 and 4, where population has grown the most in the last ten years, have been reduced. All of this is required by federal law, that says precincts must be close to equal in population. As explained by Gene Locke of the law firm of Andrews Kurth and U.H. Professor Richard Murray, that helped redraw the boundaries, there were actually eight governing principles that guided the decisions behind the new boundaries.
However, the public meetings on Monday July 25th in Precinct 2 and Wednesday July 27th in Precinct 1 have indicated that many people are not happy with this realignment, for a variety of reasons.
State Senator Mario Gallegos spoke at both of the meetings, and essentially said that the Hispanic opportunity district, historically Precinct 2, had been diluted. Even though the population numbers showed a Hispanic plurality, nevertheless the voting age percentage has been reduced from the 2000 count. Gallegos said this would effectively eliminate the Hispanic Opportunity district in Pct. 2. In his own colorful language, he said “This map is full of the Christmas Turkey.” He called on Commissioner Lee, who heads a black plurality district, to help redraw the lines to more effectively represent ethnicity in both precincts.
State Representative Armando Walle spoke about the harm that the new lines would do to his home district of Aldine. He mentioned that it would split the district in half, with two commissioners needing to provide services. Effective relationships that now exist with Pct. 1 staff would be disrupted, and quality of life programs now being initiated by the East Aldine Management District would be more difficult dealing with two Precincts and new players. He noted that Precinct 2 as redrawn would not actually be an Hispanic Opportunity District. In addition, basic services would be harder for his area to get, because of the dilution of resources required when northeast communities such as Atascocita, Huffman and Kingwood are included.
Indeed, many speakers questioned the commonality of communnities in the north, such as Kingwood, with areas in the south around the ship channel. They also questioned whether the “compact” requirement of redistricting had been met. Many, including Gallegos, thought the map showed obvious “gerrymandering.”
Other speakers against the map included Rey Guerrera, who decried the “elimination of the only Hispanic District we had,” and Lucy Moreno who wanted a Senior Citizens center and now saw this opportunity taken away by the expansion of the districts away from the Cavalcade area.
However, not all speakers were against the map. Al Callaway said he saw an opportunity for Hispanics and Blacks to work together in Precincts 3 and 4 to accomplish more minority goals. State Senator Rodney Ellis said he favored the map too, because it kept the black community together and allowed Commissioner Lee to continue his service to their needs.
Although speaker Fernando Cisneros said he supported the A-1 plan, he noted that Pct. 2 has not actually been an Hispanic Opportunity District, because many Hispanics do not vote. The previous commissioner lost, he said, because she “did not take care of the Hispanic community.”
After the final two hearings, the Commissioners are expected to reconsider the map in August, and finalize the plan. It was indicated that this A-1 map is preliminary, and even after adoption would have to be reviewed by the federal Department of Justice to comply with the Voting Rights Act of 1965.