By Paul A. Anthony, Editor in Chief
With a third special session calling the Texas Legislature back to Austin, the university’s Bob Hunter also has returned, to vote against a redistricting plan he considers bad for Abilene, the Big Country and its residents.
Hunter, senior vice president emeritus of the university, represents Taylor and Nolan counties in the Legislature. This summer, he was one of just five House Republicans to twice vote against the plan pushed by his party’s House leadership.
“The House passed out a bill the Speaker wanted and the party wanted,” Hunter told the Optimist Friday, just before he flew to Austin for the session. “But we don’t want to change our map.”
All eyes now are on West Texas as the redistricting fight enters its fourth month. State Sens. Troy Fraser, R-Horeshoe Bay who represents Abilene, and Robert Duncan, R-Lubbock, have fought House Speaker Tom Craddick, R-Midland, over the drawing of lines that currently split Abilene and San Angelo from Lubbock and Midland.
Fraser and Duncan represent constituencies-Abilene, Lubbock and San Angelo-that largely oppose a drastic reshaping of their districts. Abilene wishes to remain the anchor of its 17th District with San Angelo. Lubbock also wants to remain the anchor of its own district, the 19th with Midland and Odessa.
However, Craddick wants a district where Midland is the center, so it can elect representatives to Congress.
The overarching goal of redistricting is to give Republicans more seats in Congress. Democrats have a 17-15 edge in the Texas delegation; the GOP argues that is not reflective of a voting trend that has elected Republicans into both houses of the Legislature and into every statewide office.
“I’ve told Speaker Craddick that he deserves to have a congressional district with Midland-Odessa as the heart of it,” Hunter said, explaining his contrary votes, “but not at the expense of the Big Country.”
The intraparty rift has raised the hopes of Senate Democrats, who recently returned to the state after a month-long, quorum-busting standoff in New Mexico ended in defection and failure .
Hunter, meanwhile, stressed his friendship with Craddick, despite Hunter’s minority stand against the House-drawn map that puts Abilene in a district with Lubbock and San Angelo in with Midland.
“I believe my friendship with Speaker Craddick is as strong as it’s ever been,” said Hunter, who has represented the 71st District in the Texas House for 17 years but is more famous on campus for being the inventor of Sing Song. “I voted for Speaker Craddick as speaker” after the GOP swept into power last year.
But Hunter and Craddick have had a rocky past, said Dr. Neal Coates, assistant professor of political science and a longtime observer of state politics. Hunter initially supported Craddick’s challenger, Rep. Pete Laney, D-Hale Center, who had been Speaker of the House for a decade, Coates said.
Hunter lost the chair of the Defense Affairs and State-Federal Relations Committee in 2000.
“He stood on a principle,” Coates said. “He stood for a man who many from all parties agreed did a fine job as speaker.”
The battle between Craddick and the rest of West Texas has shifted the state’s political focus away from the Interstate 35 corridor, if only for a brief time. Duncan of Lubbock-who also chairs the powerful Senate Jurisprudence Committee that oversees the map-drawing process in that house-has stood firm in opposing maps that split the region.
Likewise, Fraser, who was unavailable for comment, was among those who told Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst in a July meeting with West Texas mayors that the area was firmly opposed to Craddick-endorsed maps.
At a Jurisprudence Committee hearing in San Angelo June 30, representatives of Abilene, San Angelo, Big Spring, Bronte, Glasscock County and Paint Rock, both Republican and Democrat, attacked redistricting, causing at least one Republican senator to take notice of the bipartisan opposition.
“San Angelo was probably the most significant” of the hearings conducted throughout the state this summer, Sen. Jeff Wentworth, R-San Antonio, told the San Angelo Standard-Times.
The outpouring of opposition, which has been especially strong in Abilene, Hunter said, led him to be one of five Republicans to vote against Craddick’s plan in the first special session and one of nine to vote no in the second.
“More people grew a little wiser on the second vote,” he chuckled. “I have justified my vote as based on my constituency in Nolan and Taylor counties, which have been firmly opposed to redistricting.”