April 10, 2005

Bell Offers Good Idea, Partisan Rhetoric -- Chronicle Crosses Ethical Line

Chris Bell, a defeated Democrat Congressman, makes a good point about congressional redistricting. It should be non-partisan, and should be designed to produce competetive elections where possible, not the one-sided affairs that currently exist in most districts.

Bell lays out his plan as follows.

We cannot achieve this unless Republicans and Democrats work together. And therein lies the problem. It would be difficult to overstate the stultifying effect that partisanship has on the work of Congress. Coming from Houston city politics, where I had worked with members of both parties, Congress was a horrible shock.

Neither party finds an electoral advantage in compromise because the district lines are drawn to favor a candidate supported by hard-core, partisan apparatchiks. What we have in Washington is the parliamentary equivalent of World War I trench warfare, with combatants so afraid of dying in no-man's land that they never leave the safety of their trenches.

If we want to force Congress out of their trenches and onto common ground, we need to make them more vulnerable to general election returns than to intraparty fratricide. Politicians who place a higher value on party loyalty than on ethics will never fight for ethics. They need to listen to November's voices rather than March's partisans.

He is right here. Most districts in the Houston area are designed in such a way as to give one party or the other a decided advantage. While this is true, for example, of Tom Delay's district (where I live), the same is also true of Sheila Jackson-Lee's district just to the nort of it. There was a definite political strategy in drawing these districts -- making sure that the party that gets nearly 60% of votes in congressional races also gets about the same percentage of the seats (unlike the court-imposed 2001 plan it replaced -- and the 1991 Democrat gerrymander it was based upon -- under which 57% of the Congressional vote earned the GOP 43% of the Congressional seats). Remapping software produces bizarre configurations that frustrate the will of the people in most states. So i agree, something has to be done.

There are just two problems wit this piece. They are the incredibly partisan (and intensely personal) attacks on Tom DeLay found in the piece, and the decision by the Houston Chronicle to run it at all.

Bell blames delay, with good reason, for the loss of his seat. Bell was targetted, along with virtually every other white Democrat in Texas, for defeat. This was done by following the mandate of civil rights laws that no redistricting plan can reduce minority representation. The GOP intentionally drew a map that increased minority-dominated districts, resulting in Bell's defeat by a black Democrat in the primary (I guess that black voters qualify as "March partisans" for Bell). Bell's retaliatory ethics complaint (which he lauds as a public service as an introduction to this commentary) was dismissed by the Ethics Committee as so lacking in merit that an ethics filing against Bell would have been appropriate if he were not so close to leaving Congress. Bell may be right on the issue of redistricting, but this partisan hack-job on DeLay will make his proposal too easy to ignore.

The Chronicle's decision to run this piece is also troubling. Bell is an all-but-declared candidate for Governor. In the commentary, he takes a pretty direct shot at his likely opponent, incumbent Governor Rick Perry. That is imply dirty pool. You do not give a candidate a platform in this manner and then allow him to carry on about his major campaign issue. Especially troubling, the paper provides the internet address to Bell's exploratory committee website, and even hyperlinks it from the online edition. This amounts to making the piece into an unpaid political ad. Given the difficulty that local and state Republicans have getting their pieces into the Chronicle, this presents loads of ethical problems in my eyes.

(Hat Tip: blogHOUSTON)

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