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A gerrymandering journey

Complex district maps leave Texans puzzled about who represents them in Congress

A gerrymandering journey

Smitty’s Market in Lockhart, Texas (Kevin Vandivier/Genesis Photos)

LOCKHART, Texas—Lockhart is barbecue country, and Smitty’s Market is like a time machine. A sign at the front door says, “cash only, no exceptions.” Original wood floors creak beneath cowboy boots. The black soot that cakes the walls is so thick you don’t even know what color is underneath. An open wood-burning fire sits a few feet away from where hungry patrons choose cuts of fatty brisket so tender a plastic knife glides through it. No forks. No sides. Slow-smoked meat served on brown parchment paper with white bread and crackers—the traditional Texas barbecue style since 1900.

Lockhart—population 12,000—is split into two congressional districts. Each of at least four central Texas zip codes has four different representatives in the U.S. Congress. The reason: gerrymandering, the process by which politicians carve districts to favor whichever party holds power. That leaves many Americans, particularly with fast-growing or fast-shrinking populations, not knowing who represents them: Sidewalk surveys I did at the end of October showed more than 9 out of 10 Texans unable to name their representative and disconnected from “the People’s House.”

Lockhart is the kind of small Texas town where the sheriff sports a white mustache and wears a cowboy hat and blue jeans. Pickup trucks outnumber cars. Clifton Johnson, 67, has lived near Lockhart for 32 years. He started working for Smitty’s three years ago after he retired. Johnson likes Texas barbecue, drinking beer with his friends, and living in the country where no one bothers him. He’s a friend to the sheriff, and his wife works at the courthouse; but he couldn’t even guess who represents him in Congress.

Texas’ 28 million people live in the state’s 268,820 square miles and have 36 representatives in Washington, D.C. Last year, 46 percent of Texas voters chose blue House candidates, but Democrats only secured 11 seats (31 percent). Ten congressmen ran unopposed: Only one of the 36 races was competitive. A carefully gerrymandered congressional map helps keep Texas Republicans in office. Blue states like Maryland do the same to squeeze the GOP. Gerrymandering brings to the fore candidates who don’t have to appeal to a broad constituency. It keeps lawyers employed and judges also: The U.S. Supreme Court in October heard oral arguments on Wisconsin gerrymandering, and federal courts have found that the Texas district maps discriminate against minorities.

One of Lockhart’s representatives is Lloyd Doggett, a Democrat in office since 1995. Back then he represented liberal Austin, which locals describe as a blueberry in the middle of a bowl of tomato soup. Now, through gerrymandering, Doggett represents only a sliver of Austin, plus part of Lockhart, a 70-mile strand along I-35, and a chunk of San Antonio. Four Republicans split the rest of the blueberry and submerge it in so much tomato soup that they gain comfortable reelection.

United States Department of the Interior

Texas’ 35th Congressional District (in blue), represented by Lloyd Doggett (United States Department of the Interior )

Sights in downtown Austin on a weekday morning: panhandlers, bike riders, wearers of skinny jeans, man buns, beards, tattoos—and the J.J. Pickle Federal Building, named after Austin’s longtime congressman, Doggett’s predecessor. Doggett’s district office is on the ninth floor of the Pickle, a boxy structure with rows of windows on all sides recessed behind columns of concrete. Two security officers guard the front entrance. You can’t get past them without stating your purpose, emptying your pockets, turning over a photo ID, and removing your belt and shoes—a more taxing process than entering the U.S. Capitol.

Doggett doesn’t work in his ninth-floor office. When I entered, the office manager and three interns sitting at four plain desks stared at me with expressionless faces from behind their computer screens. I asked how the district has changed over the years and what that means for people who live there. They wouldn’t answer even basic questions and referred me to the Washington office, which had not responded to my previous inquiries. I asked the office manager for a map of the district. She said, “I think there’s one online”—there are no maps on Doggett’s website, but the Texas Tribune provides a detailed one.

Other district offices are equally unhelpful. Rep. Lamar Smith, R-Texas, like Doggett, represents a sliver of Austin. Yet, he doesn’t have real estate downtown. Smith’s district office in Austin sits off I-35 in a shared office with no security. Smith rents a small space on the first floor along with Martinez Tax Services, attorney Pablo Avila, and Copeland Insurance Group. Open Monday-Thursday, 8:30 a.m.–1:30 p.m., just one person was there to greet me. Morgan McFall, a constituent services liaison for Smith, runs a hair extensions business on the side and informed me she’s not authorized to speak with reporters.

South on I-35 is Buda—population 15,000. Buda has four congressmen for its one zip code: Doggett, and Republicans Blake Farenthold, Roger Williams, and Smith. Seventeen miles further sits San Marcos, a growing Texas city of 62,000—up from 45,000 at the time of the last census. Doggett, Smith, Williams, and Vicente Gonzalez, D-Texas, each represent a slice. Just south is New Braunfels, another growing city of 74,000 people. Doggett, Smith, or Gonzalez could be your representative, depending on your exact address.

Erin Trieb/Sipa USA/Newscom

The Buc-ee’s in New Braunfels. (Erin Trieb/Sipa USA/Newscom)

Just off I-35 in New Braunfels sits Buc-ee’s, one in a chain of oversized roadside gas stations as huge as some Walmarts. Travelers can fill up their tanks, buy Buc-ee’s fudge or branded corn puffs called “Beaver Nuts,” and enjoy Buc-ee’s restrooms, rated in 2012 the nation’s cleanest. This Buc-ee’s falls in Doggett’s district, but all 10 of the people I interviewed outside the store were clueless regarding their representative.

Three of them: Keith Welch drives a black Dodge Ram 1500, lives in New Braunfels, identifies as conservative, wants to defend the Second Amendment—and doesn’t know who his representative is. Nona Smith lives in San Antonio and scratches her blond ponytail as she says, “I thought my congressman was what’s-his-name … Ted Cruz.” Sean Forsberg lives in Austin, identifies more often with Democrats, voted for Trump in 2016 because he wanted to choose the winner—and doesn’t know who his representative is.

Thirty miles south marks the end of Doggett’s district in majority-Hispanic San Antonio. Doggett’s San Antonio district office could be mistaken for a Mexican restaurant. It’s a small white building with a Spanish-style green roof located a mile down the road from tourists snapping selfies at the Alamo, also in Doggett’s district. The office has a sign-in sheet for both English and Spanish-speaking constituents. Black-and-white photos of Doggett’s political career canvas the walls. At 4:30 p.m. I was the day’s first visitor, according to the blank sign-in sheet. MaryEllen Veliz is the district director and runs the four-person office. I asked her for a map of the district. She said with a smile, “I would be happy to refer you to our communications person”—in Washington.

Kevin Vandivier/Genesis

Doggett’s San Antonio district office. (Kevin Vandivier/Genesis)

Like Austin, San Antonio is more liberal than rural Texas. The Republican Legislature carefully gerrymandered the city into five congressional districts: Doggett and fellow Democrats Joaquin Castro and Henry Cuellar share the city with the GOP’s Smith and Will Hurd, a moderate Republican who represents Texas’ 23rd District—an 800-mile stretch from west San Antonio to El Paso. Constituents are confused. “I have no idea who represents me,” said Sarah Clower, a three-year San Antonio resident, with a laugh. “I probably should.”

Back in Lockhart, between bites of fatty brisket, Willie and Virginia Turner admitted they don’t know who represents them in Congress. “Virginia, you should know this,” Willie says. “I want to say it’s Gonzalez something, but you’ve inspired me. I’m going to find out who my congressman is.” The Turners live in San Antonio and are retired, so they frequently drive to Lockhart for barbecue: “In the black community we call it a sausage run,” Willie said.

Danita Delimont Photography/Newscom

BBQ ribs and brisket at Kreuz Market in Lockhart. (Danita Delimont Photography/Newscom)

They don’t discriminate between competing local favorites Smitty’s Market, Black’s BBQ, or Kreuz Market. When in Lockhart why not go to all three? But the three have different vibes. Black’s is small and modern. Employees use an iPad to input purchases. Black’s doesn’t disparage credit card wielders or fork users. Kreuz is the largest and in 1973 was the best, according to Texas Monthly, whose reviewer recently said the Kreuz brisket is “unpredictable” but the pork chop is “remarkably succulent.”

David Anderson lives in Austin but has traveled through Lockhart to see a business client in Victoria each month since 1997. Each time, Anderson stops for a Black’s lunch, only Black’s, but he has no idea who his representative in Congress is. He says he’s a conservative Republican and because he lives in liberal Austin his vote doesn’t make a difference—yet through gerrymandering, there’s an 80 percent chance Anderson lives in a GOP district. He doesn’t concern himself with gerrymandering: In his view, “to the victor go the spoils.”

Lump Hult, a 76-year-old Lockhart native, comes to Smitty’s every day. He walks into the market with a limp and grabs a Miller Lite from the fridge. He sits the bottle on the counter and waits for Jose, a recent Smitty’s hire, to open it for him. Hult, open beer in hand, moseys over to the smoke room. He sits on the windowsill and warms his sandaled feet by the wood fire. Smitty’s regulars offer him a fist bump. Hult said when you’re poor and black you have to be a Democrat, but it doesn’t matter who represents him anymore: “My time is over.”

Evan Wilt

Evan Wilt

Evan is a reporter for WORLD Digital based in Washington, D.C.

Comments

  • Caminho
    Posted: Tue, 02/20/2018 05:46 am

    A great article, thanks for highlighting this issue. Truly, it is crazy that borders can be so non-logical. While I'm generally against gerrymandering, it occurred to me that it does have one upside for citizens. If most citizens are voting in "safe" districts, that means that a Republican-leaning voter is most likely to have a Republican respresentative; and a Democrat-leaning voter is most likely to have a Democrat representative. Put another way, rather than having districts where a Republican is representing 49% of voters who are Democrats, with gerrymandering we have a district where only 20% or so of voters would be opposed to their representative.

    There are, of course, other ways of distributing votes that ensure better representation than resorting to gerrymandering (see any youtube video by CPG Grey on voting systems), but it's not horrible in some respects.