Texas reaches accord with some Latino groups on new election maps

The Texas attorney general has reached an agreement with some minority groups on a plan aimed at resolving a stalemate over redistricting and minority representation in the state.

At least seven minority groups, including the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, known as MALDEF, agreed to the plan that they said minimized changes to the original redistricting maps drafted by the state's Republican-run Legislature.

Those maps were tossed out last year by a panel of federal judges, who ruled that the congressional and legislative district boundaries did not reflect the growth of the Latino population.

But last month the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the judges failed to incorporate state lawmakers' proposals. The high court told the San Antonio-based panel to try again, starting with the lawmakers' boundaries.

The latest mapping plan, unveiled Monday, would add two new congressional districts around San Antonio and Dallas and two state legislative districts in El Paso and Houston that lean Latino.

"The proposed maps minimize changes to the redistricting plan passed by the Legislature and, as the U.S. Supreme Court required, makes changes only where necessary," Texas Atty. Gen. Greg Abbott said in a statement. "Even though these proposed interim maps aren't fully supported by all interest groups, modifications have been incorporated based on requests made by all parties."

Nina Perales, MALDEF's lead attorney on redistricting, said that while the compromise maps were "not perfect," they "more fairly reflect the growing strength of Latino voters in Texas."

Among those opposing the latest maps are officials of the state's Democratic Party, the National Assn. for the Advancement of Colored People and the Mexican American Legislative Caucus, who say the maps do not do enough to protect the interests of all minority voters.

"The maps proposed by the attorney general today are a beginning point, not an end," said Trey Martinez Fischer, who leads the Austin-based Mexican American caucus. He said his group would not be "forced into a resolution that fails to recognize the fundamental fact that Texas' growth is minority growth."

Redistricting became necessary after Texas was awarded four additional seats in the U.S. House because of a population boom during the last decade, with 89% of the growth due to minorities, mainly Latinos.

Because of the state's history of voting rights violations, the Voting Rights Act required officials to get approval or "preclearance" from the Justice Department or a federal court in Washington before they could implement redistricting maps.

Critics of the newest maps say the additional districts are offset by changes to other minority-leaning districts, and that groups who agreed to the plan were too quick to compromise.

"The attorney general is clearly terrified that the D.C. court will find that the state's maps are discriminatory in both effect and intent," Texas Democratic Party officials said in a statement Monday. "Until there's a legitimate agreement among the parties, we support the court continuing to do its work."

The next scheduled hearing on the maps is Feb. 15 in San Antonio, Perales said. The panel of judges could accept the state's proposal, or come up with its own.

The Texas primary is scheduled for April 3.

If the judges produce new interim maps by mid-February, state party leaders have said the Texas primary can be held April 17 or April 24. If not, the state's primary may be bumped to May 29.

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