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Opportunity was snatched away from Dallas County Latino communities when Texas Republicans redrew congressional maps

Republicans carved up predominantly Latino neighborhoods, leaving many voters of color with even less of a say in who represents them.

DALLAS — This story originally appeared in the Texas Tribune. The above WFAA video is from Dec. 6.

When Henry R. Martinez Jr.'s cellphone rings, it usually means his community is in need. A surprise shipment of food must be distributed, a collapsed roof repaired, a vaccination clinic set up at the community center.

His neighbors turn to him in times of want and crisis because he knows them, respects them and will do his best to help. He wishes their government would do the same.

Martinez endeavors to fulfill the needs of the mostly Latino residents of the Ledbetter Eagle Ford community in West Dallas because the broader social and political structures don’t — and haven’t since his late father first took up this work decades ago.

Change seemed possible when Texas lawmakers met in Austin this year to redraw the state's political maps. The 2020 census showed that the Latino population in the Dallas-Fort Worth area had grown large enough that it seemed possible to cluster their communities, including Ledbetter Eagle Ford, together into a congressional district that would allow them to elect someone more connected to their daily lives.

Perhaps they could finally be represented by a Latino or Latina member of Congress from Dallas. Residents, legal experts and local leaders all pleaded with state lawmakers to acknowledge their constituency in the new district boundaries being drawn up.

Instead, Republicans — who entirely controlled the process — carved up predominantly Latino neighborhoods, leaving many voters of color with even less of a say in who represents them. In a bid to entrench partisan advantage in a rapidly changing state, GOP mapmakers awarded increased representation and control to white voters in rural areas, Austin and Houston.

For Martinez, it was the latest indignity for a community long denied an equal role in the democratic process.

“They’re focused more on others than the Latino people, and that’s unfortunate and that’s sad,” Martinez said. “We waited 10 years.”

Rather than honoring how representation can be built, Martinez said, “they make us real small.”

Generations of community

On a recent weekday, Martinez’s phone buzzed late in the evening with an alert of an unexpected donation of fresh fruits and vegetables. It was too last-minute to call on other volunteers that help him run a community-based food pantry, so as a November evening chill set in, Martinez and his wife, Isabel, found themselves unloading a truckload of produce onto the uneven parking lot of a small church.

The following morning, Martinez joined three other volunteers in distributing the donations. Some were sorted into black plastic bags offering a good mix of produce, but most of it was loaded straight into car trunks and back seats of grateful residents as the volunteers pulled from clumsily stacked cartons of grapes, pears, berries and a selection of squash, lettuce, tomatoes and bell peppers. There hadn’t been enough time to organize.

Yet the demand was so extraordinary. Even with the distribution's impromptu nature, the volunteers faced a long line of cars stretching for blocks in an area where one in four people live below the poverty line.

Ledbetter Eagle Ford sits just west of downtown Dallas, crammed between the Trinity River and Interstate 30. The busy boulevard running through its middle is lined by warehouses, industrial businesses, trucking companies and a few of what Martinez calls historical staples, including an old diner and a barber shop. Behind are rows of single-family homes, some 70 to 80 years old, tucked behind chain link or iron post fences.

It’s an old neighborhood, so power lines overhang the streets. But like other historic Latino and Black enclaves in urban centers, its residents have watched warily as redevelopment swallows up areas around them. The homes for sale in Ledbetter Eagle Ford are marketed as “investor opportunities” and for their proximity to nearby trendy areas.

To Martinez, community service is an inheritance from his father. The 62-year-old is the executive director of the Ledbetter Eagle Ford Community Organization, an organization run entirely on donations.

Beyond the food pantry, the organization has helped set up a senior program for older residents at a community center, where they regularly gather to share meals, crossword puzzles and, on a recent weekday, dance moves as some shimmied and twirled over polished wood floors. Months before, the room had been lined with health care workers in masks and face shields for a COVID-19 vaccination clinic Martinez helped organize.

He also leads the Ledbetter Neighborhood Association, founded by his father to represent the area’s residents, through which he helps maintain the community by helping neighbors whose homes are in need of repair, among other tasks.

Martinez himself is from and of Ledbetter Eagle Ford, born and raised in the area; his elementary school sits at the end of the road from where he was distributing the donated produce. He splits his time between his day job as a transportation specialist for a chiropractic business, his grown children and a handful of grandchildren, and his service to the community. He is so well known that some of the police officers who regularly patrol the area refer to him as the “mayor of Eagle Ford” when they run into him.

His family ties to the area date back to the early 1900s when immigrants fleeing the violence of revolution in Mexico, including his grandfather, settled in Eagle Ford, drawn in by work at a local cement company. By the late 1980s, a federal judge would refer to the area as the “largest Hispanic neighborhood in Dallas.” Also born and raised there, Martinez’s father served in the military before throwing himself into community work and going on to form the Ledbetter Neighborhood Association.

Under his father’s tenure, the organization's agenda ranged from overseeing a small cemetery to helping expand main thoroughfares to pushing back as development began encroaching on the area — all in service of preserving the community’s historical narrative.

Always the group found itself fighting for recognition.

One of its most significant contributions came in the late '80s when the Ledbetter Neighborhood Association joined two local Black leaders, Roy Williams and Marvin Crenshaw, to sue the city of Dallas, claiming its hybrid system for electing some city council members at large violated the federal Voting Rights Act by diluting the votes of African Americans and Mexican Americans.

Black and Latino residents had been pushing for change for decades, looking to the courts to force Dallas to move from a system in which city council members were elected citywide to a mixed system with some elected from smaller single-member districts. But that hybrid system still drew objections as Black and Hispanic candidates struggled to be elected to any of the three at-large seats that existed at the time.

Ultimately, a federal district judge knocked down the system, finding it discriminated against Black and Hispanic voters, and ordered the city to fix it.

“The history of minority participation in the political process of Dallas is not one of choice; it is a record of what blacks and Hispanics have been permitted to do by the white majority,” U.S. District Judge Jerry Buchmeyer wrote in a March 1990 opinion.

After the first election under a newly created system of 14 single-member districts, the city council was made up of nine white members, four Black members and two Latino members. This doubled the number of Black representatives; no Latino candidates had even run in the election before.

The elder Martinez would continue his service until retiring in 2010, passing the baton — and an overstuffed Rolodex of phone numbers — to his son. The younger Martinez remembers how his father kept his community in mind until just before his death in 2019, imploring him to carry on his work.

“He said, ‘Son, I want you to keep up this community. I was born and raised here. My parents came here.’ He told me, ‘You gotta take care of and keep up this community, no matter what happens,’” Martinez said. “If there’s people that need help, help them.”

His father’s fight helped the community gain more voice in the halls of power. But in the denial of a new district anchored in the community, Martinez sees a contraction of Latinos’ political equality. It makes the progress they’ve made feel tenuous, Martinez said.

“We need more representation,” Martinez said. “It’s like they’re taking it and grabbing it and taking it away after we worked so hard for it.”

Opportunity lost

Martinez and other community leaders don’t complain about their current, Democratic representatives. Their frustration lies with Republicans’ rejection of a new district commensurate with their growing numbers. The work Martinez does relies on relationships he’s built locally to bring resources and attention to people for whom they aren’t always afforded.

A new district would have granted them an additional voice in the halls of power on policy changes that could improve the lives of their neighbors. That includes issues like raising the minimum wage, access to affordable health care and a safety net that includes paid sick leave.

“Whenever I think of what an additional Latino district would mean, I think about the issues that are important to our members like immigration and safe, good-paying jobs,” said Diana Ramirez, the civic engagement director for the Workers Defense Action Fund, which advocates on behalf of low-wage and immigrant workers in Dallas and other areas. “I think about the area of Pleasant Grove where I grew up and knocking on doors in that area and seeing so many pickup trucks with what look like [construction and contractor] materials.”

She imagines a political reality in which those working in construction, one of the deadliest industries, would have “direct access to a representative that could hear what their day-to-day is like.”

That opportunity existed, at least in theory, with this year's redistricting process. Federal law, in fact, provides for the creation of “opportunity districts” for traditionally marginalized voters, and Texas has a long history of depressing the political influence of Hispanic and Black voters.

Those sorts of districts are supposed to boost representation for voters of color, giving voters of a traditional minority group the ability to harness their numbers into real political power and elect their preferred candidates. Often, but not always, those candidates are of the same race or ethnicity. When lawmakers redraw political districts every 10 years to ensure they are equal in population, communities of color have a window in which to make their case.

The campaign for a district controlled by Latinos in North Texas is a manifestation of the demographic change that has transformed the region over the last few decades.

In Dallas County, the Hispanic population has grown by about 60% since 2000, crossing the 1 million mark to make up the largest portion of the county’s population. Three out of every five residents the county gained in the last decade were Hispanic. Combined with Hispanic population growth in neighboring Tarrant County, Hispanic residents now outnumber white residents in the two large counties. At the same time, the white population has shrunk both in its share of the overall population and in absolute numbers. The 2020 census recorded a decrease of roughly 60,000 white residents in Dallas County in the last decade. 

That change, locals say, makes for a different slate of needs that demand increased representation to ensure the community’s priorities are being addressed.

“We need someone who can actually represent the voice of the ethnic makeup of the community. That is what, at this point, has been challenging and has been missing,” said Elba Garcia, a Dallas County commissioner who represents the western end of the county. “We have never had a Latino or Latina member of Congress. The opportunity has been denied [even though] that’s what the Constitution and redistricting is all about.”

There are various complex legal thresholds to clear in order to claim a Latino opportunity district, including political cohesion among Latino voters in the area and evidence that other voters, namely white voters, tend to vote in a bloc to defeat the candidates favored by Latinos.

But their numbers must first grow enough so that a geographically compact district can be drawn containing their communities — a threshold, many proponents of a new district argue, Dallas Latinos have long since crossed.

Though they’ve expanded their presence across the region, helping to diversify even traditionally white suburban communities, the western end of Dallas County comprises some of the neighborhoods most densely populated by Latinos. Some have pointed to Garcia’s commissioner precinct as a possible starting point since it has long allowed Latinos to elect their preferred candidate at the county level. (Garcia is often mentioned as a prospective candidate for Congress if a Latino opportunity district were drawn in the area.) Advocates for a Latino-controlled district in Dallas have also looked to the southeast to communities like Pleasant Grove, where the Latino population has been expanding. 

But the redistricting process is mired in partisan considerations.

Efforts to draw a new district covering those areas, which would likely elect a Democrat, were resoundingly rejected by Republicans in the Texas Legislature — at times without much substantive opposition.

In the Senate, Republicans rebuffed a Democratic proposal for such a district after the chamber’s lead map-drawer said it would result in a “detailed and painstaking racial gerrymander” in North Texas. Racial gerrymanders, in which lawmakers rely too heavily on race or ethnicity to draw a district, are illegal, though race can be considered as a primary factor when drawing political districts, particularly to create or maintain opportunity districts that comply with the federal Voting Rights Act. (Senate Republican leaders claimed the state’s congressional map was drawn “race blind.”)

In the House, floor debate over a potential Latino opportunity district combusted after Republicans offered an incongruous argument to shoot down an amendment by state Rep. Rafael Anchía of Dallas that would have anchored a new district in west Dallas County.

“It’s immoral to prevent the creation of a district like this. It’s also likely illegal,” Anchía told his colleagues in presenting his amendment hours into the chamber’s floor debate on a new congressional map. “You really have to try hard to deny Latinos in North Texas the ability to elect the candidate of their choice, but that's what's baked in this plan and I ask that we fix it through this amendment.”

Addressing the House, state Rep. Jacey Jetton, a Republican from the Fort Bend area, spoke in opposition to the amendment by pointing out that it would “unnecessarily” drop the Hispanic population in neighboring Congressional District 33.

That district had been created by a three-judge federal panel a decade before to protect the voting rights of people of color in the area, offering Hispanic or Black voters an equal chance to elect their preferred candidate. A decade later, Hispanics were just shy of making up the majority of eligible voters in CD-33.

Despite Jetton’s stated opposition, it was Republicans’ new congressional map that actually reduced the Hispanic population in the district from 48% to roughly 42% — a fact pointed out by state Rep. Victoria Neave of Dallas as she challenged Jetton’s claim.

“It is the underlying map that’s reducing the number of Latino voters in Congressional District 33 that you just mentioned. Did you know that?” Neave said as she pressed Jetton.

Jetton responded that he was “not advised.”

In the end, Republicans approved a map that sliced heavily Latino areas of Dallas County into at least five different districts. In all but one, Latino voters make up about a fifth or less of the electorate. In reducing the share of the Hispanic population in CD-33, Republicans placed some of those residents into Congressional District 6, a sprawling, mostly white rural district that stretches across several counties to the south and east of Dallas, covering roughly 6,000 square miles.

They used an oddly shaped tendril to connect that swath of rural counties to the areas around Irving and Arlington, stranding urban and suburban Hispanic voters who in the past were concentrated enough to influence the election of who represents them in Congress.

More broadly, the congressional map Republicans approved for elections to come will shrink the number of districts in which Hispanic and Black voters are in the majority. White voters will largely determine who fills the two new Congressional seats the state gained based on its overall growth in the last decade, almost all of which was attributable to people of color. Hispanic Texans were responsible for half of the state’s increase of 4 million new residents.

“I think it just goes to show you the lengths to which Republicans are willing to go to try to stick their head in the sand about the changing demographics of Texas,” said Michael Li, a senior counsel for the Brennan Center for Justice whose work focuses on redistricting and voting. “The word I keep using is ‘brazen.’ There was a really strong argument for a Latino district [in Dallas] last decade. It’s only gotten stronger because the population has grown even more.”

'Latinos will always have to fight in court'

As in the fight Martinez’s father helped waged, the fate of Dallas Latinos’ representation will be decided in a federal court — in this case, one more than 600 miles away in El Paso, where a panel of three federal judges will be considering various legal challenges to the state’s new political maps.

As they did in the last round of redistricting, and as they’ve done in legal fights dating past that, the individual voters and organizations that serve Texans of color suing the state will have to prove that state lawmakers denied them an equal opportunity to participate in the voting process. Their hope is that the courts will force a redraw of state’s political districts.

“What’s new? They’ve been doing it for the last 30 years, and sadly Latinos will always have to fight in court to get the representation they deserve,” said Garcia, the Dallas County commissioner.

Five different lawsuits have been filed against the state’s new congressional map, most arguing it is unconstitutional and violates the Voting Rights Act by diluting the electoral power of voters of color. To make their case, various of the complaints point to Republicans’ refusal to create new districts that give Latinos meaningful influence in elections. Some take specific aim at the new political boundaries in the Dallas-Fort Worth region, where they say lawmakers unlawfully manipulated the population based on race to the detriment of voters of color.

“Without such blatant cracking, map drawers could have created either an additional Latino majority district or a coalition district with Black and Latino voters in this region,” one of the lawsuits argues.

Those Texas voters and groups were recently joined in their fight by the U.S. Department of Justice, which in its lawsuit against the state scrutinized how Republicans “surgically excised” voters of color from the core of the Dallas-Fort Worth region.

The state has so far failed to convince the court to dismiss the challenges but is expected to fight arduously to keep them in place for the upcoming March primaries, arguing there isn’t enough time to redo the districts before voting is set to begin.

But with the litigation left as their only hope, it could be years before Dallas Latinos learn whether they were cheated out of increased representation or whether they will have to wait another 10 years to again make their case.

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