New York Times Magazine
By Jim Rutenberg
December 17, 2015
On September 2000, Oscar Del Toro of Monterrey, Mexico, arrived with his wife and three children at George Bush Intercontinental Airport in Houston to start a new life in the United States. Del Toro, then 38, had spent his whole life in Mexico. His mother and father were naturalized American citizens who lived near Houston and had wanted to bring him to the United States with them. But because he was already an adult, with a wife and a child, he was subject to a long waiting period for a green card. He went on with his life in Mexico, building a business selling laser printers and buying a comfortable four-bedroom house. He had more or less forgotten all about the prospect of moving to the United States when, around Christmas in 1999, his mother told him she had a present for him: an Immigration and Naturalization Service letter inviting him and his family to apply for permanent residency.
Del Toro’s parents lived in Pasadena, an oil town on the outskirts of Houston. He moved there, too, to a cramped three-room apartment on the north side of town, above the informal dividing line marked by the Spencer Highway. The north side of Pasadena is a mostly Hispanic area, its streets lined with signs advertising carnicerías, peluquerías and abogados de inmigración. In recent years, so many Mexicans have moved there that some Spanish-speaking locals have taken to calling the area ‘‘Nuevo León,’’ for the Mexican border state where many of them, including the Del Toros, came from. As the older part of town — ‘‘historic,’’ goes the official city designation — its compact neighborhoods have streets cratered with potholes, and sidewalks that are slanted and buckling and overgrown with weeds.
At Pasadena’s very northern end, up by Route 225, are the largely abandoned remnants of the once-vibrant town center. Back in the middle of the last century, this part of town was mostly white, but over the past several decades, the white residents moved to the south side of town, where they built pristine sidewalks and streets that could endure the Texas sun. Neighborhoods on the south side have well-organized homeowners’ associations that get city grants for playgrounds and parks; the new town center there is a shopping corridor, the Fairmont Parkway, lined with big-box stores and national chain restaurants and, in a flourish of civic adornment, median strips bursting with pink and yellow perennials, a priority of the Pasadena mayor, Johnny Isbell, who has called the parkway, because of the sales taxes it generates, ‘‘the hen that lays the golden egg.’’
When Del Toro was starting out in Pasadena, he tried selling his printers to the established business community on the south side. But with only classroom English and no business contacts, he struggled to connect with customers there. Things looked bad for a few years. ‘‘I lost everything — I lost all my cash,’’ Del Toro told me in October as we sat in a little restaurant on the north side of Pasadena called Tostada Regia. Del Toro is mild-mannered, with a friendly, self-effacing laugh and a tendency to drop the occasional Spanish word into his sentences. Now 53, he has the slight paunch and graying hair that come with getting three children through school while struggling to build a new life in a new country. He was only able to do it, he said, because he hit upon a new business strategy: Rather than peddle his wares on the south side, he would turn to the north side and its huge, untapped potential. ‘‘I changed my tactic,’’ Del Toro said, ‘‘focusing more on small-business owners who speak Spanish.’’
His timing was good. Many Spanish-language businesses were starting from scratch, too, and as they expanded they would need office equipment. What they lacked in money, they made up for in numbers: In 2000, Pasadena, then with a population of about 140,000, was 48 percent Hispanic, on its way to 63 percent today. Here was his real market. Back on his feet, he bought a four-bedroom red-brick house with a yard and a two-car garage, joined the local Chamber of Commerce and, in 2006, secured his citizenship. This was the American dream Del Toro had envisioned. ‘‘I was kind of blessed,’’ he told me. ‘‘I got to start all over again.’’
As a new member of the growing Pasadena business community, Del Toro became more attuned to the sense of inequality that residents felt on the north side. His customers complained about the sinking sidewalks, about the antiquated drainage systems that turned streets into lagoons during rainstorms. In 2008, Mayor Isbell gave a speech to the Chamber of Commerce in which he linked a new policy cracking down on traffic infractions — drunken driving, driving without insurance — with another policy reporting the immigration status of all those arrested to immigration authorities. To Del Toro’s ears, Isbell was scapegoating undocumented immigrants for all the city’s problems: They drink too much; they cause accidents but they have no car insurance. Del Toro walked out. In his view, Isbell was trying to distract people from what really mattered, the way the south side had flowers and the north side had weeds.
In 2009, one of Del Toro’s customers, Dana Philibert, a white insurance agent, decided to run against Isbell, promising voters to spend city money more wisely. Del Toro offered to help her by going door to door in the Spanish-speaking north, the way he had for his own business. She lost, but Del Toro realized he had an appetite for American-style politics. Philibert was a Republican, so Del Toro, a golf-playing member of the N.R.A., attended a couple of local Republican meetings, but he quickly decided the party was not for him: not only because Isbell and other Pasadena Republicans had become increasingly bellicose about undocumented immigrants, but also because of its stance on abortion rights and, he emphasized, gay rights — ‘‘I always admired the United States in that aspect,’’ he said. ‘‘You are fine the way you are. You don’t have to be something else.’’
The Democrats seemed more welcoming, perhaps because they had been shut out of state government for years and had come to see the growing Hispanic population as their only hope of reclaiming power. Texas is on track to become majority Hispanic by 2042, and Hispanic voters prefer Democrats, choosing them in national elections at rates as high as 70 percent. Theoretically, this should mean that Democrats are in ascendance in the state, but in election after election there has been little evidence of such a trend, in part because Hispanic turnout is typically very low.
In 2014, when State Senator Wendy Davis tried to make new inroads with Hispanics during her campaign for governor, Del Toro again volunteered, knocking on the doors of Spanish-speaking households in Pasadena. But Hispanic turnout remained extraordinarily low, and Davis lost spectacularly.
Nonetheless, at the local level in Pasadena, the booming Hispanic community saw its political clout increasing. In the previous few years, two Mexican-American Marine veterans, Ornaldo Ybarra and Cody Ray Wheeler, had been elected to the City Council, shaving Isbell’s majority to a single vote. A fifth council seat, also in a heavily Hispanic area, seemed primed to go next, and with it, the mayor’s lock on power. Del Toro began to pay closer attention to the situation in his adopted town. He was 52; he had been in the United States for 14 years, but he was just beginning to understand how American politics worked. And what he was learning infuriated him.
With the political stakes rising, the mayor had made an unexpected move: He proposed a ballot initiative reducing the number of Council districts to 6 from 8, while adding two new at-large council seats that would now represent the entire city. At-large offices might seem more democratic, as they are selected by the entire city instead of only the people in one district. But because Hispanic turnout was so low in citywide elections, whites could outvote them every time. Under the new plan, the mayor’s majority would almost certainly be safe. ‘‘They create two at-large districts basically as a way to ensure that power was kept on that side,’’ Del Toro said, gesturing to the south.
Isbell was not the first Texas politician to propose such a plan; this same tactic has been tried in various cities around Texas, including Galveston and Freeport. But since at-large districts have long been associated with disenfranchisement, those proposals were usually blocked by the United States Justice Department under Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act. For decades, Section 5 allowed federal authorities to reject voting laws — and redistricting plans — that they deemed discriminatory in Texas and in 14 other states with histories of suppressing minority voters. But in June 2013, in a case known as Shelby County v. Holder, the Supreme Court rendered Section 5 moot, because the country had, in the majority’s opinion, moved beyond its racist past. Isbell was free to do as he saw fit. When the initiative finally went before Pasadena voters, it won by just 79 votes.
Del Toro determined that if the law couldn’t stop Isbell, then maybe he could, by running for one of the new citywide seats. He knew it was almost certainly a losing battle, he said, but ‘‘sometimes you have to fight a lost cause to win something.’’ In February, he went to Pasadena City Hall to personally file his official candidacy form, signing his name by the X, beneath the line that read: ‘‘I am a citizen of the United States.’’
2. ‘The last line of defense’
On March 15, 1965, Lyndon Johnson went before a joint session of Congress to demand the passage of the Voting Rights Act, a sweeping new law granting the federal government exceptional power over states to stop the ‘‘systematic and ingenious discrimination’’ that had crushed the black vote throughout the South. Critically, Section 5 of the V.R.A. gave the federal government the power to block any new voting law that could not be proved to be free of discrimination in states where systemic racism and repression had a long history — primarily the former Confederate states, including Texas, but also a collection of counties or townships in non-Confederate states. Black enfranchisement soared, culminating in 2008, when black turnout rates finally reached parity with white turnout rates, and America elected its first black president, Barack Obama.
As I wrote in Part 1 of this series, in August, Obama’s election was followed by a sudden return of restrictive new voting laws, most of them disproportionately affecting minorities, that were enacted by newly empowered Republican legislatures throughout the country. There were reductions in early voting days, which make it easier for the working poor to get to polls and which have been used with particular effectiveness by black churches running Sunday ‘‘souls to the polls’’ drives. There were rollbacks of laws that allowed people to register and vote at the same time, a vital convenience for lower-income Americans, who more regularly change addresses and would otherwise need to continually update their voter information. And there were new photo-ID laws that placed strict limits on which types of identification would be accepted at polls: The law in Texas accepted gun permits, held predominantly by whites, but not state school or employee IDs.
Civil rights lawyers argued — and, in several cases, courts agreed with them — that these were modern-day versions of the kinds of laws that Congress intended to block when it passed the V.R.A. When Section 5 of the V.R.A. was intact, the states under its oversight could go only so far. For instance, in 2012 a federal panel of judges blocked Texas’s ID law, and the Justice Department delayed Mississippi’s photo-ID law by asking for more information about any potentially discriminatory effects. Alabama passed an ID bill, too, but held off implementing it pending Section 5 approval. Then came the Shelby decision. It was the single biggest shift in the voting rights landscape since 1965, and, longtime civil rights leaders said, the single biggest setback. Afterward, Texas, Mississippi and Alabama all moved forward with their voter-ID laws. (A federal appeals panel ruled in August that the Texas ID law was discriminatory, but it remains in place as the appeal process continues.) In North Carolina, the Republican legislature enacted a huge new package of voting restrictions — including a voter ID law and rollbacks in early voting — that disproportionately affected minorities. (The package is also under challenge in federal court.) And several counties in Georgia moved forward with plans to eliminate polling places or move election dates, making it harder, local civil rights leaders fear, for blacks and Hispanics to vote.
The 2016 presidential election will be the first to take place after the gutting of the V.R.A. and with all of these new laws potentially in place. Civil rights lawyers are just as concerned about provisions they don’t yet know about — the last-minute changes that could deter voters in ways that were previously disallowed. North Carolina, Virginia and Florida are among the states previously covered in whole or in part by Section 5, and they will be closely contested. Marc Elias, a longtime Democratic lawyer and the lead counsel for Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign, told me, ‘‘You are likely to see more litigation over the fundamental right to vote this election cycle than we have seen since the passage of the Voting Rights Act.’’
But the bigger voting rights fight isn’t about the map of today. It’s about the map of tomorrow, which will be reshaped by Hispanics in ways that could realign national politics for generations. Hispanic Americans have faced a long legacy of white hostility, dating back to the mid-19th century, when Texas state and local officials began a sporadic campaign to chase Hispanic citizens from polls with threats of violence or prison. Congress placed Texas under Section 5 oversight in 1975, based partly on its continued use of English-only ballots. But even now, Hispanic citizens are registering and voting at levels that are not much better than those of blacks near the end of Jim Crow — a 38.8 percent turnout in Texas in 2012, according to the Census Bureau, as opposed to more than 60 percent for both blacks and ‘‘Anglos,’’ the widely used informal term for non-Hispanic whites. (In the census, Hispanics can be of any race, and do not count as a racial category.)
If Hispanics were to start registering and voting in the same percentages that Anglos do in Texas, and continued to prefer Democrats over Republicans in the same proportions that they do now in presidential elections, Democrats would be able to shave the 16-point deficit they saw there in 2012 to 6 points by 2024 — less than the deficit the party faced in Virginia in 2004, four years before it managed to win the state. Continuing demographic trends would push Texas toward the Democratic column by 2036, but by then national Democrats, seeing a winnable presidential race, would already be flooding the state with money, staff and volunteers — something they haven’t done in earnest in nearly 20 years — to put it in their column even sooner. Projections have shown black and Hispanic population growth combining to force a similar dynamic in Georgia by as early as 2020 and making North Carolina a safer Democratic bet by 2024 or 2028; Hispanic growth alone could make Arizona competitive for Democrats by 2024, if not sooner.
The stakes are highest in Texas. Its 38 Electoral College votes make it ‘‘the last line of defense’’ against the Democrats, its Republican governor, Greg Abbott, has said. This explains why liberal groups like Battleground Texas have started spending so much money — $10 million in 2013 and 2014 — on, among other efforts, registering new voters. It also explains why Representative Louie Gohmert, a Republican from Texas, would go on the conservative cable network NewsMax TV to charge that the Obama administration was encouraging undocumented immigrants to come into the country to vote illegally. The right defense against those illegal voters, he suggested, was Texas’ voter-ID law. If they’re not stopped, Gohmert warned, ‘‘it will ensure that Republicans don’t ever get elected again.’’
3. ‘They just don’t know it yet’
In September 1999, Gov. George W. Bush of Texas met with the Mexican president at the time, Ernesto Zedillo, on the Texas border. With a mariachi band ready to play, the two embraced, and then cut the ribbon on a new bridge linking Eagle Pass, Tex., with the Mexican town of Piedras Negras. Standing at a lectern bearing the Mexican coat of arms, Bush said from the span, ‘‘Bridges, not walls, are the finest monuments any public official can leave.’’
At the beginning of his 2000 presidential campaign, Bush was telegraphing his answer to the question that Republicans had been fighting over for decades: what to do about the Hispanic population, whose rapid growth in the United States was outstripping that of whites. Gov. Pete Wilson of California had rallied his Anglo base by proposing nativist laws that effectively banned bilingual education and denied benefits to undocumented immigrants and their children. But Bush took a different approach. He seemed to agree with a statement attributed to Ronald Reagan, that Hispanics were Republicans who ‘‘just don’t know it yet.’’ It was Reagan, after all, who signed the 1986 bill that granted amnesty to more than three million immigrants who had come to the United States illegally. Bush publicly disavowed Wilson’s approach, saying he would not ‘‘use our children, the children of immigrants, as a political issue in America.’’
Wilson went down in history as the governor who took California off the Republican presidential map for at least a generation. Bush positioned his fellow Texas Republicans to gain full control of state government, then won the presidency, and held onto it in 2004 with the largest Republican share of the Hispanic vote — 44 percent — in history. The question seemed resolved.
But midway through Bush’s second presidential term, the nation’s undocumented immigrant population hit its peak of more than 12 million. That was when the party began to sound a lot more like Wilson. When Bush tried in vain to pass a bill creating a ‘‘path to citizenship’’ for undocumented immigrants, not a single member of his home state’s Republican congressional delegation stepped forward to help him. Those Texans argued that Bush didn’t understand how much the immigration debate had changed back home, how the newcomers from Mexico and Central and South America were placing what they saw as unsustainable pressure on the state’s police and public service agencies.
Bush’s opponents were right about one thing: The state was experiencing profound demographic shifts. In 2005, the United States Census Bureau announced that Texas’ ‘‘minority’’ population was no longer in the minority; it had reached an estimated 50.2 percent, largely because of the Hispanic population boom, making Texas the nation’s newest ‘‘majority minority’’ state (joining Hawaii, New Mexico and California). By 2011, the Texas minority population had passed 55 percent, and census figures showed that the Anglos making up the Republican base were much older than Hispanics were, and that Hispanics were reproducing at greater rates than Anglos were — both in Texas and nationwide. And yet, in national elections, Republicans were getting a shrinking piece of a growing pie. Mitt Romney’s 27 percent share of the Hispanic vote in 2012 was the third-worst performance since 1980.
By 2013, Republican party leaders in Washington and their corporate donors eager for laws legalizing the undocumented work force — in other words, the Establishment — were openly worrying that the party’s future was in grave doubt without more robust support from Hispanics. They urged their candidates to reach out to Latino voters ahead of the 2014 and 2016 elections. ‘‘If your tone isn’t welcoming and inclusive,’’ the party chairman, Reince Priebus, wrote in National Review, ‘‘you’re doing it wrong.’’ But in red states like Texas, Arizona, Alabama and Georgia, Republicans were going in the opposite direction, with get-tough messages that included promises to revoke birthright citizenship for the children of undocumented immigrants or to repeal laws granting them in-state tuition. In his failed comeback bid, Representative Bob Barr of Georgia warned that the Obama administration was secretly planning to ship ‘‘busloads of illegals’’ into the state. In Texas, the Republican candidate for lieutenant governor, Dan Patrick, referred to undocumented immigration as ‘‘an invasion’’ that he would work hard to stop. Patrick won in a landslide.
The newly charged atmosphere was especially evident in towns like Pasadena, where on a community message board one resident lamented ‘‘all of the damn Mexican flags flying around there,’’ even as you could still see a few Confederate flags waving from the homes of Anglo holdouts on the increasingly Hispanic north side. In 2007 the city found itself at the center of the national debate when a local Anglo, Joe Horn, shot and killed two undocumented immigrants he caught burglarizing his next-door neighbor’s house. After a grand jury cleared Horn of wrongdoing, the conservative talk-show host Glenn Beck celebrated him at a boisterous Tea Party rally outside the Alamo.
4. ‘It’s hard to make them obey the law’
Mayor Johnny Isbell of Pasadena has silver hair with streaks of auburn and the walk of a man who is packing heat, as he has been known to do. He has spent 75 of his 77 years in Pasadena, 22 of them as mayor. In November, he was sitting in his office inside Pasadena’s City Hall in a rocker by his propane fireplace, flames hissing, a framed copy of the Texas Declaration of Independence hanging on the wall behind him. Pasadena is no different from any other American city, Isbell told me. ‘‘It’s part of America today,’’ he said. ‘‘All cities have a lot more Hispanics in them.’’
During his lifetime, he has seen Pasadena’s population grow to 150,000 from 3,500. He was trying to be a mayor of ‘‘one Pasadena,’’ he said, Hispanic and Anglo, north and south. But politics were getting in the way, he said, and it ‘‘seems to be worse now.’’ Isbell grew up on the north side but moved south many years ago. Now he was dealing with an emboldened group of Hispanic lawmakers — Ornaldo Ybarra, Sammy Casados and Cody Ray Wheeler — who had teamed up with an Anglo councilwoman, Pat Van Houte, to demand answers about the disparity between north and south, between Hispanics and Anglos.
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Isbell wondered aloud whether his council opponents just didn’t understand the way the city worked. ‘‘They’re talking about pouring sidewalks and fixing streets — it’s just not informed,’’ Isbell said, frowning. ‘‘So it’s a matter of maybe better educating them.’’ The plantings along Fairmont were a way to draw more customers, which was a way to boost sales tax revenue. ‘‘Women are going to shop where they feel safe and where it looks nice,’’ he said.
Ybarra and the other Democratic rivals saw it differently. The at-large council seats were just a way for Isbell to hang on to power and help old friends with pointless projects, like an effort to bring back the long-defunct Gilley’s nightclub, the honky-tonk setting for the 1980 John Travolta movie ‘‘Urban Cowboy.’’ ‘‘These people are so stuck on when they first got elected,’’ Ybarra said. ‘‘The city has changed.’’ But Isbell said his decision to change the city’s charter came from his long-held belief that at-large seats are better for the city. ‘‘The citizens are better served by having more than one person they can go to,’’ he told me, leaning forward in his rocker. ‘‘I’ve always believed that.’’
Isbell was on the City Council in 1992 when the previous mayor, John Ray Harrison, his longtime Democratic nemesis with whom he frequently swapped the mayoralty, switched the city over to the smaller, representative districts after local Hispanics began a federal Voting Rights Act lawsuit. The suit asserted that the at-large system had kept the town’s Hispanics — then not quite 30 percent of the population — from electing a representative of their choice. Civil rights groups brought similar suits across the state, and across the country. Once the city enacted the change, it could not go back. Any changes made to increase minority political representation could not be undone under the federal oversight of Section 5.
But after the Supreme Court’s Shelby decision in 2013, Isbell could make his move. Because his new plan for the council required a charter change, he needed to put it up for a citywide vote. He financed a political action committee called Citizens for Positive Change from his own campaign coffers — filled with money from employees of engineering firms that his opponents accuse him of funneling too many contracts to — and it had as its treasurer Cary Bass, whose family business, Bass & Meineke, had a contract for city-vehicle maintenance. Opposing money came in from the Democrats and a liberal group called the Texas Organizing Project. At one council meeting, according to a report in The Pasadena Citizen, a Hispanic woman from the south side said that a councilman allied with Isbell, Steve Cote, had very frankly told her homeowners’ association, ‘‘If we don’t pass these propositions, our city will turn blue.’’
In March 2014, the mayor presented the council with a new set of maps. In reducing the number of individual districts to six from eight, Isbell’s new map had reconfigured two of the majority-Hispanic districts, represented by Van Houte and Ybarra, into one larger district. When it was her turn to speak, Van Houte, a retired state benefits administrator, began to argue that the plan was so discriminatory that it could run afoul of the Voting Rights Act even without Section 5 in place. When she had talked for some five minutes, the mayor tried to cut her off. (He had recently enacted a new Council ordinance, on a 5-4 vote, limiting each member’s speaking time to two minutes.) Then Isbell ordered police officers to escort the council member from the room. ‘‘Oh, I’ve removed three of them,’’ he told me. ‘‘It’s hard to make them obey the law. They’re still doing it, and I have to shut them down all the time.’’
5. The ‘nudge factor’
Isbell’s at-large proposal in Pasadena provides something of a primer: It shows how easy it is to adjust the precincts in which voters cast their ballots and thus determine the outcome of elections. At the statewide level, things get far more intricate, but the basic principles are the same.
Redistricting law starts simply enough with the Constitution, which requires that every 10 years, following a census, the size of each state’s congressional delegation is readjusted based on the latest population shifts. In time, a combination of court cases and new laws solidified a process whereby the same information is used to ‘‘balance’’ districts so they all represent about the same number of people, and so all votes have equal weight at the capitol. In most states, the party that holds power controls the process. Incumbent American politicians have used redistricting for more than a century to protect their own jobs by, say, drawing the new border to cut out a politically hostile neighborhood or to include a friendlier one. But redistricting can also reduce the collective power of minority voters by, for instance, cutting a large black district in half, or even in three, and sending its smaller parts into neighboring, predominantly white districts. The Voting Rights Act made such moves illegal, and the states covered by Section 5 were frequently blocked outright in their redistricting attempts. Texas, in fact, has never presented a new map — whether under Democratic or Republican control — that federal authorities did not reject at least once for discriminating against minorities.
Just as the Shelby case was making its way up to the Supreme Court, redistricting experts hit upon an idea. They could take advantage of the sophisticated computer systems that the presidential campaigns were using to sift through reams of personal data about Americans to find their likeliest voters and goad them to polls, but for the opposite ends: They could use the same information to suppress minority voting by carefully apportioning Hispanics who were least likely to vote. That is what Justice Department officials say Texas did in its last redistricting process, which began in 2011.
In November, I visited Nina Perales, a senior attorney for the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, in San Antonio. Perales is among a group of lawyers representing plaintiffs suing Texas over its redistricting efforts, and she has also recently filed a lawsuit against Pasadena for its at-large City Council plan. Both cases cite another part of the V.R.A., Section 2, which prohibits the ‘‘denial or abridgment of the right of any citizen of the United States to vote on account of race or color’’ in all states. Without the specific oversight of Section 5, it falls to groups like hers to bring Section 2 cases, which take far more time and money with less-certain results. Under Section 5, the burden fell on the covered states to prove that a new law was not discriminatory before it could go into effect; under Section 2, the burden falls on a plaintiff to prove that a new law is discriminatory, after it goes into effect.
Perales wears her hair in a tight bun, in keeping with a businesslike mien that masks a wry sense of humor. The walls of her office, just a few blocks away from the Alamo, are papered with color-coded maps and laminated spreadsheets — exhibits from her favorite cases. Where a casual visitor might see meaningless numbers and charts, she sees ingeniously elaborate schemes to disenfranchise Hispanics, blacks and any other minority threatening the balance of power for incumbent Anglos of either party.
‘‘So this is what happened when the census was released,’’ Perales said, pointing at a map of Texas’ southern border filling her large desktop monitor. A green area that was marked ‘‘23’’ — for Texas Congressional District 23 — took up most of the screen. Texas experienced such a large population increase in the 2010 census, Perales explained, that it gained four new congressional seats. Nearly three million of the 4.3 million new state residents were Hispanics, almost a third of them children. Based on that new census data, every Texas district was required to have roughly 698,500 people. But because of big increases in the Hispanic population, the 23rd District, a swing district then held by a Republican, was over the limit by 150,000 people. This created a challenge for Republicans, who, with a supermajority in the statehouse, controlled the redistricting process and wanted to maintain their 25-to-9 advantage in the state’s congressional delegation.
The most obvious solution was simply to move the 23rd district’s eastern line several miles to the west. But that would increase the district’s concentration of Hispanic voters, jeopardizing the Republican incumbent, Francisco Canseco. (Though Hispanic, he had not been the choice of Hispanic voters.) Or the Republicans could have shed the excess Hispanic voters from the existing 23rd District into neighboring Democratic districts to the south in a way that made the 23rd more Anglo, and thus, likely to be more Republican. But doing that would have violated the Voting Rights Act by diluting an obviously Hispanic district — disallowed under most circumstances even without the oversight of Section 5.
To keep District 23 in Republican hands, Perales said, ‘‘they came up with the ‘nudge factor.’ ’’ The nudge factor was a brilliant plan that would have gone undiscovered had its architects not hatched it in emails that were discovered in the ensuing court fight. It was introduced by Eric Opiela, a lawyer working for the Republican speaker of the Texas House, Joe Straus, and the Texas congressional delegation. Through extensive polling, data analysis and modeling, both parties know with ever-greater precision which individual voters turn out in elections and which don’t, as well as whether they tend to vote Democratic or Republican and their age, race and ethnicity. Opiela suggested the mapmakers redraw the district to include new clumps of Hispanics — ones whom the data identified as low-turnout voters. (The subject line of one email was ‘‘Useful Metric.’’)
The political cartographers could ‘‘shave a little bit here, shave a little bit there,’’ Perales said, to make a district appear to be following the Voting Rights Act by maintaining its large numbers of Hispanics. But that Hispanic-heavy district would perform more like an Anglo district — that is, a Republican district — in elections, because its Hispanics were so unlikely to vote. In one case, this meant creating a district line that squiggled out to cover a single cul-de-sac. Then Attorney General Greg Abbott’s office ran tests to see how Hispanic-preferred candidates did under the old District 23 lines compared with the new ones. Under the old lines, Hispanics could elect the candidate of their choice in at least three out of 10 elections; under the final set of lines, Hispanics could do so in only one out of 10 elections.
The Federal District Court in Washington that oversees V.R.A. cases rejected the plan as discriminatory when Texas asked the courts for preclearance under Section 5. In the interim, the courts developed temporary maps in conjunction with lawyers from both sides that more or less split the difference between the old lines and those the courts rejected as discriminatory. With Section 5 inactive, those interim maps remain in place.
In another discrimination case against Texas, brought in 2011, the Justice Department, Perales and her San Antonio colleagues Jose Garza and Martin Golando, who represent the statehouse’s Mexican-American caucus, assert that the Texas Republicans discriminated against Hispanics intentionally in drawing the plan. If successful, the suit would potentially trigger a separate Voting Rights Act penalty requiring Texas to submit future voting changes to federal authorities for a period of time to be set by the courts. Federal courts have rarely exercised this penalty, but Garza told me he was ‘‘cautiously optimistic’’ because the emails show Republican mapmakers speaking openly about minimizing Hispanics’ ability to affect elections.
Texas has defended its redistricting efforts by arguing that the mapmakers were seeking partisan gain over Democrats, which is allowed, instead of racial gain over Hispanics, which is not. If the judges accept that explanation, Texas could win, because the courts have generally stayed out of strictly partisan fights. But Garza argues that partisanship and race can no longer be separated in Texas. ‘‘Today, the Democratic Party is essentially a minority party, and the Republican Party is essentially a white party,’’ he told me. ‘‘One is a proxy for the other.’’
6. ‘The change is coming’
In February of this year, Oscar Del Toro formally opened his campaign for the Pasadena City Council with two short Facebook posts, one in Spanish and the other in English: ‘‘Well, I’m officially a candidate,’’ the statement read. ‘‘I love my new country and I am ready to do my best to serve my community, my home Pasadena, TX.’’
On Nov. 18 in Houston, the federal judge Alfred H. Bennett swore in 1,636 new citizens, 1,383 of whom immediately registered to vote. Credit Jeff Wilson for The New York Times
His rival for the at-large seat, Darrell Morrison, was one of the mayor’s allies on the council, and occasionally had to abstain from voting because the engineering firm of which he is an owner did business with the city. Shortly after Del Toro announced his candidacy, Morrison invited him to the local Starbucks for an impromptu meeting. Del Toro recounted it when I visited him in October at his house on the south side, which is decorated to look like the one he left behind in Mexico, with terra-cotta tiles and mustard-colored walls.
‘‘He says, ‘I will like to know who is behind you — who is backing you?’ And I say, ‘No one,’ ’’ Del Toro told me. ‘‘He asked me, ‘What do you want in this race?’ And I told him, ‘What I want is what’s best for Pasadena.’ He smiled a little bit, like, ‘Yeah, really, just tell me the truth, what do you want?’ I said, ‘What I want is the best thing for Pasadena.’ ’’ And finally, Del Toro recalled, ‘‘He asked, will I not say anything bad about him? I said: ‘I don’t know anything about you personally. I’m going to talk about what I want, not attack you.’ ’’ (When I asked Morrison about Del Toro’s recollection, he said, ‘‘We had a cordial meeting, introduced ourselves to each other, and both of us said we’d run a positive campaign.’’)
Next, Del Toro collected all the city data on elections he could get and began writing previous vote tallies onto a huge map of Pasadena that he laid out on his kitchen table, marking it up with a green Sharpie and purple Post-its. A pattern quickly emerged. He took the map out to show me. ‘‘I noticed this sector where the mayor and some City Councilman lives — they vote a lot. One precinct gets like almost 20 percent of the vote,’’ he said, pointing to a district in southeastern Pasadena. ‘‘And I notice what part of Pasadena votes more and what part of Pasadena doesn’t vote.’’ The part that doesn’t vote, he found, was in the north, where, his figures predicted, he could win 80 percent — as opposed to, at best, 30 percent of the non-Hispanic whites in the south. But 80 percent of how many actual voters? Turnout would be everything.
Del Toro yet again set out to canvass his city door to door. He deputized his whole family to help. His wife, Wendy, became his driver, taking him to homes north and south, reading the map and recording which doors he had knocked on. His daughters, Wendy and Stephanie, spread the word among their friends and their friends’ Spanish-speaking parents. His son, Oscar Jr., who had recently returned from an Army tour of duty, helped with signs and mailers. The key to victory was in the north, but Del Toro knew he would have his work cut out for him.
Del Toro had come to believe that Hispanic turnout was low for a reason. More often than not, he said, it had to do with fear — sometimes voters’ families came from countries with repressive regimes. But just as often, it was a fear of American authority, one that was passed down to the children, adding to a cultural bias against voting. As he worked the north side, he said, he heard the usual complaints: ‘‘Oh, they have very good parks over there; they have very good flower beds over there — I mean, we don’t have sidewalks.’’
There was one way to fix it, he would answer. ‘‘I said, ‘You have a credit score, right?’ They say, ‘Yeah, yeah.’ ‘You know how that works. You have a good credit score, they give you a good deal. You have a bad credit score, they give you a bad deal.’ People get the concept very easy. So I say: ‘O.K., politicians know how many people vote per precinct — and those precincts over there, they vote a lot. Here, they don’t vote a lot. So, politically, your score is kind of low. So they are going to give the better deal to them.’ ’’
But fear is a powerful suppressant, and as his daughters sought to get their friends to vote for their dad they learned that the local, statewide and national climate, combined with the new voter-ID law, was adding to the atmosphere of anxiety. ‘‘I have a lot of Spanish friends, and their parents were like, ‘What is the form going to ask me?’ ’’ Del Toro’s daughter Wendy, 25, a juvenile-probation officer, told me over the phone in November. ‘‘The word they used was ‘intimidated.’ ’’ A common question, she said, was whether they were going to be asked about their citizenship status; even though they were citizens, they were apprehensive about being seen as ‘‘illegals.’’ Their children were almost as uneasy. ‘‘They didn’t know what you need — they were like, ‘I can’t vote because I don’t have a driver’s license,’ small things like that.’’ (Confusion over new voting laws can be as powerful a deterrent as the provisions themselves; a recent Rice University study suggested that the Texas voter-ID law deterred voters from going to the polls in numbers that may have caused one former United States congressman, Pete Gallego, to lose his seat in 2014 — even though many of them actually had the proper ID.)
Election tallies showed that Del Toro had a slight lead over Morrison in Pasadena’s early voting period, which ran for eight days before Election Day, but Morrison beat Del Toro in the final tally, with 61 percent of 4,100 votes.
Von Houte and Ybarra each won their races, keeping their four-member opposition to the mayor intact. But even under the mayor’s new council plan, a fifth and deciding seat had come tantalizingly close to switching over. An ExxonMobil research technician and voting rights activist, Celestino Pérez, nearly beat the mayoral ally Bruce Leamon. Isbell’s opponents had considered Leamon’s to be the next of the Isbell-friendly districts to lean their way under the old plan. On the new map, it became slightly less Hispanic. Pérez came within only 34 votes — close, but not enough. Still, Ybarra said, ‘‘The change is coming.’’
7. ‘Just watch the faces’
On a sunny morning in mid-November, 1,636 soon-to-be Americans streamed into a vast school auditorium on the outskirts of Houston, by the Bush Intercontinental Airport, most of them from Mexico and Central and South America, but others from India, Pakistan, Iraq — a total of 115 countries. They were there for a naturalization ceremony held monthly. Before it began, the presiding federal judge, Alfred H. Bennett, was called to the entrance of the building to administer the oath of citizenship to a Hispanic woman who had gone into labor upon walking through the front door. She was ‘‘about to dilate,’’ the judge told me afterward, ‘‘so it was a pleasure to do her so she could go to the hospital and deliver a strong baby girl.’’ Before heading to the podium to conduct the ceremony, Bennett, who is black, instructed me: ‘‘Just watch the faces more than anything else, the joy.’’
After the ceremony, as the new Americans, some in tears and others smiling broadly, waited to file out of their seats by section, Claudia Ortega-Hogue, wearing a blue blazer and a large yellow button that read ‘‘Register to Vote,’’ ran up the aisles handing out registration cards and pens. Then she ran back down them just as fast, collecting the completed forms. Ortega-Hogue is a vice president of the Houston-area League of Women Voters. For many voting rights groups, naturalization ceremonies have grown in importance, as Texas has imposed stringent new training requirements for volunteer registrars, as well as criminal fines for paying people based on the number of people they register, making it harder to run registration drives in traditional places like shopping malls and street fairs.
Ortega-Hogue, some of whose family qualified for citizenship under the Reagan amnesty, has been helping to register voters at the Houston naturalization ceremonies for about eight years. ‘‘For me, this gives me energy,’’ she told me, a stack of completed registrations in her hands. As the freshly minted Americans left the hall, immigration officials handed them their naturalization certificates. Those documents could become important to voting if Texas Republicans pass a proposed new law attaching ‘‘proof of citizenship’’ requirements to voter registration. In 2009, the Justice Department argued that a similar program in Georgia had led to the wrongful removal from voting rolls of thousands of voters — a disproportionate number of them minorities — as potential noncitizens, when they were in fact full-fledged Americans. When the Ohio secretary of state, Jon Husted, a Republican, investigated possible noncitizen voting in his state after the 2012 election, he found that noncitizens cast 17 ballots out of more than five million — or less than 0.00001 percent.
After the naturalization ceremony, I stopped back in Pasadena for a quick lunch with Del Toro, at a Mexican restaurant on the Spencer Highway called the Don’Key. He was planning to run again, he told me, as we ate tacos. When I mentioned the ceremony I had just attended, Del Toro told me he was naturalized in the same building. At his ceremony, he recalled, the keynote speaker was Representative Sheila Jackson Lee, a black congresswoman from Houston. ‘‘She was talking about something that impressed me,’’ Del Toro said. ‘‘She say, ‘They are going to say something bad about you, they are going to criticize you — doesn’t matter, still do what you want to do.’ That was it for me.’’
He remembered that after the ceremony, he was handed his first voter-registration application. It wasn’t much to look at. Black and white and printed on sturdy paper, it could have just as easily passed for an income-tax form. Del Toro filled it out then and there. Finally, he was a real citizen. He shrugged and tilted his head. ‘‘It made me cry a little bit,’’ he said.
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