Over the Line

A GOP state redistricting plan targets a longtime Democrat and others

State Representative Harryette Ehrhardt, a popular Democrat and unabashed progressive who for eight years has represented East Dallas, Oak Lawn and parts of North Dallas that together composed the 107th House district, still lives in the same Swiss Avenue house she has called home for 30 years. But she no longer lives in her district.

Last year, Ehrhardt won her fourth term by a sizable 6,000-vote margin in a diverse district that included black, Hispanic, white and gay neighborhoods. But recently, her fortunes changed without a single ballot cast. In late July, a GOP-controlled panel tasked to draw new lines for state officeholders in line with 2000 census results moved her out of the 107th and into the 108th, a conservative district long represented by Kenn George, a Republican stepping down to run for land commissioner.

The dividing line now sits three houses away from Ehrhardt's home. "I was very shocked" after seeing the new maps, she says. "This redistricting plan takes away the voice of people who have the most difficulty being heard." Should court challenges fail, Ehrhardt, a former teacher and Dallas school board member, vows to win re-election despite new boundaries. But already, some opponents are typesetting her political obituary. "I'm delighted," says Bob Driegart, chairman of the Dallas County Republican Party. "Whoever wins the Republican primary [in District 108] will be the state representative."

Ehrhardt's new district comes courtesy of the GOP-dominated Legislative Redistricting Board (LRB), a five-member panel of top state officials. Its four GOP members are Lieutenant Governor Bill Ratliff, Attorney General John Cornyn, Comptroller Carole Keeton Rylander and Land Commissioner David Dewhurst. House Speaker Pete Laney is its only Democrat. Under the state constitution, redistricting falls to the board if the Legislature fails to act in the session following the release of census data.

Cornyn, Rylander and Dewhurst voted for a plan expected to result in large Republican majorities. The new boundaries will likely throw the House from Democratic to Republican control, possibly with a majority of 88 out of 150 seats, giving the GOP control of all three branches of state government. Democrats are furious at what they dub a "partisan hatchet job," but Republicans say they have corrected gerrymandering done by once dominant Democrats following the 1990 census.

In Dallas, the newly drawn District 108 reshapes the old 108, a horseshoe-shaped district spanning from the Park Cities to Lake Highlands and Lakewood. It's now a compact district that includes downtown, the Park Cities and meaty parts of the old 107, notably East Dallas and the Greenville Avenue corridor up to Northwest Highway. But it still leans conservative. Two analyses of District 107 peg the district's Republican advantage at 57 percent and 65 percent. (Meanwhile, the new 107 is expected to lean Republican: It includes the White Rock area and parts of eastern Dallas County suburbs.)

Upon the July 24 release of the LRB's maps, howls of outrage erupted from Ehrhardt's supporters. "Her district was clearly drawn to attack her," says Bill Howell, chairman of the Dallas Democratic Party. "No competent and honest judge is going to maintain these districts." Joe May, a Hispanic activist and member of the city's redistricting panel, says the new District 108 shortchanges several minority neighborhoods where Ehrhardt is popular. "There's no community of interest between the folks of Highland Park and Old East Dallas," says May, who plans to file a complaint with the Justice Department. "If she goes down, we go down."

Also upset: gay rights advocates who praise Ehrhardt's support of the hate-crimes law and a proposed anti-discrimination code covering gays in schools. "She's a damn good legislator," says Steve Atkinson, co-chairman of the Lesbian Gay Rights Lobby of Texas. Ehrhardt also counts among her supporters teachers who laud her success prodding the Legislature into passing a teacher health insurance plan. "It stabs me in the heart," says Aimee Bolender, president of the Alliance of Dallas Educators, the city's largest teacher union. "Harryette is worth gold as far as we're concerned."

But while Democrats sulk, Republicans rejoice at news of the new lines. They're certain one of their own will oust Ehrhardt in 2002. One confirmed contender is Ron Walenta, an East Dallas Republican who unsuccessfully challenged Ehrhardt in last year's race for state representative. Stressing economic conservatism and opposition to property tax increases mixed with pro-choice and immigrant-friendly stands, he ran an active campaign last year but lost with 12,643 votes to Ehrhardt's 18,508.

Asked before redistricting whether he would challenge Ehrhardt in 2002, he replied: "I'm not Don Quixote." But now Walenta is gung-ho on facing down Ehrhardt in the new District 108. The 52-year-old business consultant recently began the process by filing with the Texas Ethics Commission. He thinks the addition of the GOP-leaning Village Apartments and the Park Cities will put him over the top. "Is Harryette thinking of challenging me?" he asks rhetorically, noting that Ehrhardt is technically not an incumbent in District 108. "This seat is going to go Republican."

Later, Walenta, a former Air Force vet and aide to former Dallas County Commissioner David Pickett, made a more pragmatic assessment. "The presumption of a GOP district is not necessarily correct," he says. He notes that Tony Sanchez, the Democratic front-runner for governor in 2002, could draw out many new Hispanic voters, thus aiding Ehrhardt. And for some reason, not all well-to-do whites vote GOP. "I got killed on Swiss Avenue and the neighborhood around Lakewood Country Club," he says.

But another test for Walenta could arrive before the general election contest: a heated GOP primary. It may hinge on neighborhood rivalry over whether Park Cities Republican primary voters will vote for Dallasite candidates and vice versa. Dan Branch, a Highland Park real estate attorney who chaired President Bush's two gubernatorial campaigns in Dallas County, is mulling a run for the same seat.

Branch, 43, who ran for Congress in 1991, listed education, transportation, urban growth and pollution as his top concerns and cited support from GOP activists, downtown business interests and community groups. "I've been surprised by the interest, and I'm weighing whether it makes sense," he says. "I've got five kids and a law practice."

Meanwhile, Ehrhardt's predicament tops a list of bad news for Dallas Democrats. Eight Republicans and eight Democrats currently represent Dallas County in the state house, but redistricting may shift that ratio to 10 and six. State Representatives Terri Hodge and Dale Tillery, both Democratic incumbents, must face off against one another in a redrawn District 100. And State Senator David Cain, who lives in East Dallas, has been cut out of Senate District 2, which stretches from eastern Dallas County to Tyler (he may move eastward to stay in the district). "It's unsettling," says Russ Pate, a Democratic activist who lives in Lower Greenville, "to have two officials wiped out by redistricting."

Ehrhardt criticizes GOP mapmakers for splitting the Swiss Avenue historic district into two districts and thinks minorities in the new District 108 have a federal case because they can vote as a bloc and still not influence the election's outcome--a far cry from their clout in Ehrhardt's old territory. Howell of Dallas Democrats isn't sure disaffected Ehrhardt backers have a voting rights case, but he thinks contesting boundaries of predominantly minority districts elsewhere will consequently alter 108's lines. (Republicans say the new lines protect minority representation and are legally defensible.)

Successful court challenge or not, Ehrhardt is enthusiastic about running for a fifth term. She has strong ties to the Highland Park area; a former resident, she and her husband, Jack, met at Highland Park High, where he was captain of the football team and she was active in student organizations. She believes her pro-choice, pro-gay rights credentials will appeal to upscale GOP voters who are "not reactionary." "It will take Republican votes to get me elected," she says, "and I have every intention of winning those votes."

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