A Guest Post By Texas IAF Organizer Ramon Duran
Power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Power tends to corrupt when there is no accountability; when we are indifferent to what others suffer; or when we demonize others.
The practice of gerrymandering political districts, whether these be congressional, or state house districts, creates situations in which it becomes difficult to hold those who are in power (because they gerrymandered the districts in the first place) accountable for how they use power. They are then free to act with indifference to those whose lives are negatively impacted by their actions, actions which they justify by demonizing those whose lives they destroy (e.g. the undeserving poor; criminal illegal aliens, etc.). Consequently, gerrymandering creates “safe” districts in which those who represent these districts may act with impunity given that they are assured of reelection because of how the district has been configured.
However, there is a more pernicious effect, namely the deterioration of the foundation of democracy. This is evident in the the US congress and the Texas state house of representatives. Most districts have been gerrymandered to the extent that artificially created minorities in districts can not only be ignored, but successfully maligned and mistreated, with impunity. I can think of only two districts in the state that seem to flip between the two major parties: Congressional District 23 (redrawn by the courts) and state house district 117. The fact that they do regularly flip from one party to the other means that those representatives must be willing to listen to everyone in their districts to get reelected. This has been my experience in congressional district 23 in relation to my work in Val Verde County.
.A further pernicious effect of gerrymandering is that it discourages people from voting. When people perceive that regardless for whom they cast their vote, whether for the winner or the loser, if the outcome is preordained, why bother to vote?
The organizations of the Texas Industrial Areas Foundation (I.A.F.) are taking action to confront this challenge. Organizers are working in gerrymandered districts across the state, organizing families in churches, schools, neighborhood clinics and other institutions to develop constituencies to hold public officials accountable to the people that they were elected to serve. This action is taking place in Southwest Travis County, in Bastrop County, Hays County, Comal County, Guadalupe County, parts of Bexar County, Hale County, Lubbock County and other counties across the state.
People in these counties are organizing for better police protection, for programs for children, higher wages, basic services such as sewer, greater access to health care, improved infrastructure, parks, protection for unauthorized immigrants, comprehensive immigration reform and many other issues. People who have lived in some of these situations for as many as forty years in which they have been systematically ignored by elected official because it was a “safe district” have seen that they can be effective in initiating change when they work together with their neighbors through local institutions such as churches.
They are learning to identify the issues that affect their interests, and how to act effectively to move those issues, but they are doing much more: they are in effect revitalizing our democratic culture, and will in effect, undue the effects of those who would gerrymander democracy out of existence. This takes place not in some spectacular fashion, but in small groups of ten people each, in which neighbors discuss the issues that they face and work together to identify solutions to respond to those challenges.
When thousands of people participate in these conversations in churches and schools, the result are constituencies built not around a candidate or a political party, but rather an agenda of issues that represent not only the issues on that agenda but their commitment to one another as neighbors and citizens. Even in a gerrymandered district, citizens and neighbors working together can create constituencies large enough that candidates of either party would be willing to compete for them. This will, in effect, create a situation in which those who run or serve in public office can be held accountable to those whom they were elected to serve (and not their party hacks and managers).
This work, an effort to revitalize democracy, and to take democracy back from the lobbyists, the ad men and the monied interests, requires patience, dedication, focus, and above all time: the time it takes to build relationships among the people of communities, relationships in which community members pledge their allegiance to one another, not a party or a disembodied ideology.
This is the work of the Texas I.A.F. This is our work that will lead through the primaries in March, to the elections in November, and through to 2020. The reasons why this might not happen are legion. The reasons it must are evident. This is not something that might happen; it is what is happening.
Frank C. Pierson, Jr.
Frank Pierson retired after forty years of work with the Industrial Areas Foundation (IAF) as a professional organizer. He began his career in 1971 in Chicago, moved to Queens, New York City and migrated west to work in Arizona, New Mexico, Nevada and Colorado. He resides with his wife, Mary Ellen Kazda, in Oracle, Arizona. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org