One year in, here’s how freshmen legislators valued constituent communication

Representing the public is a challenging but extremely important job. Though many see politicians through a cynical lens, elected officials are, by definition, public servants. That means people expect the individual they elect to represent them and their community, and it also means constituents want a certain level of access to their elected officials, especially during the legislative session.

An elected official’s first year in office is critical. It determines whether a government representative can take their knowledge of the community to Austin and vote for the people—rather than themselves or someone paying for their vote. People want to trust their officials on important kitchen table issues, such as property tax, education, and health care, and they want to know their voices are heard. 

Reform Austin did a deep dive on Facebook to determine which of the 30 new members of the Texas House and six new members of the Texas Senate actually interacted with their communities. 

Freshman legislators’ Facebook pages were evaluated for number of public and private events held. Events counted in the analysis were scheduled events open to the public or private events to discuss legislative events with groups such as a local chamber of commerce. Analysis did not include events where legislators did not speak to constituents or meetings where constituents had to make a trip to the capitol to speak with legislators.

Of the 36 freshmen legislators, Rep. Vikki Goodwin (D-Austin) came in first place with 29 public events and six private events. Goodwin held and/or participated in multiple events before, during, and after the 86th legislative session. Rep. Goodwin is also recognized for her creative “constituent coffee chats,” where she asks constituents for input in an open, informal atmosphere. 

Closely behind Rep. Goodwin for most events held is Sen. Carol Alvarado (D-Houston) with 34 events. Alvarado spoke with constituents at many community events and kept various community groups up-to-date with the status of the session. 

Tied at 0 events held are Rep. Alex Dominguez (D-Brownsville) and Rep. Leo Pacheco (D-San Antonio). Neither representative held a single event, public or private, to communicate with constituents. 

The average number of events held for the freshmen legislators of 2019 is 14. Legislators with existing political ties held noticeably less events. Sen. Angela Paxton (R-McKinney), spouse of Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton, held only 5 events. Rep. Sam Harless’ spouse Patricia Harless previously represented the same district he now presides over (HD 126). He held only four events.

Even Rep. Ray Lopez (D-San Antonio) and Rep. Christina Morales (D-Houston) who won their seats in March special elections were able to hold more events (13 events and 12 events, respectively). 

If elected officials want to keep their seats in 2020, they’ll need to make sure their constituents know they’re making an effort to serve in their district’s best interests, which means giving the people they serve the opportunity to make their voices heard.

New Texas law allows legislators to ‘hide the evidence’ in redrawing voter maps

In light of the recent Supreme Court’s ruling on gerrymandering, it was clear that certain Texas voters would experience disenfranchisement at the hands of state legislators. 

The case for gerrymandering to weaken the influence of minority voters was undeniable in a cache of emails the United States Justice Department cited in 2011 to prove racial discrimination hid under the guise of partisan tactics for Texas voters.

In what seems like a response to hide future evidence and accountability, Texas legislators recently passed a law, House Bill 4181, which ensures that all communications surrounding the redistricting process can remain secret from the public. This makes it much more difficult to wage future challenges or definitively determine the reasoning behind gerrymandered districts.

The law offers what it calls “legislative privilege” to private communications related to “a legislative activity or function.” Though this covers communications related to any number of subjects, one of the law’s authors, Rep. Charlie Geren (R-Fort Worth), acknowledged the 2011 legal challenge and emails specifically in a statement to The Dallas Morning News, indicating that he was aware his law would keep this from happening again.

Given the stakes for redrawn district maps in 2021, there are concerns that the 2010 redistricting scheme could repeat itself, despite a surge in massive population growth among the state’s Hispanic populations. The U.S. Census Bureau’s recent population estimates showed the Hispanic population in Texas climbed to nearly 11.4 million, an increase of 1.9 million since 2010. 

Between 2000 and 2010 the state’s Hispanic population grew by 2.8 million people, with 65 percent of the total population growth from that period, allowing Texas to gain four new seats in the United States House of Representatives.

Yet through the process of aggressive gerrymandering, the state was able to create three more congressional districts which were majority white, while only one of the new districts was majority Hispanic. Despite experiencing the least amount of growth, the white, mostly rural population now receives the most representation.

Like 2011, all can expect gerrymandering to be a major fight in the 2021 legislative session, and the Supreme Court’s ruling on gerrymandering gives new urgency to next year’s elections.