Politics

Cracking Austin

The Texas freeze proved that our representatives feel no obligation to their constituents.

Roy walking in a hallway, looking sternly at the camera
Rep. Chip Roy at the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 13. Reuters/Jonathan Ernst

The first I heard from my congressman was at 5:14 p.m. last Tuesday, some 39 hours after Austinites began reporting they’d lost power in the midst of a deadly winter freeze. The high that day was 26 degrees, the low 7, and when the email came, my husband and I had just slid a half-mile down icy, barren streets to get warm at a friend’s apartment, our own heat and electricity having gone out that morning.

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The congressman was not emailing to see how we were holding up. Instead, he seemed primarily concerned with assigning blame for the outages, which would leave, at their height, 4 million Texans without power and result in overwhelmed hospitals and an as-yet-unknown number of deaths. “Radical ideologies have politicized energy policy at the state and federal levels in recent years,” he declared, echoing the sentiments of other Republicans, who had already begun falsely blaming renewable energy sources as the primary reason for the outages. The congressman was in touch with various agencies to see how “additional federal deregulation” might solve the problem. To those still without heat and electricity, he suggested consulting an outage map for which he’d forgotten to include the URL; the “here” we were to click on linked to nothing.

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The congressman in question is Chip Roy, “representative” of Texas’ 21st District, and to those of us who pay his way, this behavior is par for the course. Roy rarely lifts a finger for Austinites and knows he doesn’t need to in order to win—we didn’t elect him in the first place. Despite the old saw that the state capital is a “blue dot in a red sea”—a silly metaphor given that all four of Texas’ biggest cities vote Democratic—the political power of our citizenry has been severely curtailed by partisan gerrymandering.

For the uninitiated, gerrymandering is the process of manipulating how districts are drawn to give one political party an unfair leg up. In Texas, the Republican-held Legislature is responsible for drawing the maps every 10 years, and our current boundaries were created with the sole purpose of maximizing the power of the people with the pens.

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When it comes to Austin, the preferred gerrymandering method of the GOP is called “cracking,” in which the party in control spreads the opposing party’s supporters across multiple districts, diluting their voting power. Thus, despite the fact that Joe Biden defeated Donald Trump by 45 points in Travis County (which includes Austin), only one of our six different members of Congress is a Democrat.

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What this means in practice is that Austin tax dollars subsidize politicians like Chip Roy, who despite Austinites’ wishes has worked assiduously to undermine public health officials battling the pandemic, who opposes the Violence Against Women Act and has passionately defended drug company profits, and whose response to Biden’s order mandating mask-wearing on federal property was to tell Biden, via Twitter, to “kiss my ass.”

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Our district includes a wide swath of the Texas Hill Country, home to Roy’s base, as well as slivers of Austin and San Antonio, and Roy has made clear he does not see his job as representing those of us who did not vote for him. In his first term, pre-pandemic, he rarely offered Austinites the chance to interact with him in public settings on our home turf (an exception was a Q&A hosted by his allies at a conservative think tank), while frequently holding town halls and other events in his rural strongholds. On social media, he’s referred to the duly elected Austin City Council as “Marxist” and has claimed because of safety concerns he doesn’t like to take his family into our downtown.

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So when the Texas freeze came, I was not expecting much from my representative. Even by his standards, however, the lack of response was shocking. The day after Roy’s initial email, subfreezing conditions continuing and much of Austin’s power, including ours, still out with no end in sight, the congressman released a statement not explaining how he planned to help the struggling citizens of his district but eulogizing Rush Limbaugh. “You may now return your talent to God, loaned to you to share with us all these years,” he wrote.

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Roy wasn’t the only Austin Republican whose priorities did not seem to include looking out for Austinites last week. Like Roy, Rep. Roger Williams of the 25th District signed on to letters to President Joe Biden, asking him to approve the Texas governor’s disaster declaration, and to the president of the Electric Reliability Council of Texas, commonly known as ERCOT, which operates the state’s electric grid. But Austin constituents on Williams’ email list told me they didn’t receive any communication from him during the crisis. One acquaintance in Williams’ district noted that on the same day, Feb. 17, that she was “Googling hypothermia to see if we were at risk of freezing to death,” her congressman was offering his own condolences to Limbaugh (“I’ll always cherish the time I got to spend with him”) and, bizarrely, attacking New York Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (“Rule #1 for the Socialist Democrat Party, use any crisis available to lasso control”). (An email I sent to Williams’ communications director seeking comment went unanswered as of Wednesday.)

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Austinites in the 10th District, home to Rep. Mike McCaul, told me they, too, didn’t hear from their congressman during the freeze. His communications director, Rachel Walker, responded in an email that McCaul had kept his social media feeds updated frequently, and had assisted local officials across his district in getting them the resources they needed.

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When I called Roy’s office to see if he might’ve done more to reach out to us Austinites, a staffer told me that the congressman had lost power during the cold snap, and directed me to a video, posted Monday, in which Roy notes that over the weekend he “spent a couple hours” distributing water in Harper, 100 miles west. By contrast, Austin’s lone Democratic representative, Lloyd Doggett, who was also operating without power for much of last week, nonetheless used his social media feeds as a clearinghouse for essential information like where to find water, food, and warming shelters. Meanwhile, Ocasio-Cortez has raised $5 million in relief money for Texans, while former Rep. Beto O’Rourke, who currently does not hold elective office, ran a virtual phone bank through which volunteers made almost 800,000 phone calls to Texas seniors, connecting them with food, water and transportation. As for Roy, after his first email to constituents last Tuesday, we didn’t hear from him again until Friday, well after our power had returned. This time, he’d remembered to include the link to the outage map.

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Four days after our power came back on, I received a message from a friend, Holly, who’d spent much of the last week ferrying other friends without heat to safety. She’d found one pal in a 36-degree apartment. The friend is now recovering, and told Holly she intends to vote “every last mf’er out of office when the time comes.” Unfortunately, it may not be possible, no matter how well deserved. The next round of redistricting will happen during this legislative session, and there’s no reason to believe the Republicans in charge will draw a map any less gerrymandered than the one we have now. The U.S. Supreme Court has also essentially given them the greenlight after upholding the previous gerrymander in 2018. The court ruled that state lawmakers had not intentionally discriminated against Black and Latino voters even though the maps clearly diluted their voting power.

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Here in Austin, there’s plenty of rage to go around: at a Republican governor and Legislature that failed to properly “winterize” our power sources, even though they’ve known of the need to do so for a decade; at a certain Texas senator who tried to turn this disaster into a vacation and an entire GOP apparatus hellbent on changing the subject. And though it may not get as much attention, there’s palpable anger, too, at the members of Congress who have gerrymandered their way into Austin and given it little back in a time of crisis. It’s a fury that would be enough to light and heat an entire city, if only we could convert it into power.

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