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Texas Legislature approves splitting Fort Bliss in two congressional districts

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A congressional redistricting map that splits Fort Bliss between two congressional seats was given final approval by both chambers of the Texas Legislature Monday. It now goes to Gov. Greg Abbott for his signature — and then to the courts for legal challenges.

The redrawn map puts Biggs Army Airfield in Republican Tony Gonzales’ 23rd Congressional District, the first time part of the military installation will be represented by a non-El Paso based member of the U.S. House of Representatives.

The revised map was a disappointment for El Paso’s legislative delegation, which pushed for Fort Bliss to remain within the 16th Congressional District, currently held by U.S. Rep. Veronica Escobar, D-El Paso. The map was drawn by the Texas Senate.

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The delegation was able to return Biggs airfield to Escobar’s district under the congressional map the Texas House approved early Sunday that included a number of changes to the state Senate-approved plan, which removed all of Fort Bliss from District 16. The House-approved plan only had the installation’s unpopulated rangeland within District 23.

Because the state Senate did not accept the House changes, a conference committee of lawmakers from both chambers negotiated compromised boundaries.

“The attempt to carve those landmarks out of our community was a direct threat to our economic future for the next decade,” Escobar said in a joint statement she and El Paso’s state legislative delegation released Tuesday.

“Fort Bliss is a part of the fabric of El Paso and shares the same concerns, needs, and goals as the rest of the community … Trading a Congresswoman who lives 5 miles away for a Congressman who lives over 550 miles away and represents multiple military installations deprives El Pasoans of fair representation and dedicated advocacy,” the statement continued.

The current boundaries of TX-16, in orange, and TX-23, in purple shown on the left, and the congressional redistricting plan the Texas Legislature approved Oct. 18 on the right.

Under the boundaries both chambers approved Monday, Fort Bliss’ new William Beaumont Army Medical Center will remain in District 16.

Biggs Army Airfield, which is adjacent to El Paso International Airport, supports two active-duty Army units: the 1st Armored Division Combat Aviation Brigade and the 204th Military Intelligence Battalion. The 1st Armored Division’s headquarters, however, will be in District 16.

In addition to Biggs, Gonzales will now represent San Antonio’s Lackland Air Force Base on top of Laughlin Air Force Base near Del Rio, which is already part of District 23.

Gonzales’ Washington, D.C. office could not be reached for comment.

Maps already face legal challenge over alleged discrimination

The new congressional map the Texas Legislature approved increases Republican control of the state’s 38 congressional seats and bolsters previous toss-up districts, such as District 23. Gonzales won that seat in 2020 with just over 50% of the vote.

Democrats have charged their Republican colleagues with discriminating against voters of color, who fueled the state’s population growth over the last decade. The two new congressional seats Texas gained after the 2020 census were drawn to give white voters the majority.

Democrats warned during the Texas House debate that the congressional map would be challenged in court.

The first lawsuit came Monday, even before the chambers had passed the final U.S. House maps.

The Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, or MALDEF, filed a lawsuit in El Paso federal court Monday that argues the redrawn congressional, Texas statehouse and State Board of Education maps should not take effect because they discriminate against Latino voters.

The congressional map “weakens the Latino voting strength in Congressional District 23,” according to the filing. It also reduces the state’s eight current Hispanic voting majority districts to seven though 50% of Texas’ population growth came from Hispanics.

Abbott has yet to sign any of the redistricting bills into law.

MALDEF has asked the federal judge to prohibit Texas officials “from calling, holding, supervising or certifying any elections” in 2022 under the redrawn political boundaries. Both Escobar and Gonzales are up for reelection that year.

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Molly Smith

Molly Smith has been a reporter for the El Paso Times and The (McAllen) Monitor. She’s covered education, criminal justice and local government. A Seattle native, she’s lived in Texas since 2014, with stops in Austin, the Rio Grande Valley and now El Paso. She can be reached at mksmith@elpasomatters.org or 915-247-8857.

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