Did Joe Straus Let TLR Call the Shots on Texas Redistricting?

New e-mails recently made public indicate that a special interest lobby group, Texans For Lawsuit Reform (TLR), played a key role in the development and passage of a Texas redistricting map that was opposed by a number of grassroots activists and Tea Party groups. These e-mails show how TLR and its leadership worked closely with top aides to Texas House Speaker Joe Straus in the redistricting process. One e-mail even show TLR’s President, a longtime Democratic activist and fundraiser who has written about his desire to see Democrats be in a “position of strength to influence public policy” in Texas, coordinating a public relations campaign in favor of the redistricting map favored by TLR and Straus.

Last month, Erick Erickson wrote here on RedState about another batch of e-mails that he characterized as shedding “new light on just how dismissive the Straus team was of Republican Party and conservative efforts to draw more fair districts – and should serve as a warning bell to the new House that it is time for Straus to go.” Erickson’s post and the release of those e-mails stirred up quite a bit of controversy not only due to their salty content, but also for lending credence to conservatism criticism of the redistricting process during the last legislative session. State Representative David Simpson, who just announced his candidacy for Speaker of the Texas House against incumbent Joe Straus, stated in September that he was “pretty dismayed” with what records in the Texas redistricting litigation indicated.

One of the key players in the redistricting process was Mike Hull, a lawyer and lobbyist for TLR who has been identified as “TLR Counsel” in their publications. Hull has a long history of opposing grassroots conservatives in the halls of the Texas Capitol, especially as it comes to protecting innocent human life. In 2003, Hull testified against the “Prenatal Protection Act”, which was supported by conservative organizations such as Eagle Forum and Texas Alliance For Life. Hull’s opposition to the “Prenatal Protection Act” put him on the same side of the debate as Planned Parenthood, the ACLU, NOW, and the Texas Abortion and Reproductive Rights League. In 2007, Hull once again joined representatives from NOW, Planned Parenthood, and NARAL to oppose SB 785, a pro-life bill supported by a number of pro-life groups. In 2009, Hull testified against a version of a pro-life “sonogram bill” that once against put him at odds with a host of conservative activists.

In a sworn deposition, outgoing Republican State Representative Raul Torres testified that Hull was present at two meetings with State Representative Todd Hunter and others regarding the redistricting of Nueces County (both Torres and Hunter represent parts of Nueces County in the Texas House). When asked a question about one of these meetings, Torres described Hull as “some attorney Todd Hunter brought” who “validated” what Hunter was saying at the first meeting where Torres, Hunter, and Hull were present. Torres also testified that it was his understanding that Hull was “doing some work” for Texans For Lawsuit Reform. Hunter currently serves as Chairman of the Calendars committee in the Texas House and is widely regarded as a close ally of Speaker Straus.

Hull apparently also had at least one meeting with Rep. Hunter’s staff with a member of Speaker Straus’ staff present as well. In an e-mail exchange dated February 18, 2011, Hull asked Gerardo Interiano, a member of Speaker Straus’ staff who was handling redistricting matters, if he would want to know if he was having a meeting in the morning. Interiano replied “yes” and asked if he would be invited to such a meeting. Hull told Interiano that he was indeed invited to the meeting, which took place at Hull’s office with members of Rep. Hunter’s staff.

There are also several e-mails between Hull and Interiano involving redistricting maps and data, as well as communication between Interiano and Scott Sims, who was working with Hull on redistricting issues in some capacity. Sims told others involved in the redistricting process that he was working for TLR as a “consultant” on redistricting and that he had been hired to do so by Mike Hull. One e-mail from Sims to Interiano involved the pairing of members, with Interiano requesting Sims to call him to discuss.

Hull was also apparently also in communication with Dick Trabulsi, the President of Texans For Lawsuit Reform, on the matter of an alternative redistricting map drawn by former State Representative Joe Nixon that was favored by number of grassroots activists and Tea Party groups. It is worth noting that Trabulsi is a longtime Democratic activist and fundraiser who once served as Texas campaign coordinator for Jimmy Carter, was identified as a key supporter of Gary Hart’s Presidential campaign, donated to Walter Mondale’s campaign against Ronald Reagan, and co-hosted a fundraiser for Bill Clinton with Bill White (who would later become a Democratic nominee for Governor of Texas).

Trabulsi’s nephew, Mark Strama, is a liberal Democratic member of the Texas House from the Austin area who TLR has endorsed and funded in campaigns against far more conservative Republican challengers. More recently, Trabulsi has written about his desire to see the Democratic Party “become competitive again” and for Democrats to be “in a position of strength to influence public policy” in Texas.

In an e-mail exchange dated April 21, 2011, Trabulsi writes to Speaker Straus’ Chief of Staff and other top aides that Mike Hull has advised him that the Nixon map is “not a legal one.” Trabulsi goes on to say Republican State Representative Stefani Carter told him that “anti-Straus” organizations were lobbying for the Nixon map, but that he advised Carter to put “all of her eggs” into the redistricting proposal favored by Straus and TLR. Trabulsi also advised Straus’ aides that they should run a “political” campaign in response to the redistricting efforts being undertaken by the supporters of the Nixon map that included grassroots conservative activists and Tea Party organizations. Trabulsi offered his assistance in coordinating a public relations campaign and said he was “available on demand.”

The next day, Trabulsi circulated a draft of a statement from TLR on redistricting for “final review” and comment to Speaker Straus’ top staff as well as Hull and others associated with TLR. In this e-mail, Trabulsi asked “the Speaker’s team” for their guidance on how and when they wanted TLR to distribute their statement.

Texans For Lawsuit Reform is the embodiment of the Texas political establishment that serves as the biggest obstacle to passing the level of conservative public policy that our base expects. The redistricting battle is not the only example where TLR has worked actively to undermine the work of conservative activists and Tea Party groups. During the recent Republican primary for US Senate between David Dewhurst and Ted Cruz, TLR’s leadership and biggest donors spent millions to dollars to fund David Dewhurst’s smear campaign against Ted Cruz. Thanks to an unprecedented grassroots organization and excitement among the conservative base, these attacks were ultimately unsuccessful.

Of all the issues that come before the Texas legislature, Redistricting especially should be controlled by our elected officials who are ultimately accountable to the people, not outside groups. Grassroots conservatives from across Texas should demand answers about precisely what role TLR had in drawing and passing redistricting maps during the last legislative session. Texas voters also deserve to know why a special interest lobby group such as TLR was allowed to have the level of influence they exercised during the redistricting process.

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