A few nights a week, Mohammad Aziz meets his friend Syed Ali in the parking lot of a strip mall in Sugar Land, the suburban city just south-west of Houston. Syed runs Nash Up Chick, a food truck dishing out Nashville-style hot chicken just off Highway 6. The men, both immigrants from Pakistan, sit in plastic chairs and pass the time in the soupy Texas heat, chatting in a mix of English and Urdu.
It’s a scene that was hard to imagine when Aziz, a 52-year-old cook, moved to Houston more than two decades ago. Back then, he remembers, Highway 6 was just a single lane in each direction, and there was so little development that it seemed like a jungle. Now, the adjoining strip mall includes an Afghan restaurant, a Pakistani dessert spot where the line can stretch out the door. A corner of the parking lot is closed off for food trucks like Syed’s, serving kabobs, burgers, kati rolls and chicken wings.
The transformation is why the once-quiet suburban Fort Bend county, which includes Sugar Land, has become one of the most important places in America.
The political and demographic future of America will look like what Fort Bend county looks like now, demographers believe. The county is extremely diverse – about 32% of people are white, 25% are Hispanic or Latino, 21% are Asian and 21% are Black. And its population exploded over the last decade, growing by 40% to about 823,000 people. But this fall, Republicans could blunt the remarkable transformation happening in Fort Bend county, across Texas, and places around the US seeing similar changes.
After winning key state legislative races last year, Republicans have complete control in far more places than Democrats do over perhaps the most powerful weapon in American politics – the ability to redraw electoral districts. It’s an all-powerful scalpel that will allow Republicans to shore up their advantage simply by regrouping voters into certain districts, entrenching the voting power of white voters amid a quickly diversifying electorate. The technique of distorting district lines for partisan advantage is called gerrymandering.
In Fort Bend county, gerrymandering could be particularly brutal. Donald Trump won the 22nd congressional district, which includes Fort Bend county, by about one percentage point in 2020. Just by reconfiguring the lines, cutting out the most Democratic areas, Republicans could transform it into a district that Trump would have won by more than 20 points, said Dave Wasserman, a senior editor at the Cook Political Report, who closely studies redistricting.
“I think that’s likely. That’s pretty easy to do,” he said. “The march of Democrats in Fort Bend county is inexorable. Republicans know that to hold on to that seat, they’re going to have to make some more drastic changes this time.”
On Thursday, Texas Republicans unveiled a plan that essentially does just that. The draft map shifts the boundaries of the 22nd congressional district to annex Wharton and Matagorda counties, both of which overwhelmingly favored Trump in 2020. It carves out portions of Fort Bend and attaches them to already Democratic-leaning districts anchored in Houston. If the 2020 election were run under the new proposed boundaries, Trump would have carried the district by 16 points, according to Planscore, a tool that measures the partisan fairness of districts. Democrats would have just an 11% chance of carrying the district.
Each decade, Republicans have tweaked the boundaries of the 22nd congressional district, which includes much of Fort Bend, to keep it a Republican seat, he added. The 22nd congressional district was the fastest-growing in the country over the last decade, Wasserman said, and Republicans who redraw it will have to shed about 200,000 people from its boundaries to ensure that each district has roughly the same number of people.
“The story in Texas is very similar to the story across the United States. You’ve got urban areas that are increasingly disproportionately Democratic. And you’ve got rural areas that are disproportionately decreasing,” said Stephen Klineberg, a demographer at Rice University.
“You can’t prevent it. So redistricting becomes one of the major mechanisms by which the party that is in control of the senate, the house, and the governorship has really free rein now to redraw the districts to minimize the power of non-Anglos for the Republicans.”
Drive across Fort Bend and it has all of the hallmarks of an American suburb – big box stores along the highway and huge houses arranged along cul-de-sacs that peek over the brick walls of residential developments. But look closer and you can see the diversity. There are Asian, Indian and Pakistani grocery stores. Lights don’t just go up on houses at Christmastime, but also are vibrant on Chinese New Year, Diwali and Eid, said Amatullah Contractor, the deputy executive director of Emgage, a civic engagement organization for Muslim American communities.
Until recently, the county had been a longstanding and reliable Republican area, home to the congressional district once represented by Tom DeLay, the Republican who served as speaker of the House in the early 2000s. George W Bush, John McCain and Mitt Romney all won the county when they ran for president.
But in 2016, Hillary Clinton flipped the county, which overwhelmingly voted for Romney just four years previously. Joe Biden handily won it in 2020. And in the 2018 Senate race, Beto O’Rourke won the county while Democrats won several of the county’s top offices. They elected KP George, a Democrat and Indian American, as the county judge, ousting a Republican incumbent who had been in office for nearly two decades. They also put the first Democratic district attorney to office in 26 years – the first Black person to hold the position. In 2020, the county elected its first Black sheriff since reconstruction.
“It’s a turning point,” said Mark Solano, a Democratic strategist who is running George’s re-election campaign.
Ninety-five per cent of the population growth in Texas over the last decade was driven by non-white people, a surge that means the state will add two more seats to its delegation in the US House, bring its total number of seats to 38. A decade ago, 58% of Texas’s congressional districts were majority white, but today just 35% of them are, according to the Cook Political Report. And seven of the eight congressional districts that are no longer majority white are currently represented by Republicans, the analysis noted.
“Greater Houston has changed enormously, especially to the west in places like Sugar Land. Booming east Asian, south Asian, and Hispanic populations have created a changed political landscape,” said Samuel Wang, the director of the Princeton Gerrymandering Project, which studies electoral maps across the country. “Redistricting could give voice to those communities, or keep them out of power for years to come.”
Republicans face a similar problem in the northern suburbs of Dallas. They will have to find a way to hold on to districts like the one currently represented by Van Taylor. A decade ago, Taylor’s district was 62% white, but today it’s just under half white, according to the Cook Political Report. The Asian population in the district has surged significantly, growing from 15% to about a quarter of the population.
Republicans know how advantageous extreme gerrymandering can be. In 2011, Republicans undertook an unprecedented effort to use the redistricting process to their advantage, redrawing district lines in such a way that virtually guaranteed re-election across the country. It helped them hold majorities in state legislatures and the US Congress for much of the decade.
Republicans are once again poised to dominate the process, but there are even fewer protections in place than in the past. In 2019, the supreme court said for the first time that there were no federal limits on how far politicians could go to draw districts to their benefit. And for the first time since 1965, states with a history of voting discrimination won’t have to get their district approved by the federal government before they go into effect to ensure they don’t discriminate against minority voters. That could make a huge difference in Texas, where the state has drawn districts that violate the Voting Rights Act in every decade since the law was enacted.
Republicans will have to make a series of choices about which districts they want to shore up and which they will leave competitive. Each time they move a line, it has a ripple effect on what districts look like elsewhere in the state. The problem for Republicans is that they are running out of Republican voters to group into districts, said Mustafa Tameez, a Democratic strategist in the state.
“Republicans in the past were able to take an exurban population and the suburban population build a district. They were able to take an urban population, connect it to a large Republican suburb, and were able to create a district,” he said. “At the end of the day, you can draw in Republican precincts, but you have to have Republican precincts. And you’re running out of that.”
Wayne Thompson, a Republican who was an elected constable in Fort Bend county until last year, praised the new Democratic county leadership and said his party missed opportunities to reach out to new voters.
“We were behind the curve in reaching out,” said Thompson, also a former GOP precinct chair. “I think the party as a whole did not reach out to people maybe that talked different than we did and looked a little different than we did. I don’t think that’s a prejudice thing. I think that’s just a severe error.”
The Republican party of Fort Bend county did not respond to a request for comment for this story.
When it comes to congressional districts, one possibility, Tameez said, is that Republicans may try to cram the new Democratic voters in Fort Bend county into already heavily Democratic congressional districts anchored in Houston, a gerrymandering technique called “packing”. Republicans could then get creative in drawing lines to group all of the remaining Republican areas into a GOP district. Republicans embraced such an approach in their proposal for the 22nd district released on Monday.
“It’s kind of upsetting because that means that rural Fort Bend county gets lumped in with a little bit of some of the more populous centers here and we lose out on a possible real contender for elected office or congressional seat,” said Nabila Mansoor, a local organizer. “The Asian vote is so strong here. But we really need to see elected officials that actually look like us and actually represent us.”
The invisible threat looms over people like Cynthia Ginyard, the chair of the Fort Bend county Democratic party since 2016. She doesn’t hold back her enthusiasm about how the county is changing (all of her emails arrived written in all capital letters). A few times each month, she leads a canvass of her neighborhood, knocking on doors to sign up new voters. She uses an app that analyzes public records to flag households where there are suspected unregistered voters. Each household appears as a green dot. When she went out one evening in early September, the area around her house was a sea of green.
Dressed in a white sweatband and cutoff T-shirt that says “voter registration” and “I can help” on the back, she stopped anyone she saw just to check to see if they were registered to vote. (“I’ve got my T-shirt on so they know I’m not the bogeyman,” she said.)
House prices are soaring in Fort Bend county, she said, and there are so many people moving into neighborhoods, many of whom don’t know they need to register. Over two hours of canvassing one evening in late September, Ginyard got to about a dozen houses where there were suspected unregistered voters. Among the people who came to the door were two south Asian people, two Hispanic people and one Asian person. She wound up registering just two people to vote.
But Ginyard is relentless when it comes to voter registration, and since becoming the party chair, she’s made efforts to make the party more inclusive, showing up at religious celebrations and other cultural events to engage voters. “People ask me what’s my magic secret and I say ‘open my arms’,” Ginyard said as she bounded up the doorway of one house. “When I have functions and I have meetings, and everyone in the room is Black, I’ve got a problem. Because that is not Fort Bend,” she said.
Gerrymandering would undo the work Ginyard and others have done to bring so many new voters into the fold, Mansoor said.
“We keep getting pushed to say ‘register as many people to vote’. And so Cynthia and me and all these other folks in Fort Bend county, we do and our voter turnout does increase. And we get more Asians, and we get more Muslims, we get more everyone that we’re targeting, we get all of those communities to come out. And then we still don’t win. And it’s disheartening, and it’s demoralizing.”
She pointed to two recent losses that particularly stung. In 2020, Democrats lost a race for a local state house district that includes Fort Bend, losing by about three percentage points. In both 2018 and 2020, Democrats also lost a race for the 22nd congressional district, which also includes Fort Bend. “We should have won that seat and yet we were not able to win that seat,” she said.
Mansoor said that if Republicans are able to get away with gerrymandering Fort Bend, it would send a troubling message to other places where minority voters are becoming a growing political force.
“We have to get it right here in Fort Bend county because we are kind of what the country is gonna look like later,” she said. “ If we can get it right here, it feels like it bodes well for the rest of the country.”
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