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Burgess eyes redistricting battles

U.S. Rep. Michael Burgess plans to run again for District 26, but he told the Denton Record-Chronicle on Monday that his plans for 2018 could change with a U.S. Supreme Court decision in a partisan gerrymandering case.

Burgess, 66, a Republican, was first elected to Congress in 2002. If he runs for re-election next year, which is highly likely, he will be seeking his ninth straight two-year term.    

"I'm right where I need to be," he said Monday.

Also on Monday, the nation’s highest court agreed to hear a Wisconsin case that could change legislative redistricting around the country. The court announced it will hear oral arguments in Gill v. Whitford this fall. A decision could limit the way controlling political parties exert their advantage when drawing legislative districts.  

Burgess lives in Pilot Point. He represents Denton County and slivers of Dallas and Tarrant counties. The Texas Legislature drew new boundaries for District 26 after the 2010 U.S. Census. A federal court reviewed those boundaries in 2012 and they were affirmed by the Legislature in 2014, Burgess said.

“I had no hand in drawing those boundaries,” he said, adding that District 26 constituents in Tarrant County have a similar political make-up to Denton County.

But activists challenged that map. A federal appeals court finally ruled earlier this year in Perez v. Abbott, saying the Texas Legislature drew maps that intended to disenfranchise voters.

In the ruling, the judges declared three Texas congressional districts were illegal and ordered them to be redrawn. The judges also ruled the plaintiff proved District 26 “packed and cracked” voters, although they didn’t invalidate the district boundaries like the other three.  

"Packing" concentrates like-minded voters in one district. "Cracking" spreads like-minded voters across two or more districts.

Gerrymandering can help the party in power, whether Democratic or Republican, but partisan gerrymandering doesn’t always give an advantage to the incumbent.

For example, Burgess expects his re-election bid to be challenged within his own party.

“Always, yes, to the right of me,” he said.

He has a 93 percent lifetime rating from the American Conservative Union. The Conservative Review gives him a “B,” categorizing most of his votes on the national budget as “liberal.”

Veronica Birkenstock, a Frisco businesswoman, announced she intends to challenge Burgess in the primary and has been raising money for a campaign. Birkenstock founded Practical Employee Solutions, which helps businesses recruit employees from other countries. She claims to be among the first Texans to support Donald Trump, raising more than $350,000 for his presidential campaign.   

In addition, several people in the Denton County Democratic Party have announced they are running for that party's nomination for District 26. They include Linsey Fagan, Ira Bershad, Will Fisher and Michael Callaway.

Party primaries will be March 6, 2018. The first day candidates may apply for the ballot — making their candidacy official — is Nov. 11.

Here is what else Burgess had to say about current issues:

On Russian involvement in the November 2016 election:

The Dallas Morning News reported Russian operatives targeted Dallas County elections officials with “spear-phishing” in an effort to hack the November 2016 election. Hackers sent emails meant to gain logins, passwords or other secure access to elections systems. Dallas County officials said publicly they identified 17 such attempts, but their system was not compromised. 

Neither elections officials in Denton or Tarrant County have briefed Burgess on whether they were targeted by Russian hackers or whether their systems were compromised, he said.

He was aware of the disastrous administration of the election in Denton County, he said, "but that was addressed by the Texas elections administration [secretary of state, elections division]. They have remedied the problems they had in November.”

While he agreed enough questions had been raised about the integrity of the election nationwide, he felt they would be answered. 

Moreover, he was skeptical of any collusion between the Russian government and the Donald Trump campaign.

“If there had been any serious collusion, we would have seen evidence of it by now,” he said.

On Trump and the Twitter-verse:

Burgess maintains a Twitter account. He declined to offer an opinion about President Trump's use of tweets to communicate his views to the public.

But he said the president definitely knows what he's doing and understands leaders across the world hang on every word in his tweets.

"Yes, he understands," Burgess said. "He is smart and people underestimate him at their own peril."  

On health care and tax reform:

The American people voted for Trump because they believed he was the best candidate to increase the country’s economic growth, Burgess said. Since the recession, economic growth has hovered at about 1.5 percent of the gross domestic product annually.

However, he said he didn’t believe Trump’s economic agenda would be successful unless Congress adopted tax and health care reforms. If Congress can put those reforms together, he believed economic growth would increase to about 3 percent of GDP each year.

“We need to put something on his desk,” Burgess said. “We should’ve done it two months ago.”

On political discourse and the safety of individual members of Congress:

Burgess lamented the current state of politics. He expressed concern about safety and security at town hall meetings across the nation, including those he has held in Denton County.

"I'm concerned about the personal safety of everyone congregating there," he said.

Burgess, however, denied he has grown more concerned about his own safety in the wake of last week's shooting of U.S. Rep. Steve Scalise at a baseball field in Virginia.

"Maybe I should be, but I'm not," he said.

A volunteer in last year's Bernie Sanders for President campaign shot Scalise and then was killed by U.S. Capitol police during a shootout at the scene. Burgess said the political chasm between Republicans and Democrats has widened.

"We've always had differences of opinion, but they are sharper now," he said.

Managing editor Scott Parks contributed to this report.

PEGGY HEINKEL-WOLFE can be reached at 940-566-6881.

FEATURED PHOTO: U.S. Rep. Michael Burgess, R-Pilot Point, says when he first used Twitter, he found it an "empowering" method to go over the heads of the media. He has since shifted in conjunction with a staff member who advises his use of the platform.
Jake King/DRC