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Point Austin: It's a Map, Not a Revolution

We have districts; we'll still need citizens and community

By Michael King, Fri., Nov. 15, 2013

As Elizabeth Pagano reports in this issue ("Making (Almost) Everybody Happy"), it's nearly all over but the shouting for the Independent Citizens Redistricting Commission and its new 10-district City Council maps – although plenty of shouting still remains. As we go to press Wed­nesday, an ICRC meeting is taking place in Bouldin Creek, where commissioners will undoubtedly get an earful about District 9 still crossing Lady Bird Lake into (horrors!) northern territory, followed with, tonight (Thursday) at the Millen­nium Events Cen­ter, a final chance for citizens to take potshots at the commissioners and complain about district lines. It's still possible that the ICRC will adjust the map a bit in response to public input, but commissioners appear to have lost their appetite for grand adjustments, and one or two have even expressed audible impatience with the neighborhood perfectionists among the witnesses.

They sound a lot like council members.

By all means say your piece, Austinites (either in person or on the ICRC website: www.austinredistricting.org) because a year from now you will indeed be expected to declare yourself at the ballot box. I think many folks are either over-optimistic or over-pessimistic about the effects of districting – it can't both restore popular democracy in Austin and fatally segregate us from our neighbors, and it's primarily a way of achieving Coun­cil representation that's a little broader and a little closer to the community ground. On the whole, the citizen-commissioners have done a reasonable task of establishing the initial lines, and while I'd quibble a bit here and there, it's way too soon to conclude that the districts as drawn will dramatically change Austin governance for better or worse.

As a Windsor Park resident, barring last-minute changes it appears I've landed in an odd little outcrop of District 4, a sort of foot on a long, Italy-style boot extending all the way up to Braker Lane. I'd be hard-pressed to describe reflexively any "common interests" of my immediate neighborhood with the folks a few miles north around, oh, Rundberg and I-35, but we have been governed together by the Austin Council for decades, and on the whole I don't believe our major civic interests – good jobs, safe neighborhoods, environmental protection, public amenities – are radically opposed. I believe we'll all get along just fine.

Wait Until November

District 4 is, nominally at least, also a "Hispanic opportunity district," which under the federal Voting Rights Act means that a previously underrepresented voting minority will now have the opportunity to directly affect the election of a representative of their choice. Since the unofficial "gentlemen's agreement" of the Seventies first integrated Council, the demographics of the city have dramatically changed, and the agreement is not just a political albatross, it's an anachronism. However, please be reminded that the VRA is about voters, not candidates – it enforces the rights of minority voters to elect whom they wish, not of potential minority politicians who might believe they have been designated by God or history to achieve elected office.

As city demographer Ryan Robinson has noted ("Redistricting: Devils and Details," Nov. 8), it very much remains to be seen (for various reasons) whether the new districts drawn for minority opportunities will in fact perform as such in actual elections, especially as the ongoing population changes outrun the map. More specifically in the would-be African-American opportunity District 1, it's an undetermined question whether it can elect "a candidate of minority choice" without some unspoken continuation of the gentlemen's (or gentlewomen's) agreement, in some form. We'll just have to see how that works.

The commissioners have done what they can to provide a workable arena for the next phase of Austin politics; it will be up to the voters to see what we can make of our actual choices.

Carry Me Back

What else does the map and its overlong, overcomplicated gestation reflect?

As with pretty thoroughly sliced-and-diced Windsor Park, I think it's just fine that certain "neighborhood associations" (in fact, mostly homeowners' associations, with all their ingrained NIMBY-ist tendencies) have been yoked together with other areas; there's already quite enough snobbish Austin provincialism in our politics. It's particularly progressive (and amusing) that the allegedly impenetrable North-South river boundary has been breached; we may eventually rid ourselves of the utterly juvenile notion – rooted in refrigerated John Kelso columns from the Eighties – that only South Austin preserves some sanctified, distinctively weird-Austin culture that the rest of the city is not sufficiently authentic to understand.

For God's sake, Southies, wake up and smell the barbecue.

I'm not terribly delighted at the prospect of a Council more geographically divided than need be; progressive consensus has already been harder to reach of late, and it will be harder when a couple of members are elected from far northwest and southwest districts that fairly consistently vote quite provincially and against broadly conceived community values. But that's how districting works; the same polarities are expressed, to varying degrees, on the districted County Commissioners Court and AISD board, and somehow we've managed as a community to overcome our differences.

As to candidates? Well, that's a column for another day, but expect the announcements to follow quite soon behind the map. Welcome to the new Austin; long live old Austin.

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