Thanks, But No Thanks

Garcia Abandons an Agreement Some Say Never Existed

From left: Gary Bledsoe and Jim Hightower in 1990 with Place 5 councilmember Robert Barnstone; Eric Mitchell, Place 6 councilmember since 1994; Jimmy Snell, former Place 6 councilmember
photographs by Alan Pogue

Since 1975, two of the six seats on the council -- Place 5 and Place 6 -- have been occupied by, respectively, a Hispanic and an African-American. Is it is merely coincidence? After all, several whites have, over the years, run for those two seats. But none of them have been elected. Or is it evidence that the "gentlemen's agreement" is alive and well?

Regardless of the answer -- some Austinites dispute the idea that a "gentlemen's agreement" has ever existed -- the May 3 election will once again test the city's ability to maintain racial balance on the council. Councilmember Gus Garcia, an incumbent who has held the traditionally Hispanic Place 5 for the past six years, has announced that he will break the agreement in order to seek Place 2. A long-time proponent of single-member districts, Garcia denounces the current system as "plantation politics." In a recent interview he told the Chronicle, "I don't want to run with protection any more. This is an effort on my part," he explains, "to say Austin has graduated from the gentlemen's agreement."

But while Garcia pronounces the agreement dead, he still refuses to dump the corpse. "There are some folks who think that seat still belongs to the Hispanics and that list includes me," Garcia explains. "Because of the condition of the two minority groups in this city, there still needs to be somebody who is the standard bearer, and the community has said that's place 5."

So is the gentlemen's agreement dead or not? Garcia doesn't really have an answer: "It probably appears that I am talking out of both sides of my mouth, and I probably am."

White or Wrong?

According to local lore, Places 5 and 6 were set aside in the early 1970s, shortly after the council was expanded from four to six seats. At that time, a small group of city leaders decided to designate two of the seats for minorities. That arrangement has since become known as the gentlemen's agreement. Whether an agreement exists or not, Austinites have not elected a white candidate to Place 5 or 6 since 1975, when Jeff Friedman left Place 5 to run for mayor. Nor have any minorities been elected to the other four council seats, or to the mayor's office.

Garcia's decision to break with the past, along with the fact that two whites -- Bill Spelman and Karen Hadden -- have announced their candidacy for his old seat, has re-ignited debate about the gentlemen's agreement, and about whether or not Austin should finally begin electing its councilmembers from single-member districts. Although it's possible that Garcia will win Place 2 and one of the three Hispanic candidates running for Place 5 will win that seat, some of the city's Hispanic leaders are worried about their future representation on the council.

Former Place 6 councilmember Charles Urdy stands at the then undeveloped site of Barton Creek Mall
photograph by Alan Pogue

Catherine Vasquez-Revilla, editor and publisher of La Prensa, a weekly bilingual Hispanic newspaper, says, "I'm very upset about it. I think we are being set up to lose our designated seat." Although Vasquez-Revilla dislikes the gentlemen's agreement, she isn't ready to discard it. "Philosophically, people shouldn't have to be afforded the opportunity to win by lessening the competition. But unfortunately, that's the only thing that has ever worked," she says. "Until we have something better, why should we give it up?"

Hadden and Spelman both have ready answers when asked about their decisions to run for Place 5. "I'm no gentleman," has become Hadden's ready reply when asked about her decision to run for the historically Hispanic seat. She adds that the gentlemen's agreement has become more of a hindrance than a help to minorities. "Designating one seat is a limitation, as opposed to a safety guarantee," explains Hadden, who teaches science for the Austin Independent School District.

Spelman, an associate professor at the LBJ School of Public Affairs at UT who is also running for the seat vacated by Garcia, says "The color of our skin is part of who we are, but it's only a part." And he adds, "To the extent that the gentlemen's agreement provides only one place for Hispanics and one for African-Americans, it is absolutely a remnant of Jim Crow."

Gentlemen's Disagreement

On a strict percentage basis, Austin's city council, comprised of the mayor and six councilmembers, does not reflect the city's racial makeup. Each councilmember's vote accounts for 16.7% of the total council vote (excluding the mayor). Based on that, Hispanics are actually under-represented on the council -- since they account for 27% of Austin's population -- while African-Americans, who comprise 12%, are slightly over-represented. (Asians and other races account for 4% of the city's population; whites make up the balance of city's 465,000 residents).

Several former councilmembers insist that there has never been any arrangement to set aside seats on the council. Friedman, who served on the council from 1971 to 1975 and served one term as mayor after that, says the idea of a gentlemen's agreement is "a crock." He says, "If Place 5 is anything, it's a Jewish seat. I held it from when it was formed until I moved on in 1975."

John Treviño, who became the first Hispanic to hold Place 5 when he was elected in 1975, says that he ran for that seat because it was left vacant when his friend Friedman decided to run for mayor, not because of any gentlemen's agreement.

Austin's first Hispanic councilmember John Trevino (center), with former Sen. Ralph Yarborough (left) and labor organizer Pancho Medrano.
photograph by Alan Pogue

Despite these protestations, many Austinites believe the gentlemen's agreement has been enforced for more than two decades. Shortly before resigning her position as an aide to Garcia in order to run for Place 5, Bobbie Enriquez wrote a position paper on single-member districts, discussing the history of the council, and describing how, for several decades, Austin's council was comprised of the top five vote getters, who would then decide among themselves which of the five would serve as mayor. That system lasted until 1969, when the current at-large place system was enacted.

Enriquez writes that the changes occurred after "an African American named Arthur DeWitty came within a hairsbreadth of winning a seat in the early Fifties. A horrified gentry led by UT super-regent Frank Erwin revamped the system into the at-large-plus-runoff structure." Enriquez's paper says the gentlemen's agreement was created in late 1970 "by a group of Anglo businessmen, which included Roy Butler, Ed Wendler, Sr., and Lowell Leberman [sic]."

Wendler disagrees. He says that in 1972, he organized a meeting of Austin's liberals at the Downtowner Hotel to put together a slate of candidates to run against the group being supported by the conservatives. Wendler says the liberal slate included Treviño, but there was never any agreement between the liberals and conservatives to set aside seats on the council. Instead, he says, Place 5 and 6 became the minority seats by default.

However, Garcia, who has been active in city politics for decades, agrees with Enriquez's paper, and adds some history of his own. He claims that a handful of Hispanic business leaders, including Rudy Cisneros (owner of Cisco's restaurant), Carlos Velasquez (owner of Roy's Taxi), and Charles Villaseñor (owner of Mission Funeral Home) agreed to the deal in 1971 and that the three businessmen, who have all since passed away, were then included in the group that would decide which candidates for Place 5 would get the approval and financial support of the Anglo monied class. (Cisneros' alleged participation in the agreement continues to rankle some Hispanics, who believe that Cisneros had been co-opted by the Anglo establishment. There are some who still will not eat at Cisco's. Instead, they go to Joe's Bakery.)

Agreement or Political Myth?

No minorities were elected to the council in 1969, the first year of the new at-large system. In 1971, Berl Handcox, an African-American, won Place 6. In 1973 Handcox, who worked at IBM, won again, but there were still no Hispanics on the council, as Place 5 was again won by Friedman. Finally, in 1975, Treviño, who was supported by what Garcia calls the "Brown Machine" -- Sen. Gonzalo Barrientos, former Travis County Commissioner Richard Moya, former railroad commissioner Lena Guerrero and others -- was elected to Place 5.

Place 5 candidates Karen Hadden and Bill Spelman are going after the coveted seat traditionally held for Hispanics
photographs by Alan Pogue

Lebermann, who Enriquez and Garcia believe was part of the cabal that created the gentlemen's agreement, says the idea of an arrangement is "part of local political mythology." Lebermann, who was elected to Place 4 in 1971 and served three terms, denies that the business establishment ever enacted a gentlemen's agreement. Now a member of the University of Texas Board of Regents, Lebermann points out that Austin's state senator, Gonzalo Barrientos, is Hispanic and that numerous minorities have been elected to the city's school board. "This city has demonstrated again and again it's color-blind in the people that it elects at all levels," he said.

"Oh, popcorn," replies Bertha Means, the owner of Austin Cab Company, and a one-time candidate for Place 6. Means is among those in the minority community who believe that Lebermann and a handful of other city leaders engineered the gentlemen's agreement. If Austin is colorblind, asks Means, "Why were we out picketing at the time? Why was I turned away from a golf driving range? Why did we have to picket Barton Springs in order to swim? It's obvious."

Means, who supports Garcia's decision to run outside of Place 5, believes that the only way to ensure minority representation is to switch to a single member district system (see sidebar). "I think it's time for people to run in any place they want to," she says. "I also feel that it's time to have single member districts."

Means believes that Handcox was selected by the white business establishment to run for Place 6. But, like Lebermann, Handcox denies that scenario: "I don't know anything about a gentlemen's agreement." Handcox says he doesn't believe in setting aside seats for minorities. He says he made the decision to run for council after having difficulty buying a house outside of east Austin because local real estate interests were fighting the enforcement of civil rights laws.

No Pain, No Gain

Manuel Zuniga, who lost his bid for Place 1 last year, is now running for Place 5. He says that his decision to run for the seat was not motivated by any racial issues, but by the fact that it was left open when Garcia decided to run for Place 2. "It's a happy coincidence," says Zuniga, who runs a building supply business. "It's the seat where I feel I can win." But Zuniga adds that Place 5 will also allow him to pay special attention to Hispanic voters, which he says he is naturally inclined to do.

And while others see the entry of Spelman and Hadden into the Place 5 race as a negative, Zuniga thinks it could help in the long run because it will force Hispanic voters to find, nurture, and promote good Hispanic candidates for all of the seats on the council. "There's a lot of talk out there about losing this seat," said Zuniga. "But in the end, it may be the best thing that ever happened to us."

Zuniga firmly believes that he, Enriquez or Gus Peña, who is also running for Place 5, will win the seat. But he concedes that "the idea that Place 5 is a Hispanic seat is now lost." Whether the gentlemen's agreement ever existed "is irrelevant," he says. "Because it no longer exists now."

Got something to say on the subject? Send a letter to the editor.

A note to readers: Bold and uncensored, The Austin Chronicle has been Austin’s independent news source for over 40 years, expressing the community’s political and environmental concerns and supporting its active cultural scene. Now more than ever, we need your support to continue supplying Austin with independent, free press. If real news is important to you, please consider making a donation of $5, $10 or whatever you can afford, to help keep our journalism on stands.

Support the Chronicle  

More by Robert Bryce
If More CO<sub>2</sub> Is Bad ... Then What?
If More CO2 Is Bad ... Then What?
The need to reduce emissions collides head-on with the growing world demand for energy

Dec. 7, 2007

'I Am Sullied – No More'
'I Am Sullied – No More'
Col. Ted Westhusing chose death over dishonor in Iraq

April 27, 2007

One click gets you all the newsletters listed below

Breaking news, arts coverage, and daily events

Keep up with happenings around town

Kevin Curtin's bimonthly cannabis musings

Austin's queerest news and events

Eric Goodman's Austin FC column, other soccer news

Information is power. Support the free press, so we can support Austin.   Support the Chronicle