Reverse Race-ism

Will a Single-member System Accomplish Its Goal?

In September 23, Councilmember Willie Lewis called a press conference to weigh in against single-member voting districts. At his side was Eastside activist Dorothy Turner. This was the same woman who, during last spring's campaign, had never hesitated to rip Lewis in favor of the Place 6 incumbent he ran against -- Eric Mitchell. That Turner, who had decried the fact that the black vote was thwarted when Lewis beat Mitchell, was now joining forces with Lewis was news enough. Even more interesting was that both African-American community leaders were there to defend the status quo. Turner, of the Black Citizens' Task Force, defended the old gentlemen's agreement -- whereby certain seats were designated black and Hispanic -- pointing out that a single-member district system may actually result in less diversity on the council. She noted that any proposed districts may not match up well with the geography of the black community in Austin, which is somewhat less segregated than other towns its size. Though its core may be in Austin's central East Austin neighborhoods, Turner said, the black community is spread across north and northeast Austin as well. This fact is confirmed by a 1993 city study based on the 1990 census, which concluded that the city would have to be divided into no less than eight districts to create one that was over 50% black, and 12 districts to create one that was nearly 60% black.

However, Hispanic community leader and Councilmember Gus Garcia counters that the relatively broad dispersion of the black community has not prevented an African-American Travis County Commissioner from being consistently elected in Precinct 1, which actually covers a larger area than any single-member city council district would cover. Likewise, the Austin Independent School District board has a black representative elected from a single-member district, as does the local delegation to the Texas House of Representatives, a seat currently occupied by Dawnna Dukes. "Wilhelmina Delco won that seat 10 times from a single-member district," said Garcia, though Delco has also recently stated her opposition to single-member council districts in Austin.

Susana Almanza of People Organized in Defense of Earth and her Resources (PODER) sides with Garcia, however, noting that single-member districts seem to work at all levels of government, "but when it comes to the Austin City Council, there's always some excuse not to do it."

Susana Almanza of PODER belives that Austin needs single-member districts.

photograph by John Anderson

From the mid-1970s until last year's council elections, minority representation on the city council was accomplished through the so-called "gentleman's agreement" -- an unofficial arrangement whereby Places 5 and 6 were generally understood to be reserved for a Hispanic and a black candidate, respectively. Though there is disagreement over whether such an understanding ever really existed (and who created it in the first place), there does seem to be a consensus that the turn of events in last year's council elections have left the agreement virtually dead. Calling the gentleman's agreement "plantation politics," Place 5 incumbent Garcia abandoned the traditional Hispanic seat in order to run for Place 2. Bill Spelman, who is Anglo, then defeated several Hispanic candidates (and one Anglo), in the race for the traditionally Hispanic Place 5. Although Garcia was blamed by some for failing to groom a Hispanic successor for Place 5, few would argue that his move to Place 2 shook up a system with which no one seemed satisfied.

With Hispanics comprising 27% of the population, it was clear that the single place allocated by the gentleman's agreement left them underrepresented on a six-member council. Meanwhile, two successive African-American representatives, Mitchell and Lewis, have been elected to Place 6 without winning the majority African-American Eastside districts that make up the core of Austin's black community. This prompted some African-American community leaders to criticize an election process whereby the black representative on the council was not being chosen by the black community. Discontent in the Hispanic and African-American communities, coupled with the council's announcement that the city planned to annex 30,000 people living in the extra-territorial jurisdiction, has prompted a renewed discussion of single-member districts, an idea that Austin voters have rejected four times in the last 20 years, most recently in a narrow defeat in 1994.

Single-member districting is the most common method used by large cities to ensure adequate minority representation, though that is not the only benefit cited by supporters. Austin is the largest city in the South without single-member districts, and only four U.S. cities larger than Austin still employ the at-large system for city council elections. Last month, the council appointed a commission to study possible alternatives to at-large elections, including -- but not limited to -- single-member districts. The council had anticipated bringing a charter amendment before the voters in about six months, after the commission gave its report.

Now it appears that an unlikely sequence of events may have derailed the latest round of attempted electoral reform in Austin. U.S. District Judge Sam Sparks ruled that an unrelated charter amendment, A Little Less Corruption's (ALLC) campaign finance reform initiative, was to be immediately placed on the upcoming November election ballot (for more on that issue, see "Round Two," Page 22). And because the charter can only be amended once every two years, the city may be forced to wait much longer than previously planned to address the findings of the electoral reform commission. A last-ditch effort by Mayor Kirk Watson to place a charter amendment on the ballot that would have allowed the council to circumvent the two-year rule was unexpectedly pulled down at the September 25 meeting, when the council was told that the measure may have been unconstitutional.

Thus, barring a defeat of the ALLC charter amendment, those who argue that single-member districts are long overdue in Austin will have to wait at least two years to put the matter before the voters, and, in all likelihood, another year for review of the new system by the Justice Department, which keeps a close watch on changes to electoral systems, particularly in southern states. That means the city council elections in 2000 are likely to employ the same at-large system currently in use. It's anybody's guess where the community will stand with regard to single-member districts two years from now, but the recent maneuvers, coupled with the city's annexation plans, have prompted several community leaders to clarify, or in some cases reverse, their positions on the issue in the last few weeks.

Of course, there's no guarantee that a minority district will elect a minority. For years, state representative Glen Maxey has represented a portion of Travis County that is heavily Hispanic. And though a group is currently organizing to replace him with a Hispanic representative, Maxey has always had a great deal of support from the Hispanic community, as Garcia points out, "because he works his hiney off on issues that matter to his constituents." In fact, says Garcia, "every time I attend a meeting on Hispanic neighborhood concerns, he is there, and that means he attends more meetings than I do."

Another attractive aspect of single-member districts, according to Ron Davis, a former city council candidate, is that they offer "instant campaign finance reform." Davis notes that it would be a lot cheaper for candidates to run solely in their districts, rather than citywide. (East Austinite Davis lost a 1994 Place 6 race against Southwest Austin resident Eric Mitchell, despite raising $100,000.) "I've seen qualified people in the neighborhoods that know they can never raise enough to win under the current system," said Davis at the September 23 press conference.

"Districts make people independent," agrees Almanza. "You can tell corporations or big donors to get lost," she says, "we don't need you to get elected."

If there was any consensus at the press conference, it was that all of the options need to be considered before a decision is made. Austin political consultant Mark Yznaga praised Councilmember Bill Spelman for urging the city commission to consider more options than just single-member districts, such as a proportional voting system, or a system that uses a combination of at-large and single-member districts.

There does seem to be momentum building for some form of change. Garcia noted that the business community, which generally opposed districts in the past, seems to be leaning more toward the idea now, possibly because of the so-called "green sweep" of the last council election. Former city councilmember Ronney Reynolds and others have suggested that single-member districts would give more voice to residents on the city's edges, a prospect that some central city activists may find alarming, especially considering that 30,000 new suburbanites are about to become voters. But Yznaga dismisses the idea that the city, with 300,000 registered voters, could ever "annex its way into a conservative majority," pointing out that many of those annexed will be children, and many conservatives will not bother to vote. "But districts are about giving everyone representation, and that means suburban residents, too," Yznaga says.

But if the point of going to single-member districts is to put more councilmembers of color on the dais, then giving more representation to Austin's burbs, including the newly annexed areas, is surely a step backwards, say SMD opponents.

And another thing that single-member districts will not do, as Turner aptly pointed out, is guarantee a solution to the problems of minority communities. "It doesn't really matter what kind of system we have," Turner said, "and we don't just want a body up there." Instead, she says, "What we want is for every councilmember to think of our interests, to build a consensus about addressing the problems of the Eastside."

Almanza agrees that is the key, but she believes it can be done through single-member districts. "We've got to redefine what we mean by representation," she argues, "just as we have redefined what we meant by environmentalism within the environmental justice movement." The bottom line, she says: "We've got to get to a point where everyone is accountable to the needs of those with the least resources."

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