Eastsiders and Suburbanites Unite to Fight City
They only had one thing in common, but apparently that was enough. Anti-annexation protesters and Eastside activists didn't let differences of economic status, race, or geography stop them from tag-teaming against their mutual enemy -- the city council -- at last week's meeting. Everywhere evidence of budding friendships abounded. While the Eastsiders -- in chambers to speak on the proposed Central City Entertainment Center (CCEC) -- were sharing their homemade "All 7 or Else" buttons with newfound suburbanite pals, the Citizens for Responsible Annexation Policy (CRAP) passed around enough paper fans of Mayor Kirk Watson's face for everyone to enjoy. And while some predict that the coalition between annexees and Eastsiders was more of a one-night stand than a marriage of convenience, the preliminary hand-shaking which began last week promises to develop into an intensive joint effort to oppose the city's annexation dreams. Since Watson announced plans in mid-September to annex more than 10,000 acres of land by December 31, the talk has all been of increased taxes and decreased services for the unfortunate annexees. Likely sensing a lack of sympathy for the plight of upper-middle class suburbanites, however, groups opposing annexation have been reaching out to touch the inner city with dire predictions of drains on city resources brought about by swallowing up land with underdeveloped infrastructure.
Eastside protesters had already stormed into chambers two weeks ago to challenge the city's perceived lack of commitment to building the CCEC -- a city-funded movie theatre, bowling alley, and skating rink at 1156 Hargrave -- which failed to meet a promised October 1997 ground-breaking deadline despite having already secured federal funding and approval from councilmembers. So with Eastside coalitions already riled over a seeming lack of commitment to improvements in their area, the suggestion that annexation could further hurt their neighborhoods was enough to cement the unlikely bond.
The irony of that bond runs much deeper than divisions of race and economic status, however. According to Watson, his annexation policy is, at least in part, meant to help the inner city and promote social equity. "Frankly, one reason for annexation is because cities which do not annex end up with more segregated communities because fragmented local government creates segregation. If you have your tax base move outside your city, when it comes time to be able to fund programs that people in the inner city want, it becomes much harder," he explains. Nevertheless, speakers on the CCEC were more than happy to scrawl "No Annexation" on top of posters already reading "Build the Central City Entertainment Center."
Although it appeared that Thursday was merely a fortuitous blind date for the budding coalition, the suburbanites have actually been actively campaigning for an alliance with the Eastsiders. "The annexation people have been over here the last couple of weeks, taking pictures of the [CCEC's] empty lot. They're going to use that as ammunition to show that once you get annexed the city doesn't do shit for you," says Robert Gladwin, proprietor of the Quickie Pickie convenience store near the CCEC construction site.
Despite the fact that CRAP organizer Linda Curtis and Black Citizens Task Force leader Dorothy Turner were named by several Eastsiders as instigating the coalition's formation, neither woman would own up to any formal organizing efforts between Eastside and annexee groups. CCEC advisory board member Jennifer Muhammad did tell the Chronicle, however, that she had "formed a partnership" with a long list of people in annexation neighborhoods which included Diane Spencer of Northwest Travis County Municipal Utility District #1. According to Gavino Fernandez of Eastside neighborhoods group El Concilio, the partnership is merely one of shared goals. "It's not necessarily an organized coalition, but more of a spontaneous coalition that's on the same page about having less government intrusion in the decisionmaking of our neighborhoods," he explains.
For Curtis, a card-carrying political rabble-rouser, the convenience and irony of the liaison is no surprise. "That's coalitional politics. If people have a common interest, they come together and work on it," she shrugs.
The problem for the city, however, is that minority groups do have a legitimate legal beef with the city over annexation, and it's called Section Five of the federal Voting Rights Act of 1974. Under the act, Texas, along with several other states chosen for their sketchy civil rights records, must undergo "preclearance" by the U.S. Department of Justice whenever any change in voter demography or voting systems is enacted in order to review the effects on minority voting strength. If the feds find evidence that Austin's annexation squelches minority voters, it's back to the old drawing board for annexation.
According to the city's voting rights attorney John Steiner, at least ten other Southern U.S. cities have had to scrap annexation plans due to Section Five since 1980. In fact, one of the most recent Section Five fights came from our annex-happy cousin Houston against the Kingwood subdivision. However, because Kingwood was a mere drop in Houston's population bucket, and because Houston's mixed at-large and single-member districts city council protects minority voting strength, Houston's annexation was eventually approved by the Justice Department. On the other hand, Austin's proposed annexation of between 35,000 and 50,000 residents (depending on who you're asking) represents a hefty chunk of Austin's population, not to mention that our at-large city council system does nothing to ensure minority representation.
Which is where José Garza, a local voting rights lawyer (and City Manager Jesus Garza's brother, believe it or not), comes in. José Garza says he has not received a response from a letter to Watson detailing the Section Five issues with Austin's annexation plans. "The folks that are being brought in are fairly conservative and white and they are going to be allowed to participate in one of the most oppressive [city council] systems available -- at large, by place, and majority vote requirement," Garza says. "You stack on top of it voters who are not likely to support minority candidates and minority issues, and it raises concerns."
Although Garza says his efforts are independent of any group, clearly the potential for Section Five to squash Austin's annexation plans plays into the interests of both suburbanites and minorities in the inner city.
Watson insists that the city has been "very careful" about the ethnic demographic of the areas it is set to annex, and says that the mix of annexees closely resembles Austin's own demography. However, it is interesting to note that the Austin group fighting hardest against annexation, the Central Texas Alliance of Utility Districts, was closely allied with Kingwood lobbyists during the 1997 Texas legislative session, and may be taking a page out of Kingwood's strategy book in aligning themselves with inner city concerns. "There is no question that opponents of annexation look for groups inside the city to be part of their coalition," says Frank Sturzl, executive director of the Texas Municipal League, confirming that the budding coalition is merely a textbook anti-annexation tactic.
Watson and Councilmember Daryl Slusher pooh-pooh the annexee/inner city coalition as a passing fancy, but those seeking to gain greater power from the union are convinced of its strength. "I don't believe it," says Watson. "You may have some people in agreement, but you're not seeing any coalitions forming."
Curtis is far more optimistic about her cause. "I predict unlikely electional coalitions," she says, explaining that state representative Glen Maxey (D-Austin) is a favorite of neither suburbanites nor Eastsiders. "I potentially see a Hispanic candidate running against [Maxey] with support from folks who can give the money to run a campaign."
Curtis may know a thing or two about political campaigns, but she is perhaps overestimating the degree of commitment suburbanites will have for inner city problems once the annexation debate has come to a close. "That's our fear: That the conservative element out in that area will not be that sympathetic towards funding social programs in the amount that they're currently being funded," admits Fernandez. "But this is an opportunity to create alliances with the new voting constituency coming in," he adds.
The debate over whether annexation benefits or harms the inner city is likely to go round and round without resolution. However, the legal question of Section Five cannot be ignored. "If the debate [over annexation] is won by the city on every issue except for minority voting strength," José Garza ominously explains, the city "can't go forward with the annexations."
Next Week in Council: Annexation is here to stay, apparently. Tanglewood, Circle C, and 183 East are on the agenda. Also, the downtown development initiatives will be kicked off as promised.