Austin @ Large: Austin at Large

The Single-Member Monster: Why Is Austin So Afraid of the Inevitable?

Austin @ Large: Austin at Large
Illustration By Doug Potter

So Eric Mitchell is running for mayor after all. Last time I mentioned that name in this space, I posed a question that -- in the ensuing flap about my language -- never got answered. So here it is again, in more neutral terms: Is this Mitchell '94 or Mitchell '97?

I've been told by honorable people that, as bad as Mitchell behaved on Election Night in 1997, his anger was justified -- he had lost Place 6, the historically black seat, despite having won all the predominantly black boxes on the Eastside. True enough, and made more piquant by his curious street-fighting-man campaign. (As he said after he lost, "I was a little too black and a whole lot too strong.") But in 1994, when he won the seat, Mitchell had lost all those same Eastside boxes to Ron Davis, now the Travis County commissioner for Precinct 1 -- a single-member district.

It was in fact white folks in Northwest and Southwest Austin who brought us Eric Mitchell, the favored (if not handpicked) candidate of the Chamber of Commerce, who despite some looseness of tongue, looked and felt during the campaign about as bad-ass as a jar of Miracle Whip. Nor did Mitchell disappoint his backers in his three years in office, which is why white center-city liberals, who'd rather be accused of necrophilia than racism, replaced him with Willie Lewis, the favored-if-not-handpicked candidate of the SOS Alliance.

Perhaps Mitchell 2000 will reconcile these two personae and shut us up, but he rode in on, and then got run over by, a truck that should have stopped running a long time ago -- Austin's at-large system of electing council members to (or from) nonexistent "places." The gentleman's agreement -- that two of those places will be reserved for men (so far) of color -- has deterred a lawsuit that Austin would almost surely lose. The federal Voting Rights Act protects not the inevitability of minorities in office, but the power of minority voters to choose who they want, which didn't work with either Lewis or Mitchell, or on several other occasions.

Some Say Yes --

But African-American leaders who bewailed Mitchell's fate in 1997 have grown lukewarm on single-member districts, now that the 2000 census has showed that Austin is, in fact, geographically integrated -- so much so that we'd need 14 or more districts to ensure that even one is majority black. The Hispanic community is still concentrated enough to make district-drawing easier, but El Concilio leader Gavino Fernandez (for one) has also voiced his opposition to a single-member system. His argument? When his issues are before the council, he has said, he'd rather have seven votes than one or, maybe, two.

Now, other Latino leaders -- most notably Gus Garcia -- have fervently supported districts. But Fernandez expresses honestly what local powers for generations have said, somewhat less honestly, about a single-member system -- that it will lead to Balkanization and ward politics. Remember that, until 1997, "the mainstream" almost always meant "the Chamber candidates," though the Green Machine has proven to be less than a clear alternative. (It was a different Chamber then, too.)

Single-member districts have been rejected by Austin voters on multiple occasions, for reasons more inarticulate than either craven racism or good government. We're still at least two decades away from being a majority-minority city, yet we have an African-American county judge (Sam Biscoe, Davis' predecessor in Pct. 1) and will soon have our first mayor of color, be it Mitchell or Garcia. And both the left (then) and the right (now) feel the current system ensures bad government, defined as government by and for the other side. A single-member system would also guarantee the presence of Republicans on the council -- to speak of underrepresented minorities.

But if another single-member plan appears on our ballots in May -- the City Council started that process in motion last week -- nobody would assume it would surely pass, although that may simply reflect so many past disappointments. What do we fear? Becoming a big city, even though we clearly are one. Austin is one of a tiny handful of major U.S. cities that doesn't elect at least most, if not all, council members from districts, and the only one to use the woefully unproductive (though mandated by Texas law) system of head-to-head matchups in "places." (Other at-large cities have everyone running on the same ballot, and the top however-many vote-getters take their seats.)

Back to the Sylvan Future

Once upon a time, it is said, Austin was a friendly town where everyone could speak with the same voice, not a big messy city where checks and balances between factions were as good as it got. This has probably never been true. It probably wasn't true in 1900, when Austin, then a tenth of its current size, had a ward system.

It certainly isn't true now, despite the parade of modern mayors, and mayors-to-be, who have claimed to speak with, or at least be uniquely attuned to, that one true voice. (Kirk Watson simply had enough charisma to make it believable.) Why are we so eager for "consensus" when truth be told, we probably wouldn't live here if the city were not more diverse -- ethnically, culturally, politically, and emotionally -- than its government has ever been?

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Eric Mitchell, single-member districts, Ron Davis, Chamber of Commerce, Willie Lewis, SOS Alliance, Voting Rights Act, El Concilio, Gavino Fernandez, Gus Garcia, Sam Biscoe, city council, Kirk Watson

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