Geopolitical Fault Lines

Austin's latest attempt at single-member districts is getting a mixed response

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AGR block walker Jessica Ellison stands by while South Austin resident Suzanne Vignaud looks over a petition.
AGR block walker Jessica Ellison stands by while South Austin resident Suzanne Vignaud looks over a petition. (Photo by Jana Birchum)

The fact that the 8-2-1 plan has been promoted in part as a result of the efforts of longtime members of the city's political establishment – like consultant David Butts, former State Rep. Ann Kitchen, longtime civic activist Ted Siff, and neighborhood activist Fred McGhee* – while the 10-1 plan arrived there via the signatures of 30,000 "regular folks," has led to accusations by some AGR advocates that the 8-2-1 vs. 10-1 fight is a classic case of "political insiders" defying "the will of the people." "I see no organized support in the general public for another proposal [other than 10-1]," former CRC member Fred Lewis said during last week's council work session. "I do see support within the political elite class for different attitudes and perspectives, but with the public itself, the only proposal that has broad-based support is a 10-1 plan."

It's not unreasonable to point out the discrepancy between a group that managed to get 30,000 signatures in support of its proposal, and a second group that only had to convince four council members of the value of theirs. That said, it's also worth remembering that the mayor and council members are in fact the representatives elected by the voters to determine public policy for the city. Moreover, 8-2-1 supporters are quick to point out that getting people to sign a petition to get a proposal on the ballot isn't the same as getting them to support that proposal once it's there. "The right to be on the ballot is not the same as demonstrating a majority, and it's not a substitute for voters voting," Kitchen told the Chronicle. "The fact of a petition does not negate voters' rights or council's responsibilities. The democratic approach is to allow another option. People should have a choice."

Kitchen's AC4C colleague Richard Jung, meanwhile, argues that despite AGR's petition success and the group's claim that they "speak for the people," the hybrid plan has broad support among the city's rapidly growing, but geographically dispersed, Asi­an population. And he thinks it's more electable. "They [AGR] got out first and made more noise," Jung says, "but if you put at-large against 10-1, at-large is likely to win. If you put at-large against the hybrid, the hybrid is likely to win."

Drawing the Line-Drawers

In case the differences and suspicions between the supporters of pure single-member districts and the supporters of the hybrid system aren't sufficiently threatening to the electoral viability of either form of geographic representation, the issue of who will be drawing the district lines is probably more than enough to teeter the ship. AGR has made an Independent Citi­zens Districting Commission the centerpiece of its plan and a central part of its petition. "It's important [that] citizens have the say on drawing the lines," says spokeswoman Jessica Ellison.

Among many uncertainties in the complex provisions that would establish the AGR commission, critics point often to the eligibility restrictions AGR has placed on participation. In an effort to open the political process up to citizens who may not have participated before, and to close it to those who have made politics a career, the AGR plan would (among other restrictions) not allow anyone on the commission who has been a candidate for city or state office in the last five years, served as a political consultant within the last five years, or even contributed or bundled $1,000 or more in aggregate to candidates in the last city election.

AGR says those standards will keep politics out of the redistricting process. "The restrictions are on people who have or have had a vested interest in where those lines are drawn," Ellison says. However, detractors say it will ban vital input as well. "I support the concept of an independent commission, but a lot of the requirements for eligibility are problematic," Leffingwell says. "Maybe they don't have to be so stringent. Basically anyone who's ever served on a board or commission isn't eligible. I don't understand the reason for excluding those people."

Even Council Member Martinez – who originally proposed a 10-1 plan without a citizens commission before amending his proposal last Thursday to essentially mirror the AGR proposal – expressed doubt at last week's work session that the commission would be legally defensible, and more specifically that it would be possible to keep "politics" out of its makeup. "I honestly don't believe it's apolitical. As a matter of fact, I think it's filled with politics," Martinez said. "If we do this in a random process, as is proposed [by AGR], what happens when everyone gets selected east of I-35, or, more likely, everybody's west of I-35? Politics really will come into play. And they'll come to us and they'll want us to fix it."

Council Member Bill Spelman worries that excluding longtime political players is unnecessarily punitive and could result in a commission that isn't informed enough or engaged enough to come up with the best possible district lines. "If you get 14 people who have not been intimately involved with local politics, they will walk in with the best intentions and very little information as to how things really work," Spelman says. "The people who really want to participate in this stuff are not political virgins. The vast majority of people interested in where the lines go are going to be people involved in city politics, and we're eliminating all those people. I'm not sure we can find 14 people who are going to be willing to spend the kind of time involved in all those public hearing and all those meetings to draw districts for something they have never shown any previous interest in." Defending the plan to council during its work session, AGR's Fred Lewis dismissed those concerns by pointing to the "thousands" who volunteered to serve on California's state districting commission, on which the AGR proposal is based. "There will be no shortage of applicants," Lewis insisted.

Ellison says it's just that kind of thinking by public officials that proves an independent commission is needed. "What's made those people not participate in city government?" she asks. "Are we saying those people don't care, that they're not smart enough? Or is it that there's no reason to go to the polls to vote for someone who doesn't represent you? I think they're not participating because the process has left them out and continues to leave them out."

Political Arithmetic

Regardless of how you feel about the virtues of 10-1 vs. 8-2-1, regardless of the concerns you might have about the ability of 10-1 to adequately represent the interests of the entire city, or of 8-2-1 to create a system wherein the people, not "special interests" that can fund the campaigns of at-large candidates, are truly represented, when it comes down to it, the issue is as basic as it gets: Which proposal can win? And will having two propositions on the ballot in November doom both?

Ask political consultant (and 8-2-1 advocate) David Butts, and he'll tell you that numerous polls of November general election voters bear out Richard Jung's claim: that when given a choice between a single-member system, a hybrid system, and the status quo, roughly 35% of Austinites like things the way they are, 35% would prefer a hybrid, and 25% want a pure single-member system. To hybrid advocates, those numbers prove that their proposal has a better chance of passing and therefore should not be kept off the ballot in the name of a "citizen insurgency." AGR supporters, meanwhile, interpret those numbers (if they acknowledge them at all) as proof that the push by political elitists for a hybrid plan will blow up the chances for any geographic-representation system getting 50% of the vote come November, nullifying the will of "the people."

To Butts, the AGR petition doesn't mean much. "It's a way of saying they don't like what we have," he says. "Does that mean they're all going to vote for 10-1? I don't think so. I just think they're discontented with the political system as it's set up right now. Give me enough time, and I think I can turn half of them to the hybrid system."

There are some in the pro-single-member camp who suggest that the longtime political consultant, who helped elect every single member of the current City Council, is gaming the system by pushing for the 8-2-1 proposal, knowing that two plans on the ballot will likely result in neither plan getting enough votes to pass, thereby assuring the retention of the status quo – a status quo that has done well by David Butts. It's a theory that might be backed up by a claim Butts himself made. "Put two proposals on the ballot and I have a suspicion it makes it very difficult for either one to pass," he told the Chronicle two weeks ago, just before lobbying council to put two proposals on the ballot. "But stranger things have happened," he adds.

Butts points to the fact that he's worked in the campaigns for all six previous single-member charter amendment initiatives as proof of the sincerity of his belief in geographic representation. But will of the people or no, he says, 10-1 won't actually have the positive effect on black representation AGR says it will, because the group is misreading the numbers and misunderstanding the politics. By pushing for a single "African-American opportunity district" in Northeast Austin that increases the percentage of potential black voters by decreasing the percentage of potential white voters, he says, they're actually diminishing the chances for continued African-American representation on council.

"The greatest threat to the black seat is not from the Anglos; it's from the Hispanics," Butts says. "They're the fastest-growing population. If you want to keep black representation in that area, don't cut white folks out; keep them in. The 10-1 plan basically draws the white voters out of that opportunity district, which is bad. You need white voters to combine with black voters. The black community's political future relies on building coalitions with other voters. That's why 10-1 is not good for blacks."

"All politics is a math problem," Butts says. "Those who subtract, lose. Those who add, win."

* In the print version of this story, McGhee was listed as an affiliate of the Heritage Society of Austin.

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KEYWORDS FOR THIS STORY

single-member districts, redistricting, Lee Leffingwell, City Council, voting, election, Charter Revision Committee, Bill Spelman, Sheryl Cole, Mike Martinez, Chris Riley, Kathie Tovo, Laura Morrison, Eastside

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