Advocates Prepare for Showdown on Single-Member Districts
Two districting activist groups do outreach for the November election
As the debate over geographic representation for the City Council enters its final month, the two groups with proposals on the November ballot are deep into public-education mode, trying to rouse a notoriously uninspired electorate to care about the issue enough to 1) vote for either measure, and 2) bother to choose between them. The odds may be stacked against both Austinites for Geographic Representation (supporting the 10-1 plan) and Austin Community for Change (8-2-1). Since 1973, voters have rejected six previous attempts at a district system, and at least one of the plans has to get 50% of the vote to win approval; many observers are convinced that the two measures will cancel each other out. But both groups are convinced 2012 is the year that district-based representation finally becomes law in Austin.
AGR – whose 10-1 single-member plan (members from 10 geographic districts plus one at-large mayor) members like to call the "people's plan" because it got on the ballot by way of a petition – has been deep into its campaign for months, fundraising all over the city, block-walking, sponsoring parties, starting a door-hanger campaign. This Saturday they'll expand their education goals to what they see as the historical reason for why the 10-1 plan is needed. They're throwing a Trust Austin Rally – a two-hour event with door prizes, live music, speakers, and a voter-registration drive (3-5pm, Oct. 6*, 5908 Manor Rd.) – dedicated to Arthur B. DeWitty, the former NAACP president whose near-successful campaign for City Council in 1951 so freaked out the white establishment that they replaced the way council was elected with an at-large system, which all but ensured no black council members – not, anyway, until the unofficial "gentleman's agreement," reserving places for African-American and Latino members, went into effect in the Seventies.
AGR spokeswoman Jessica Ellison says educating the public about this history is necessary in order to communicate why single-member districts are so important. "If people really knew the history of DeWitty and knew it was institutionalized racism that changed the charter to make sure a person of color couldn't get elected," Ellison said, "they would understand more clearly why we need true geographic representation. The gentleman's agreement isn't true representation; it's paternalism. It's obviously a relic of Austin's racist past."
Coming later to the game and without the kind of fanfare that accompanies a petition with 20,000 signatures, Austin Community for Change is playing catch-up. According to group member (and member of the 2012 Charter Revision Committee) Richard Jung, since City Council approved putting its hybrid 8-2-1 plan (eight geographic districts, plus two at-large members and an at-large mayor) on the November ballot back in August, AC4C members have been busy convincing voters there's an alternative to AGR's better-publicized 10-1 plan. They've been engaging in debates at political clubs; getting their website, www.fairdistricts.org, up and running; and picking up endorsements from the Central Austin Democrats to the Network of Asian American Organizations – and even former state Rep. Wilhelmina Delco. Representatives from AC4C will take part in an LBJ School-sponsored "brown bag discussion" about single-member districts at the UT Law School Friday at 12:15pm.
Despite the progress they've made, Jung admits his group is starting from behind to convince voters that a hybrid system is a better plan for geographic representation than 10-1. "People are much less familiar with the 8-2-1 plan," Jung says. "AGR was much better funded to start. We've been behind in terms of getting our information out there, but ... we've found a tremendous amount of support for 8-2-1 once we've let people know about it."
But for Jung and AC4C, letting voters know what's in the 8-2-1 plan may be less effective a campaign strategy than letting them know what's in the 10-1 plan – or rather, what's in the 10-1 plan that isn't really understood. He points specifically to the independent commission the plan would set up to draw district lines – a group with a convoluted member-selection process, strict membership guidelines that would seem to disqualify anyone who's been involved in city government in the past or hopes to be involved in city government in the future, and unclear parameters as to the limits of its powers. According to the language of the AGR 10-1 proposition, "The City Council may not change the [commission-approved] plan. The plan shall have the force and effect of law."
Jung says the AGR's Proposition 3 is a labyrinthine document that no one fully understands. "No one really knows what the independent commission is or what it does or what the ramifications are," he says. "If the commission draws some outrageous line that splits up neighborhoods, there's no veto system. City Council can't change it; the people can't vote on it in a referendum. It's going to be ensconced in the charter. That's a very serious thing. This commission has been thrown out there without vetting, without public comment.
"Once people understand all of this, they're likely to be more reluctant to vote for AGR."
The rally was originally scheduled for Saturday, Sept. 29, but was postponed due to weather concerns.