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COH Redistricting: On Removing the At Large System

April 28, 2011 Houston/Harris 3 Comments

» Chron: City Hall Latino win may end up as a loss instead (Rick Casey)

Worth bookmarking Casey’s column for re-reading as the lawsuit round of redistricting heats up …

… now that a number of maps have been produced, experts believe there is a good chance neither of the two new districts will elect a Hispanic to the council.

That would mean that rather than enhance Hispanic power, the expansion would actually dilute it. The two Hispanic council members would make up 18 percent of the council, rather than 22 percent.

The column focuses on Vidal Martinez’s possible/likely efforts have either DOJ or the courts declare the At Large system of City Council governance at odds with the Voting Rights Act. It’s worth watching for and considering. While I don’t think the At Large members of council are necessarily serving the purpose that former Mayor Louie Welch intended (to ensure white control of City government), the effect is that it poses barriers to minority representation that don’t exist in smaller districts. Namely, the ability to raise large sums of money. The draft map that Vidal presented offers a few highlights worth considering:

- It allows Kingwood and Clear Lake to be decoupled.
- It allows Montrose to more fully control a district.
- It allows a smaller Sharpstown/Gulfton district to be plurality Hispanic at the CVAP level (instead of being in third place as it is in the Jara map).
- It allows Hispanic precincts along the Ship Channel to be represented in a Hispanic district rather than by someone from Kingwood.
- It allows for a far stronger Asian district on the west side, with the CVAP share being over 25% Asian.

I’ve been pretty lukewarm to the idea in years past. But after looking at what becomes possible on the map, I’m a lot more receptive to the idea. That it would allow for the possibility of four Hispanics to be represented on City Council in the short term future is definitely a positive.

Aside from the issue of a 16SMD map, kudos to Casey for getting a quote out of Columbia Law School prof, Nathaniel Persily. Persily is the author of a particularly instructive amicus curiae in Bartlett v Strickland on what sort of data to look at in the creation of minority opportunity districts. His point, in nutshell form, is that any magic number is due to the circumstances. In short – it’s complicated. The brief should be required reading for anyone that draws redistricting lines.

The Supreme Court case in question involved the treatment of minority coalition districts. It’s a particularly useful case to read up on with regard to the argument over whether the loss of HD149 from Harris County represents a viable claim to being a VRA violation. The Supreme Court decided against the district in question and Persily’s brief is viewed most favorably by those justices who dissented. But the details that he spells out are worth considering by anyone regardless of their views of the particular case.

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Currently there are "3 comments" on this Article:

  1. Sixteen districts, and they still can’t join the Woodland Heights with the rest of the Heights. Was it something we said?

    I find myself agreeing with Marc Campos that maybe it’s time the Vidal Martinezes of the world put some of their resources into the At Large races. There’s no obvious frontrunner in AL2 right now. Prove to me that a strong, well-funded Latino candidate cannot win citywide, then I’ll be on board with this.

  2. gregwythe says:

    The draft is just a draft. Keeping Heights together is certainly more doable within smaller ideal population districts than bigger.

    Regarding “well-funded” anything … I think that’s very relevant post-2008. The only well-funded candidate in 2009 came out of the engineer/architect community. And in looking at the 2007 race, I haven’t checked the reports, but I’m curious how much more Jones ended up spending than Trevino.

    I’d be shocked if there’s not a push to have a decent Hispanic candidate run At Large this time. But since there’s nobody lined up now, it doesn’t seem likely that it’ll be a game-changer candidate. The fact remains however, that the city only has 23% CVAP Hispanic population while having 44% total population. Before you even factor in turnout differentials in odd-year elections, there’s simply not a path to victory unless it’s either a Hispanic Republican or one with significant backing from the Anglo business community. Sometimes, there’s a very real reason you don’t see the magical candidate we all wish we saw on the ballot.

  3. I hear what you’re saying, but we did elect Gracie Saenz and (sigh) Orlando Sanchez over a decade ago, when the CVAP numbers were surely worse. How hard can it be to find a Latino business type that the downtown crowd can get behind? Surely Vidal Martinez must know someone like that. I guess all I’m saying is that until it’s been tried unsuccessfully, how can we know it won’t work?

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