Which side are you on? —

The Austin people’s district plan versus the politician’s district plan

By Roger Baker / The Rag Blog / October 12, 2012

For those who wish to follow the populist fight for Austin district representation battle in depth, to understand how we got to this point of decision over the past year and a half, the outstanding source is veteran investigative reporter Ken Martin’s pro-bono, on-line Austin political journal. The Austin Bulldog http://www.theaustinbulldog.org/ There are several dozen Bulldog stories on the citizen meetings that led to the People’s 10-1 district representation plan, dating back to March 2011, linked here. http://www.theaustinbulldog.org/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=229:proposition-3-campaign-report-finances&catid=3:main-articles.

By contrast, Austin’s daily newspaper, the Austin American-Statesman http://www.statesman.com/, and Austin’s sporadically liberal alternative weekly, The Austin Chronicle ,http://www.austinchronicle.com/ have offered sparse and politically slanted coverage of the Austin district issue, see below.

[As the author, I make no claim to be unbiased. I fully support Proposition 3, and also the Austin Bulldog, Austin’s current gold standard for local political reporting. Those who want to participate in what can be a historic victory should contact the 10-1 office, http://trustaustin.org — to make sure that the advantage of people power gets translated into distributed door hangers.]

Which side are you on?
The Austin people’s district plan versus the politician’s district plan

Which side are you on? A historic grassroots battle for district representation, supported by an amazingly broad coalition of citizen groups, has emerged. If Proposition 3 is approved by the voters in November, it will be arguably the most meaningful and important Austin populist political victory in decades. It is also shaping up as a no-holds-barred fight for democratic control of Austin government — money power versus people power.

Currently, Austin government is in the hands of six council members plus a mayor, all elected city-wide by all Austin voters. As such, Austin is now the biggest city in the United States without districts to bring representative government down to the local level. With Austin’s current at-large system, big money tends to dominate Austin City Council elections. This is because non-wealthy candidates who might locally be very popular can’t afford the hundreds of thousands of dollars of media buys needed to run big citywide media campaigns.

One result of this is that almost all of the Austin City Council since the 1970s has been elected by a small affluent part of Austin centered around four zip codes; 78701, 78703, 78731, and 78759, which together comprise only 10% of Austin’s population. Fifteen out of 17 Austin mayors in the last 40 years have come from this area, as have 50% of the City Council members. Meanwhile, the large numbers of voters in the lower income areas, South and East Austin, have elected few city council members.

The struggle for populist control of the city of Austin government through 10 independent districts should be seen as the 1960s struggle for civil rights brought up to date. With 10 districts, there would likely be two Hispanic seats on the Austin City Council, plus the high probability of an African-American seat.

It all boils down to a populist battle for control of Austin city government directly challenging the Austin entrenched political establishment, primarily Democrats, a ruling elite who profit from development and influence peddling. They comprise a sort of shadow government, often Democrats, and often tied to real estate investment interests, exemplified by the politically powerful secretive and unelected Real Estate Council of Austin (RECA), key opponents of the people’s 10-1 plan.

The people’s plan got its start as a result of the fact that Austin has a Charter Review Commission that meets every few years to suggest possible changes to Austin’s city charter form of government, all subject to subsequent voter approval.

A core group of mostly liberals and political reformers, including veteran political strategist Peck Young and veteran organizer Linda Curtis, and many others (including the author), who have been interested in reforming city politics. This group later became known as Austinites for Geographical Representation (now renamed Trust Austin), which started meeting in response to this charter amendment opportunity.

After meeting for about a year, the group got a consensus to support a 10-district plan, and urged supporters to lobby for it before the Charter Review Commission. The Charter Review Commission, including its chair, former Senator Gonzalo Barrientos, finally did narrowly approved the 10-1 citizen plan. They sent their recommendation to the City Council. The City Council, however, regarded the 10-1 citizen plan as a threat more than an opportunity for reform.

Thus came the effort to gather the 20,000 signatures needed to force the Council to put the 10-1 plan on the ballot. AGR worked from January and way into the summer this year getting the signatures, ending up with over 33,000 signatures, comfortably more than was required.

Austin’s shadow government fought back. A RECA endorsement soon led to the submission of a competing 8-2-1 charter proposal by Mayor Lee Leffingwell, who told the Charter Review Commission that this had to be accepted as a compromise. The battle lines were drawn. This same 8-2-1 plan had been decisively rejected by the voters 10 years previously, as had a number of other attempts to get district representation passed over several decades.

Political spending on elections is now largely conducted by political action committees or PACs. It costs a lot to get the word out — more than $100,000 to do it right. The Populist 10-1 plan has its “Trust Austin” PAC http://trustaustin.org/about-us/ The politician’s plan, 8-2-1, is being promoted by the “Austin Community for Change” PAC http://www.fairdistricts.org/.

The citizen plan, Proposition 3 on the November ballot, is often referred to as the “10-1” plan. It calls for 10 single-member districts, and is being supported by an exceptionally wide coalition of 29 organizations, including the NAACP and LULAC, the League of Women Voters, the Austin Firefighters and Police Associations, and the Austin Neighborhoods Council. Political support spans a remarkably wide range — from the Travis County Greens to Democratic Hispanic groups, to the Travis Republicans and the Austin Homebuilders Association. At least two ex-mayors, Frank Cooksey and Bruce Todd, support it.

Why doesn’t Austin already have districts?

In a number of ways, the current fight for the people’s plan, aka the 10-1 plan or Proposition 3 on the ballot, recalls the earlier epic “Battle for Barton Springs” in 1991. This earlier citizen-led environmental rebellion also led to a grassroots petition effort that succeeded in forcing the issue of environmental reform onto the ballot. Then as now, an innocent-sounding proposal was placed on the ballot as competition to try to kill the citizen initiative.

Despite the business community’s opposition, the 1992 citizen initiative won big, with the help of united environmentalist support. This led to a successful ordinance to protect the Edwards Aquifer, Austin’s fragile recreational and groundwater supply aquifer. http://www.austinchronicle.com/news/2012-08-03/the-battle-for-barton-springs-a-brief-timeline/

The prevailing interests in Austin government have long been centered on a banker-developer-land speculator axis profiting from suburban sprawl growth. Austin’s “growth at any cost” promoters have been in a political alliance with the Texas Department of Transportation (TxDOT) and the Texas road lobby, building roads with public money to subsidize privately funded growth within commuting distance.

Since there is no economy of scale for a sprawling city the size of Austin, rapid growth and low density sprawl outside the city limits tends to benefit land developers at the expense of existing city taxpayers. There is a ton of money to be made by perpetuating Austin’s current growth policies, both inside and outside our city limits.

Austin’s current system of at-large elections originated during the era when Austin was much smaller, and has its roots in a racist past. Since Austin was until recently a white majority city, it took a special effort to elect minorities to the city council while retaining an at-large voting system. Starting in 1977, the business interests who benefited from rapid growth provided enough money to make sure that both an African-American and a Hispanic were always elected to the City Council.

This was the basis of the “gentlemen’s agreement,” still in effect. Failing to elect at least one African-American and one Hispanic would trigger federal intervention under the 1965 Voting Rights acts. For this reason, retaining business community control of Austin government required the politically active business interests to always promote minority campaigns sufficiently to make sure each minority always stays in office. http://kut.org/2011/04/city-council-and-the-gentlemans-agreement/#

Ed Wendler and Bill Youngblood were two big players in Austin politics in the ’70s. Peck Young says Youngblood was afraid that, if there wasn’t an Hispanic or African-American presence on the council, the city would be open to a federal lawsuit that might force single-member districts. So they came up with an unspoken rule that the Place 5 council was the “Hispanic seat” and Place 6 was the “African-American seat.” But the agreement wasn’t aimed at encouraging council diversity — it was aimed at controlling that diversity.

“You have minorities, but you don’t have minorities elected by minority voters,” Young said.

In recent decades, however, many African-Americans have been forced out of their historic areas of high concentration in East Austin by gentrification and high property taxes. This means that it takes a lot of districts of equal size, at least 10, to be able to draw one with sufficient African-American concentration to make it fairly easy to win an election.

San Antonio already has district representation. One indication of the citizen advantages of districts in San Antonio’s system is the election of populist Mayor Julian Castro, the keynote speaker at the recent Democratic Party convention in Charlotte, N.C. http://trustaustin.org/about-us/

The 8-2-1 plan, Proposition 4 on the November ballot, is a less democratic district plan in various ways, put on the ballot with no signatures and with little popular support. As a diluted and less democratic kind of district plan, it is really designed as a sort of a poison pill proposal, put on the ballot with the objective of attracting enough votes from the 10-1 people’s plan to kill it.

The politician’s 8-2-1 plan does have support from the Real Estate Council of Austin, professional consultants, political power brokers, and essentially Austin’s shadow government. One reason that the current city Council voted to put the politicians plan on the ballot was the urging of political consultant David Butts, a top strategist in the campaign against 10-1 who makes his living largely from City Council races. The way Prop 4 is written would allow the council to draw and gerrymander districts in such a way as to keep their seats. The current city council members live relatively close together, and would likely end up competing in the same districts.

The politician’s plan, the 8-2-1 plan, appears to have a major flaw. It could be legally challenged as being incompatible with the Voting Rights Act of 1965 http://www.justice.gov/crt/about/vot/intro/intro_b.php P This is because Austin’s African-American population has been largely  forced out of their historic areas of concentration in East Austin in recent decades and such votes diluted, primarily due to high property taxes and gentrification. For this reason, with any fewer than ten districts according to the recent census data, no district could be chosen that would allow Austin’s still remaining African-American population a legally defensible ability to elect their own representatives without outside help.

The Austin Chronicle has not been neutral. Austin Chronicle political reporter Michael King featured a story in July; “Point Austin: The Usual Suspects The argument over council districting takes a nasty turn”. http://www.austinchronicle.com/news/2012-07-27/point-austin-the-usual-suspects/ King’s biased political coverage in this case elicited a strong rebuke from UT law professor and national expert on election law, Steve Bickerstaff. He had been a pro-bono legal adviser for 10-1, but has remainedstrictly neutral, and does not advocate either ballot Proposition. But Bickerstaff does believe in good government and good reporting and this kind of coverage was too much. http://www.austinchronicle.com/postmarks/2012-07-31/1350487/

“…the Chronicle story was catty, cynical, biased, and poorly reasoned – unlike most articles written by Michael King. AGR has secured more than 33,000 voter signatures on its petition, the support of many different community organizations, and the recommendation of the Charter Revision Committee. Whether or not Mr. King or the Chronicle supports the group’s 10-1 proposal, they should respect this outstanding achievement and laud the vision and hard work evidenced in this exercise of democratic rights. Council Member Mike Martinez explained his vote in favor of putting this proposal (unchanged) on the ballot as a means of recognizing this group’s achievement. Supporters of an 8-2-1 election system could have used a petition drive to show the degree of public support for their plan; they did not.

Also, I was surprised that the Chronicle, which has been so critical of the gerrymandering and self-interest shown in redistricting by the Texas Legislature, could be dismissive of an independent redistricting commission at the city level. Independent commissions have operated successfully in California at the state level and in a number of cities, such as San Diego and Minneapolis. They can take much of the self-interest and politics out of redistricting. The Chronicle should be supporting the need for an independent commission in Austin as an essential part of any charter amendment changing from our at-large system. The Charter Revision Committee (13-2) politically endorsed creation of an independent commission. Many of the members of the City Council that the Chronicle identifies as preferring an 8-2-1 plan have voiced support of such a commission. Election district lines should not be drawn by the same politicians who seek election in those districts, or by committees appointed by such politicians.”

Bottom Line: Reasons to support Proposition 3 in the November 2012 Austin election, 10-1, the People’s plan:

  1. Citizen Districts: The 10-1 plan would establish a Citizen Redistricting Commission which would exclude city politicians, lobbyists, and consultants — the record shows that political insiders tend to draw gerrymandered district maps that favor their own interests.
  2. The 10-1 plan makes all neighborhoods equal, and ends the current concentration of power in a small part of Austin.
  3. Every vote becomes more important. The more districts, the more the candidate’s merit and local appeal become important.
  4. It is supported by 29 major organizations and 33,000 petition signatures gathered following a year and a half long transparent process (fully reported in The Austin Bulldog).
  5. At least ten districts are required for a geographic representation system to be legally defensible for Austin under the Voting Rights Act.
  6. The 10-1 plan ends Austin’s racist “gentleman’s agreement” because minorities can best choose their own representatives.

Reasons to oppose Proposition 4, the 8-2-1 Politician’s plan

  1. Lacking the safeguards in the 10-1 plan, the 8-2-1 plan allows Austin districts to be gerrymandered by politicians, lobbyists and consultants.
  2. The two at-large districts retain the unequal legacy of the four privileged ZIP codes.
  3. Having only eight districts denies African-Americans an opportunity district, meaning it will very likely be challenged in court.
  4. The mayor and the two at-large council seats will tend to remain controlled by the special interests.
  5. It perpetuates the “gentleman’s agreement” by which Afro-American and Hispanic seats can be chosen by power brokers.
  6. As a ploy to defeat the people’s plan, the 8-2-1 plan was put on the ballot by politicians with very little grassroots citizen input, even though the same plan failed by a wide margin 10 years ago.

[Roger Baker is a long time transportation-oriented environmental activist, an amateur energy-oriented economist, an amateur scientist and science writer, and a founding member of and an advisor to the Association for the Study of Peak Oil-USA. He is active in the Green Party and the ACLU, and is a director of the Save Our Springs Association and the Save Barton Creek Association in Austin. Mostly he enjoys being an irreverent policy wonk and writing irreverent wonkish articles for The Rag Blog. Read more articles by Roger Baker on The Rag Blog.]

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