The Election Wars Have Begun

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Interest in how council members elected running high, as face-off debates abound

If you’re concerned with how your local city government officials get elected—and how any change in the election system might affect your interests—you will have numerous opportunities to hear a thorough airing of the issues.

Two propositions on the city’s November 6 ballot offer choices for getting away from the all-at-large system we’ve had since 1953, when the council had five places and the elected council members chose the mayor from among their ranks. The council was expanded to seven places beginning with the 1969 election but it wasn’t until 1971 that citizens could directly elect their mayor.

Today, there are some who advocate keeping the election system we’ve got. However, the two major factions striving for change both advocate a new system of electing council members.

How to change is where they differ.

Last Thursday night featured the first debate between those two major factions. The event was sponsored by the Gray Panthers of Austin.

A lunchtime debate Monday will be hosted by the Central Texas Democratic Forum. Tomorrow night’s debate host is Southwest Key’s VOTA! Campaign, an East Austin voter mobilization initiative. (Click links for event details.)

Two propositions for change

Proposition 3 calls for electing 10 council members from geographic districts with only the mayor elected at-large. The 10-1 plan advocated by Austinites for Geographic Representation (AGR) includes an Independent Citizens Redistricting Commission to draw council districts the City Council would have no choice but to adopt.

AGR was formed in February 2011 and got Proposition 3 on the ballot through a petition drive. This plan has been endorsed by 28 community organizations. (To see the list, click here.) (This link is no longer functional.)

Proposition 4 would have eight council members elected from geographic districts, and the mayor and two council members would be elected at-large. Council districts would be determined as directed by ordinance, the contents of which would be determined if this Proposition prevails.

Proposition 4 is advocated by Austin Community for Change. Proposition 4 has been endorsed by three groups: The Real Estate Council of Austin, the Capital Area Asian American Democrats, and the Austin Area AFL-CIO Central Labor Council.

The AFL-CIO also endorsed Proposition 3, President David Bintliff told The Austin Bulldog. “Either one is better than the current at-large system,” he said.

Winner take all—If both Proposition 3 and Proposition 4 win a majority of the votes cast, the one that garners the most total votes will be implemented, subject to approval of the U.S. Department of Justice through its authority to enforce the Voting Rights Act.

Voters have defeated previous proposals for some form of geographic representation six times from 1973 to 2002.

Big issues, small audience

Only a dozen or so people heard the thorough discussion of the issues aired at the Gray Panthers debate Thursday night, which happened to be the final night of the Democratic National Convention, an event of more immediate importance to many in True Blue Austin.

Host emcee Les Aisenman finessed the tiny turnout dilemma, saying, “I wrote to the president and told him he could delay his speech but for some reason he didn’t do that.”

The Gray Panthers long ago endorsed the 10-1 plan. Aisenman is among the Gray Panthers who have also been doing volunteer work for AGR.

Speaking for 10-1 (Proposition 3) were Peck Young, an AGR volunteer political consultant and native Austinite involved in local politics since 1969, and attorney Delia Garza, a former Austin firefighter who currently serves as an assistant attorney general in the Child Support Division.

Speaking for 8-2-1 (Proposition 4) were attorney Richard Jung of Jung Wakefield PLLC and Julio Gonzalez Altamirano, an Austin-based data-science and software consultant with UPD Consulting of Baltimore, Maryland.

Both Garza and Jung served on the council-appointed 2012 Charter Revision Committee that recommended the 10-1 plan. Young has been an AGR mainstay since the group’s first public meeting in February 2011. Altamirano surfaced late in the process when he advocated the 8-2-1 plan in an Austin City Council work session.

Julio Altamirano
Julio Altamirano

Altamirano, whose résumé indicates he has a bachelor’s degree from Yale with and a master’s in business administration from Stanford, spoke throughout the evening in scholarly terms, often referring to studies.

He noted that there are three communities of color in Austin: a growing Latino population, a fast-growing Asian American population, and a declining African American population. He said that geographic dispersion of some minority populations would give them a better chance of election to at-large seats, which he referred to as “safety valves.”

Delia Garza
Delia Garza

Garza, drawing on information detailed in The Austin Bulldog’s mapping of the 40-year election history, 1971 through 2011, said that two zip codes dominated elections and that the current council has no representative who lives south of the river (as have seven previous city councils).

Thus, Garza said, having two at-large council seats, coupled with the historical reality that the mayor is virtually always a resident of West Austin, would give that part of town at least four, and perhaps five representatives, depending on how many districts West Austin gets in the mapping process.

Richard Jung
Richard Jung

Jung said the differences between the 10-1 and 8-2-1 plans were not as large as the differences between them and the current all-at-large system.

“We need to have that change,” he said.

Like Altamirano, Jung stressed his belief that dispersed Asians would have a better chance “to elect one of their own” to an at-large seat.

Peck YoungYoung noted that the 10-1 plan got on the ballot through a petition drive that gathered 33,000 signatures and was recommended by the council-appointed Charter Revision Committee, while the 8-2-1 plan was a last-minute entry the council decided to offer after the Real Estate Council of Austin endorsed it.

Young contended that the 8-2-1 plan denies an opportunity district to African Americans and—if it wins voter approval—would be thrown out by the U.S. Department of Justice as a violation of the Voting Rights Act. Young also pointed out that Asian Americans have been elected to geographic council districts in both San Antonio and Houston by building coalitions.

Will 8-2-1 pass legal muster?

When panelists got to question each other, Altamirano asked why Young claims 8-2-1 violates the Voting Rights Act.

Young replied that the plan would deny an opportunity district to African Americans and the NAACP would file an objection because in that group’s opinion it would constitute retrogression (that is, an impermissible reduction in their ability to influence elections). Young, who claims to have decades of experience in drawing election-district boundaries that were upheld by the Department of Justice, said he thought the retrogression claim would be sustained.

Jung countered, saying that Young’s claim African Americans would be disadvantaged under 8-2-1 is at odds with the plan’s endorsement by retired State Representative Wilhelmina Delco (D-Austin). (Delco was the first African American elected to the Austin school board, and the first African American elected to the Travis County delegation of the Texas House of Representatives.)

Young replied that he has not shown his data to Delco. “If she saw the data, I think she would come to a different position.”

 Drawing district boundaries

Gray Panthers Emcee Aisenman noted there is concern about how districts would be drawn after the election and asked why one method is preferable to the other.

Jung said he does not advocate for how districts would be drawn but he thinks the plan for the Independent Citizens Redistricting Commission is flawed. He objects to that methodology being enshrined in the City Charter, where it would require another election, after at least two years have elapsed, to change any problems that might surface.

He said it leaves no method for overturning unpopular maps drawn by the commission.

Young countered that leaving the process under the City Council’s control would lead to the same kind of gerrymandering that’s routinely done by the Texas Legislature (which has divided Travis County into five separate congressional districts). The Commission takes politicians out of the process. He said California just used a similar process and the Austin Commission would draw boundaries under strict criteria.

“The requirements are there so some ambitious hack won’t get hold of it and screw it up like the Legislature does,” he said.

LBGT representation

Young asked his opponents how lesbians, bisexuals, gays and transsexuals would be disadvantaged by having no at-large seats under the 10-1 plan. He noted that southeast Travis County, which is predominantly Latino, had elected the Texas Legislature’s only openly gay representative (Glen Maxey) who served that district for 12 years.

As for women being disadvantaged by a geographic district system, as Altamirano had stated earlier, Young noted that three of the four Travis County commissioners are women.

Altamirano, who approaches the question of geographic representation from a scientific angle, rather than from a base of practical experience that Young has, sidestepped the LBGT question.

He instead referred to ACC’s study titled “Fair Today, Fair Tomorrow: Why a hybrid city council is the unifying choice for Austin.” He said the study indicates that the 8-2-1 system would not result in retrogression, given the study’s results, based on its examination of a “national data set of 7,174 cities.”

At-large council pros and cons

An audience member asked why it would not be advantageous to have at-large council members to deal with larger problems that involve everybody.

Young replied that district representatives are not limited to problems within their districts and in fact typically run for election on the big issues the city faces, such as healthcare, crime, and infrastructure. He said those who run for at-large seats are “trying out for mayor” and “don’t represent a focus on citywide issues, but citywide power and money.”

Jung added that whether district council members would have a larger focus depends on who’s elected. If you get to vote for four members (the mayor, two at-large council members, and your district council member) you have four council members “who rely on your vote at the next election.”

Laura Pressley, who ran unsuccessfully for City Council in 2012, asked why, if having two at-large council members was advantageous for dispersed minorities and the LBGT community, the ballot language for Proposition 4 did not reflect that.

Jung replied that would not be legal. He said advocates of the at-large council seats “are just looking for the best opportunity. You still have to get out and run.”

Young said the only way to protect minorities in an at-large system is the so-called “gentlemen’s agreement” that he witnessed, in which white people agreed to give seats to one black and one Latino. “I’m not in favor of a system that depends on the largesse of white people,” he said.

An audience member said that “it’s self-evident that an at-large system favors the wealthy.”

Altamarino replied, saying that single-member districts “will empower idealistic obstructionists.”

Summing up

Jung closed by saying that his side is not opposed to council districts and he advocates for eight of them. To ensure change from the current all-at-large system of electing council members, he urged voting for both Proposition 3 and Proposition 4.

Under the current system, he said, the City Council is not interested in translating materials into any language but Spanish, and that’s a disservice to Asian Americans. “The Asian community is very diverse but we have common interests. I hope you will give the hybrid system a chance to succeed.”

Garza said she prefers the 10-1 plan because at-large seats have been and will continue to be dominated by one part of town. Running at-large requires more money. With a district system of electing council members, any group that puts up a competent leader has a chance of getting that person elected, she said.

Altamirano characterized the differences between Propositions 3 and 4 as “small” and added, “we’re not happy about the status quo.” He again disputed the claim that the 8-2-1 plan would be legally rejected on the basis of retrogression.

Young said, “There’s only one legitimate reform and that’s Proposition 3. It’s the only one that garnered 33,000 signatures and it’s the only plan endorsed by ‘30’ organizations.

To those who think that a council made up of working class people would not be frugal, he points out that taxes have been increased by 38 percent in the last decade. “I don’t think we could be less frugal than the council we’ve got.”

This report was made possible by contributions to The Austin Bulldog, which operates as a 501(c)(3) nonprofit to provide investigative reporting in the public interest. You can help to sustain The Austin Bulldog’s reporting by making a tax-deductible contribution.

Related Bulldog coverage:

Your Guide to Proposed City Charter Amendments: What’s on the ballot, what it will cost taxpayers, and details provided in the ordinances for each proposition, August 30, 2012

Loud Rally Follows Final Council Vote for 8-2-1: AGR’s Cries Foul Over Work Session Vote for Hybrid; Mayor Leffingwell Said Votes Driven by Ballot Deadline, August 7, 2012

Council Backers of 8-2-1 Plan Accused of Self-Interest: But Facts Don’t Seem to Substantiate Such a Claim, as Related Actions May Bar Most Incumbents From Reelection, August 6, 2012

8-2-1 Near Certain to Go on Ballot: City Council Votes on Second Reading to Put Competition Election Plan on Ballot, July 31, 2012

10-1 Plan Qualifies for November Ballot: Consultant Estimates That 22,435 Signatures Are Valid; Austinites for Geographic Representation Readies for Battle, July 26, 2012

Petition Completed for 10-1 Council Districts: Austinites for Geographic Representation Claims 33,000 Signatures, of Which About 22,800 Are Considered Valid, July 16, 2012

Council Puts 10-1 Election Plan on November Ballot: Votes 5-2 on Three Readings to Adopt Petition Language, Votes 4-2 on First Reading to Also Put 8-2-1 on Ballot, June 29, 2012

Citizens Group to Make Final Petition Push: Austinites for Geographic Representation Claims to Have 17,000 Signatures, and Shoots for 13,000 More, June 4, 2012

City Council Tackles Charter Amendments: Redistricting Expert, Charter Revision Committee Members, and Grass-roots Group Critical of Task Force Plan, April 26, 2012

Council District Backers Want Quick Ballot Decision: Big Press Conference, Big Pressure Promised, to Get Council Decision Before Council Elections, March 8, 2012

Hard Fought, Heartfelt Charter Decision: Charter Revision Committee Votes 8-7 to Back 10-1 Plan for Council Elections, February 3, 2012

New Restrictions Proposed for Lobbyist Fundraising: Lobbyists Can Only Give Candidates $25 But Can Collect Unlimited Contributions For Them, January 22, 2012

Committee Debates How to Elect Council: Charter Revision Committee Divided Over Pure Districts vs. Hybrid System, January 9, 2012

Thirteen Charter Changes and Counting: Charter Revision Committee’s Next Job: Tackle Plan for Geographic Representation, December 14, 2011

Council Confirms November 2012 Election Date for Charter Amendments: Resolution Ensures Citizens Initiative Won’t Force May 2012 Charter Election, November 3, 2011

Coalition Launching Petition Drive to Get on the Ballot for May 2012 Election, October 18, 2011

Broad Community Interest Focusing on How Mayor and Council Members Elected, October 4, 2011

Coalition Nearing Petition Launch for Grass-roots Council District Plan, August 24, 2011

Maps Prove Select Few Govern Austin: Forty Years of Election History Expose Extent of Disparity, August 4, 2011

City Council to Consider Proposal to Create Geographic Representation: Election Dates, Term Lengths, Redistricting and Other Charter Changes in Council Resolution, April 27, 2011

Petition Launch Imminent to Force Election for Geographic Representation in City Elections, March 7, 2011