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LULAC files that lawsuit to end Houston City Council At Large districts

We’ve been waiting for this.

The League of United Latin American Citizens on Monday filed its long-anticipated lawsuit against the city of Houston, seeking to get rid of at-large City Council seats that it says leave Hispanic residents with insufficient representation at City Hall.

The group, one of the largest Hispanic civil rights organizations in the country, first announced plans to take legal action against the city in January.

While 45 percent of Houston residents are Hispanic, Robert Gallegos of District I is the only Hispanic person holding a seat on the 16-member body, even though the city previously created two other Hispanic-opportunity districts, H and J.

The federal lawsuit aims to replace the city’s five at-large seats, which represent voters citywide, with single-member seats dedicated to certain geographic areas. Houston’s current election system has created barriers to Hispanic representation and deprived hundreds of thousands of minority Houstonians of their voting rights guaranteed by law, the complaint says.

“The Latino voters of Houston have waited for fair redistricting plans. They have waited for years for the city of Houston to end its long relationship with ‘at-large’ districts that dilute the electoral strength of Hispanics,” the lawsuit says. “The time has come to replace this old election system that functions solely to dilute the power of Houston’s Latino voters.”

Houston City Council was comprised of all at-large positions until 1980, when it switched to a mix of district seats and five at-large seats. The change led to more diverse council bodies and better representation of minority voters, according to the complaint. Still, only four with Spanish surnames have been elected to one of the five at-large districts since then because Latino-preferred candidates rarely do well in citywide races, it says.

While many local Latino candidates also face other challenges, such as a lack of resources, the council structure remains a major hurdle for them, according to Jeronimo Cortina, an associate professor in political science at University of Houston.

“When you look into political science literature, you’ll find that at-large seats tend to decrease the likelihood for minority candidates to win an election,” he said.

It is, however, not sufficient to simply look at the absence of Latino city council members, Cortina said. To substantiate LULAC’s claim that Houston is in violation of the Voting Rights Act, the organization would have to prove that Latino Houstonians have been acting as a cohesive voting bloc but unable to elect a candidate of their choice.

“It would take a lot of time and a lot of data,” Cortina said. “But the fact is that Latinos have been running and Latinos are not winning these elections.”

See here, here, and here for the background, and here for a copy of the lawsuit. I’ve said all I have to say in that first link. Whatever happens with this lawsuit happens, and I’ll be fine with it. Courts have ordered cities like Pasadena and Farmers Branch to incorporate City Council districts in recent years, but those places began with all-At Large systems, and they were much more clearly discriminatory in my opinion. They were also decided in a time before SCOTUS went all in on destroying the Voting Rights Act. This could go either way, and I’ll be surprised if there is a temporary restraining order in place to block the use of the current Council map for the 2023 election. After that, we’ll see. The Trib has more.

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6 Comments

  1. Manny says:

    Sergio Lira and his wife (LULAC) were on Whitmire’s host committee. I would not be surprised that a promise of all single-member districts was part of that deal.

    Bob Lanier promised something similar. How did that work out?

    Whitmire has never been a friend to the Latino community; why would he suddenly care?

    He showed his true stripes when he attacked one of the highest-ranking elected Latina officials (Lina Hidalgo).

    He wants to make crime his signature campaign promise and chair of the Criminal Justice Committee; why hasn’t he done something about crime in the state?

    Didn’t he notice that crime is up everywhere? Like the Lt Gov, Dan Patrick, he is setting up Democrats for being soft on crime.

    Whitmire is part of the problem.

  2. Flypusher says:

    Maybe this is a silly question, but couldn’t you keep the 5 at large seats and add 5 additional districts? The population has increased quite a bit since the 80s, so why not increase the council seats too to keep up.

    The House of Representatives needs to be at least doubled for the same reason.

  3. Manny says:

    My opinion on that Flypusher is that LULAC knows not what they do. Latinos are doing better in larger districts.

    Unless the goal of LULAC is to create a district for one of their own.

    Lina Hidalgo, Leslie Briones, and certainly the judges.

    If they would get behind Latino/a candidates for at-large, they would probably win an at-large seat or two. Instead, they continue to be like crabs.

  4. Mainstream says:

    It is hard to draw more districts where Hispanics can elect their preferred candidates. Hispanic persons are dispersed geographically across the city, and somewhere between 1/3 and 1/2 of all Hispanic persons in the Houston area are not US citizens of adult age. Hispanics are also much less politically cohesive than other groups such as black voters.

  5. Frederick says:

    Mainstream,

    Where are you getting your numbers on “not US citizens of adult age”?

  6. Mainstream says:

    Frederick, there may be more recent data, but the US Census American Community Survey for 2015-2020 show these data:
    2,016,625 Hispanic persons in Harris County Texas
    855,310 are Hispanic citizens of voting age, so 57% of all Hispanic persons in Harris County are either not old enough to vote or not US citizens and ineligible to vote

    Please correct me if I am misreading these data, or if there is a more recent set of data