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All about Pasadena

Meet Pasadena Mayor Johnny Isbell, the man behind the redistricting scheme there that we’ve been talking about lately.

Johnny Isbell

For more than four decades, Pasadena Mayor Johnny Isbell has had his feet sunk deep into the city’s political landscape of smokestacks and honky tonks like Gilley’s, made famous by the 1980 John Travolta movie, “Urban Cowboy.”

Despite an attachment to Pasadena’s past, Isbell puts most of his energy into changing the image of the city, once nicknamed “Stinkadina” because of its industrial stench.

Now, with a paternal air, Isbell delights in showing off the town’s “new main street,” Fairmont Parkway, with its landscaped esplanades and sparkling upscale stores. “Most don’t even think this is Pasadena,” he said.

But the mayor’s detractors, who come from the increasingly Hispanic north end that abuts the Houston Ship Channel, say they feel neglected. Four of the eight councilmen, who champion the north end, call it a “tale of two cities.”

Now, the mayor finds himself at the center of a controversy regarding the proposed redrawing of council lines that his opponents see as an attempt to maintain his power grip over the changing city and prevent the north end from gaining an edge on the council in the next election.

But Isbell refers to his council opponents as “part-timers” trying to usurp his administrative power bestowed by the city charter in a strong-mayor government. In May, Isbell garnered 73 percent of the vote in his re-election bid with campaign expenditures of about $100,000. He was pitted against an Hispanic newcomer with a $400 budget.

Though Isbell presents a smiling, friendly soft-spoken demeanor, his detractors say he rules with an iron fist.

I don’t live in Pasadena and I don’t know Mayor Isbell. I’m sure he has his good points and his bad points. It’s hard for me to see his redistricting plan as anything but a power grab. The rationale is weak, the denial of preclearance is significant, and the history of redistricting in Texas is fraught with bad examples. Redistricting is about power, and nobody looks virtuous when they pursue more power for themselves.

The good news is that there still has to be a vote before the redistricting plan can be implemented. This story from earlier in the week is mostly a lamentation about the diminution of the Voting Rights Act, but it also contains this important tidbit:

[Council Member Ornaldo] The Galveston JP plan already is being challenged in court. Ybarra predicts the Pasadena council redo also will end up there if it is voted in. His hope is that voters will do what the Justice Department no longer can: Just say no.

“When Pasadena went to districts, it was because of a lawsuit in the 1990s,” Ybarra said. “Now you have a change in the Voting Rights Act and suddenly there is this idea to have at-large seats? That’s a pretty big clue as to what happened.”

I’d been wondering when a lawsuit might get filed. It makes sense that it wouldn’t happen until the plan gets approved by the voters, if it does. Better all around if it gets rejected, of course.

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