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Gracie Saenz

Is it time to ditch At Large seats on Houston City Council?

Here’s one argument for it.

The lack of Latinos on the City Council undermines the legitimacy of Houston’s government, experts say, and is something that a prominent Hispanic organization is pushing to change with a lawsuit and ballot proposition.

The League of United Latin American Citizens, one of the largest Hispanic civil rights organizations in the country, is tackling what they characterize as a gross underrepresentation of Latinos in one of the most diverse cities in the U.S. by proposing that the five at-large positions on council elected citywide be replaced with four seats in heavily Hispanic districts.

Currently, just one Hispanic — Robert Gallegos — holds a seat on the 16-member body. By contrast, 45 percent of Houston residents are Hispanic.

“The most serious threat to the legitimacy of Houston city government is this idea that you can have half of the population of the city represented by 6 percent of the council,” said Mark Jones, a political science professor at Rice University. “Imagine if we flipped things around and there’s only one African American on the Houston City Council, or there’s only one Anglo, or there’s only one woman … It would be seen as a national travesty of democracy; it would be the subject of constant outcry.”

The city is expected to look at redistricting prior to its 2023 election, and could redraw the 11 districts if they are deemed unbalanced at that point. But LULAC said replacing at-large seats with more single-district seats would reduce barriers that undercut Latino representation.

“If we had parity, half of this council would be Latino,” said local LULAC leader Sergio Lira, co-chair of a new Houston taskforce created under the direction of the organization’s national President, Domingo García, who launched the effort in a meeting with local leaders last week.

García, a lawyer with offices statewide, said the effort includes a push to bring a charter amendment with the proposition to citizens to vote on and to file a lawsuit against the city.

Houston has the worst Hispanic representation in city councils among all Texas cities with populations over 500,000, all of which have eliminated at-large positions in their governments, according to census and government data.

“Houston is the outlier in Texas when it comes to Latino representation and is the only large city with at-large seats,” García said.

Those cities — San Antonio, Dallas, Austin, Fort Worth, and El Paso — all have councils that look much more similar to their cities’ Hispanic populations. Dallas, which is 42 percent Hispanic, has the next-lowest Hispanic representation on council with 29 percent Hispanics.

It’s tough to get elected to Houston’s at-large seats, García said.

“They are very difficult for Latinos to win because of the amount of money, coalitions and logistics it takes to win,” he said. “It’s like running for mayor.”

There’s a lot to say here, and I’ll try to get to the main points, but let me start by saying it’s a little more complex than what Garcia and Lira are arguing. There are multiple districts that have are at least plurality Latino – H, J, F, and A. H, currently held by CM Karla Cisneros, had reliably elected Latinos before Cisneros and likely will again; none of the others have elected Latinos. There is of course a big difference between “population”, “voting-age population” and “citizen voting-age population”, and that’s before we take into account voter registration and who generally turns out to vote in our odd-year elections, where 20% turnout is on the higher end. We could elect more Latinos with the map we have now, at least in theory. It very much hasn’t worked out that way in practice, and I doubt you’d find anyone who would argue that the current map is conducive to having more than two Latinos get elected from the current districts.

It’s also true that Latinos have been shut out from the At Large seats since the days of Orlando Sanchez and Gracie Saenz twenty years ago. We also haven’t had a lot of strong Latino contenders for At Large seats lately. In 2015, no Latinos ran for At Large #3 or #5, and the only one in At Large #1 was perennial candidate James Partsch-Galvan. There were Latinos in all the At Large races in 2019, but none of them raised any money. That’s what Garcia and Lira are saying, and others have said it before them, but it just doesn’t take as much money to run a credible At Large campaign as it does to run for Mayor. Mayoral candidates need well over a million bucks, but the big money candidates for At Large raise in the $200-400K range. Not nothing, but not a huge pile of money either. It’s a bit of a vicious circle – people who might want to run are discouraged because it’s hard for them to raise money and the recent record of citywide Latino candidates is brutal, which leads to a paucity of such candidates for anyone to support.

I can’t leave this point without bringing up, once again, the 2007 At Large #5 runoff, in which Jolanda Jones defeated Joe Trevino in a race where about 25K total votes were cast. Jones had run citywide before (in At Large #3) and was better known, and the other runoffs on the ballot were City Council District D and HISD District II, both of which favored Jones’ candidacy. Trevino was a longshot no matter how you looked at it, but still. This was the clearest shot to get a Latino elected citywide, and he got bupkus in terms of financial support, including from the folks who had been threatening to sue to force City Council redistricting prior to the 2010 Census. Public support of campaigns and candidates is a complicated and nuanced thing that is more often solicited than given, I get that. I’m just saying, none of the folks who were lamenting the lack of Latino representation on Houston City Council were moved to write Joe Trevino a $100 check. Make of that what you will.

(There was also the Michael Kubosh-Roy Morales runoff of 2013. The politics of that one are different, for obvious reasons. I went back and looked, and Roy Morales actually raised about $50K for that runoff, which isn’t too shabby. There were only a couple of Latino names among his donors, though. Again, make of that what you will.)

Moving on. I have generally been supportive of having the hybrid district/At Large Council that we have. At least if you have a sub-par Council person in your district, you still have five At Large members you can turn to for support if you need it, and I think there’s value in having people who need to have a broader perspective. That said, I’d bet that most of the At Large members we have had over the past 20 or so years have come from a limited geographical distribution – this was very much the problem with Austin’s at large system, where nearly everyone on their Council came from the same part of town – and let’s just say that some of our At Large members are better than others and leave it at that. All in all, I don’t think it would be a great loss to change to an all-district system, and I would be inclined to support it if and when it comes to a vote. I’d like to see the proposal first – there are, as we well know, good and not-so-good ways to draw maps – but as a concept, I support it.

Knowing it is a long shot, LULAC decided to initiate a drive to collect 20,000 signatures in February in favor of their proposition, as the early voting for the state primaries begins. The number is the minimum needed to force the inclusion of a charter amendment in the ballot, bypassing the approval of City Council, which would only decide when it should be put for a citizens’ vote.

LULAC is simultaneously preparing a lawsuit it plans to file in court by March to eliminate all at-large positions in favor of single districts.

We’ll see how that goes. Petition drives have been pretty successful in recent years, even if they don’t always get their referenda on the next available ballot. There are already two items scheduled for the ballot in 2023, and with an open seat Mayoral race that will make it a very busy cycle. An item like this could get a bit lost in the noise, or it could be a big issue, as surely the various Mayoral candidates will need to weigh in on it. I’ll be very interested to see how the petition drive and the litigation go.

The female face of City Council

Houston City Council is majority female for the first time in over a decade.

Starting next year, a record nine women will serve on Houston City Council amid a shift toward a younger and more progressive council for Mayor Sylvester Turner’s second term.

The new council will include no more than two Hispanic and no Asian members, however, with Anglo council members holding at least eight seats and the other six represented by African-American members.

It remains unclear whether District I Councilmember Robert Gallegos, the lone Latino on City Council, will be joined by Isabel Longoria, who finished 12 votes behind incumbent Councilmember Karla Cisneros in the District H runoff, according to unofficial returns.

[…]

The nine total women on council edges the previous record of eight who were elected in 2005.

The council’s African-American representation also will expand from four to six.

Fun fact: That Council class of 2005 included Addie Wiseman and Shelley Sekula Gibbs. I don’t really have a point to make here, I’m just noting that because I remember things like that.

In other Council news:

Regardless of who wins the District H runoff, Latino council members will hold no more than two seats out of 16, in a city where Latinos make up 44.5 percent of the population, according to 2018 census data.

Part of that disparity comes from Latinos making up a smaller share of the electorate: Houston’s registered voters are 23 percent Latino, according to data from Hector De Leon, a former communications director for the Harris County Clerk’s Office who studies Houston-area voting patterns.

“African Americans and Anglos are roughly 45 percent of the population combined, but they constitute 85 percent of the total vote. And elections are determined by people who turn out and vote,” [Jay] Aiyer said.

Registration among young, Latino voters has increased “dramatically” in recent years, in part because of President Donald Trump and mobilization efforts by political groups, said Jeronimo Cortina, a political science professor at University of Houston.

Houston’s Latino voting blocs also have fewer options, he said, because of the city’s use of at-large positions, which are elected on citywide basis.

“The problem is that the minority votes are compacted in one part of the city so it makes it very hard for them to win an election,” Cortina said. “They get drowned, for lack of a better word, by the votes of the majority.”

To strengthen Latino representation on council and in other offices, [CM Robert] Gallegos said he intends to pitch the Houston Hispanic Chamber of Commerce on the idea of starting a mentoring program to educate young Hispanics about pursuing careers in politics.

In the meantime, Gallegos said, “I’m going to do everything I can to make sure I represent the Hispanic community in the city of Houston, even though I’m a district council member.”

I take issue with what Professor Cortina says – I’m pretty sure a review of the Census tracts in Houston would prove his statement to be inaccurate. If nothing else, Sandra Rodriguez came close to winning District J, which is on the opposite end of the city from H and I. The situation isn’t great right now, but it’s not hopeless.

Be that as it may, let me put this out there for you: The three top Latinx vote-getters in At Large races were Yolanda Navarro Flores (At Large #1, 18.30% in Harris County), Emily Munoz deToto (At Large #2, 21.09%), and Jose Gonzalez (At Large #3, 19.24%). The three of them combined raised literally no money. There were five Latinx candidates in the two open seat At Large races (Cristel Bastida and Javier Gonzalez in #4, Ralph Garcia, Catherine Garcia Flowers, and Sonia Rivera in #5). None of them raised more than a trivial amount of money, though the three in At Large #5 combined for over 27% of the vote, enough to have led the field if they were one candidate.

My point here is that stronger Latinx candidates in the citywide races would also help. I don’t have much to say about Orlando Sanchez, but he came within six points of being elected Controller, and if there had been a third candidate in that race there likely would have been a runoff between him and incumbent Chris Brown, and who knows what might have happened in that race. The Latinx At Large candidates in 2019 didn’t amount to much, but at least they were running. In 2015, there was a grand total of two Latinx candidates in At Large races: Moe Rivera in #2, and Roy Morales in #4, who squeaked into the runoff where he got crushed by Amanda Edwards. I feel like I’ve been saying this since Joe Trevino lost in the At Large #5 runoff to Jolanda Jones in 2007, an election in which there were 25K total votes cast, but maybe focus a little on recruiting strong Latinx candidates to run in the At Large races, and then support them financially? Just a thought.

This is also a possibility.

This near-absence of Latinos undermines the legitimacy of Houston’s government and leads to an inadequate representation of Latino preferences in city policymaking. Houston’s political, economic and societal leaders must take action immediately to insure that in the 2023 election we do not witness a repeat of the 2019 election.

There are two principal types of representation, descriptive and substantive. Descriptive representation reflects the extent to which the composition of a legislature mirrors the population it represents. With Latinos accounting for 6 percent of the council and for 45percent of the population, it’s clear Houston earns a failing grade in descriptive representation. This grade will sink even lower with the dearth of Asian Americans on the council; 7 percent of Houston residents are Asian American.

Substantive representation reflects the extent to which members of a legislature promote the preferences of their constituents. While not an ironclad rule, the American Politics literature suggests that, all other things being roughly equal, an individual’s policy preferences are better represented by a legislator from their own ethnic or racial group. With one Latino council member, the substantive policy interests of Latino residents are being sub-optimally represented in crucial policy areas ranging from public safety and social services to road construction and job creation.

Four initiatives can help boost the number of Latinos in the council horseshoe in four years time.

First, eliminate the city’s five at-large council seats and replace them with five single-member district seats in addition to the existing 11 single-member district seats. The last time a Latino was elected to one of the five at-large positions was in 1999, with nine consecutive elections (45 separate contests) in a row where no Latino has been victorious. This year, all five at-large races were decided in a runoff, yet among the 10 runoff candidates there were zero Latinos.

Once the 2020 US Census data are available, Mayor Sylvester Turner and the city council could easily abolish the five at-large districts and create 16 new, less populous, single-member districts for the 2023 election. Since the shift from at-large to single-member districts enhances minority voting rights, it should be bullet-proof from legal challenge. If the number of single-member districts were increased to 16, it would be possible to draw five or six districts where Latino registered voters constitute an absolute or near absolute majority as well as one district where Asian Americans account for the largest share of voters.

That’s an op-ed from oft-quoted poli sci prof Mark Jones. I personally see no reason why Latinx candidates can’t get elected to at large positions. It’s not like there have been a bunch of frustrating near misses from well-regarded and sufficiently-funded candidates. We did elect Orlando Sanchez and Gracie Saenz to citywide positions in the past. Jones’ other points include things like more voter registration, a focused effort on Latino turnout in city elections, and more recruitment and support of Latinx candidates. I’m on board with all of that, and I would argue that those things can and will lead to Latinx candidates getting elected citywide. If I’m wrong about that, I’ll gladly concede the point about getting rid of At Large districts. In the meantime, I do think there’s some value in having At Large Council members, as a backup for the districts when there’s an unexpected vacancy, as there was in District H in 2009 following Adrian Garcia’s election as Sheriff, and in District K in 2018 following the death of Larry Green. I’m not opposed to Jones’ proposal, but I don’t think it’s necessary to solve the problem.

Where are the women?

I have several things to say about this.

Mayor Annise Parker

Mayor Annise Parker

The slate running to replace Mayor Annise Parker features a globetrotting sailor, a triathlete grandfather, a millionaire minister and no women.

Despite the most-crowded pack of mayoral contenders in decades, no female candidates are expected to announce bids this spring, a reality that all but guarantees women will have fewer positions of power at City Hall next year than they had during the last six.

“You are sending a message,” said Kathryn McNeil, a longtime fundraiser who helped elect Parker. “My niece is now 16. For the last six years, she’s seen a strong woman running the city. There’s no question in her mind that a woman could be mayor.”

Though more than 10 candidates likely will appear on November’s ballot, few women even seriously considered the race, which some call a reminder of how much more work Houston’s women must do to achieve political equality.

Some say it creates a less compassionate and less personal, even if equally qualified, field of candidates. It also affects the strength of the democratic process, limiting the diversity of the candidates that voters can choose from when they imagine whom they would like as their next mayor.

“Regardless of who actually wins the race, not having a viable woman candidate can be a disservice for everyone,” said Dee Dee Grays, the incoming president of Women Professionals in Government in Houston.

For the record, in the eleven city elections post-Kathy Whitmire (i.e., since 1993), there has been at least one female Mayoral candidate not named Annise Parker in eight of them:

2013 – Charyl Drab, Keryl Douglas, Victoria Lane
2011 – Amanda Ulman
2009 – Amanda Ulman
2007 – Amanda Ulman
2005 – Gladys House
2003 – Veronique Gregory
2001 – None
1999 – None
1997 – Helen Huey, Gracie Saenz
1995 – Elizabeth Spates
1993 – None

Now, most of these were fringe candidacies – only term-limited Council members Helen Huey and Gracie Saenz in 1997 could have been considered viable, and they were both crushed in the wake of the Lee Brown/Rob Mosbacher/George Greanias campaigns. But for what it’s worth, history does suggest there will be at least one female name on the ballot this year.

Research shows that women nationally need to be recruited to run for office much more than men. That especially is true for executive positions, such as governor or mayor.

Amber Mostyn, the former chair of Annie’s List, a statewide organization that recruits and backs Democratic female candidates, said there is a need for local versions of the organization that would encourage qualified women to make bids for mayor.

“You’ll see men throwing their hat in the ring when they’ve never done the job before and say, ‘I’ll figure it out,’ ” said Mostyn, a Houston lawyer and prominent donor. “Women are very reluctant to do that.”

I’m well aware of the research regarding the recruitment of female candidates. It’s definitely an issue, though I wonder if it will turn out to be a generational one. Perhaps today’s girls and younger women won’t need the same kind of encouragement that their elders currently require. Be that as it may, if there was ever a bad year for that dynamic in the Mayor’s race, it’s this year. I mean, nearly the entire field, not to mention Adrian Garcia, has been known to be planning to run for a long time now. With that many candidates already at the starting line, and presumably working to collect commitments and financial support and campaign advisers, it would undoubtedly be that much harder to make a case for someone else to gear up now and thrown her hat in the ring. As I’ve said many times already, there’s only so much room for viable candidates in this race.

Cindy Clifford, a public relations executive and City Hall lobbyist, said the key to electing a female mayor is to first focus on recruiting women for lower-level elected office and to serve on boards and commissions. That requires a commitment by the city’s leaders to tapping individual women and showing them that they have support.

“If we’re not doing it, no one’s going to come and look for us,” Clifford said. “I always think the cream rises once they’re in the process.”

Council members Brenda Stardig and Ellen Cohen could be joined next year by several top-tier female candidates in council elections this fall, but some worry that the political “pipeline” of female candidates is thin, with few who conceivably could have run for mayor this year. One, Laura Murillo, the head of Houston’s Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, did publicly explore a mayoral bid last summer before deciding against it.

I would point out that one of the top tier candidates for Mayor this year is someone whose entire political career has been in the Legislature, and that the three main candidates currently running for Mayor in San Antonio include two former legislators and one former County Commissioner. One doesn’t have to be a city officeholder to be a viable Mayoral candidate, is what I’m saying. Hell, none of the three Mayors before Annise Parker had been elected to anything before running for the top job, let alone running for Council. The size of the “pipeline” is as much a matter of framing as anything else. Note also that several women who were once elected to city offices now hold office elsewhere – I’m thinking specifically of Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, Sen. Sylvia Garcia, Rep. Carol Alvarado, and HISD Trustee Wanda Adams. Pipelines can flow in both directions.

As for the four open Council slots, the seat most likely to be won by a female candidate as things stand right now is At Large #4, where two of the three announced candidates so far are women. Jenifer Pool is running in At Large #1, but if I were forced to make a prediction about it now, I’d say that a Lane Lewis/Chris Oliver runoff is the single most likely outcome. Two of the three candidates that I know of in District H are male – Roland Chavez and Jason Cisneroz – and the third candidate, former HISD Trustee Diana Davila, is ethically challenged. One’s commitment to diversity does not include supporting someone one doesn’t trust. I have no idea at this time who may be running in District G, which is the other term-limited seat. Beyond those races, any additional women will have to get there by knocking off an incumbent.

One last thing: There may not be room for another viable candidate for Mayor, but that isn’t the case for City Controller. There are three known candidates at this time, with two more thinking about it, all men. A Controller campaign would take less time and money, and would therefore likely be fairly ripe for recruitment, especially given that a female candidate in that race would have immediate prominence. As Mayor Parker, and for that matter former Mayor Whitmire, can attest, that office can be a pretty good stepping stone. Just a thought.

UPDATE: It has come to my attention that HCC Trustee Sandie Mullins is planning to run in District G. That not only adds another female candidate for Council, it also indicates that an HCC seat will be open this fall.

Laurie Robinson to run in At Large #4

From Texpatriate:

Laurie Robinson

Laurie Robinson

Laurie Robinson, a local businesswoman, will run for the Houston City Council next year. Specifically, as Houston Chronicle reported Theodore Schleifer reported on Twitter, she will seek out At-Large Position #4. The seat is currently held by Councilmember C.O. Bradford (D-At Large 4), who is term limited. The seat, which was previously held by now-Controller Ronald Green, has historically been held by an African-American officeholder, and this recent history has been noted repeatedly in recent weeks as a plethora of Caucasian candidates have stampeded into At-Large Position #1 and only that position, the other open seat.

A number of other names have popped up for this seat in conversations taking place behind closed doors, but none with enough certainty to be written in ink. Thus far, as noted above, most activity has taken place around Position #1, currently held by the term limited Councilmember Stephen Costello (R-At Large 1), a likely mayoral candidate. As I noted in the article I linked above, Harris County Democratic Party Chairman Lane Lewis will run for the post, as will Jenifer Pool, Philippe Nassif, Trebor Gordon and Griff Griffin. All except Nassif have run for office a few times (Griffin in particular about a dozen times).

Just a nitpicky note here, but it was At Large #5 that was held by African Americans for a long time; in particular, by Judson Robinson from 1971 to 1990, then by his son Judson Robinson III through 1997, then Carroll Robinson through 2001. It was in 2003, when Michael Berry, who had previously served one term in At Large #4 before making an aborted run for Mayor in 2003, won to break the streak, after which we had Jolanda Jones and then Jack Christie. AL4 was held by Anthony Hall and Sheila Jackson Lee before John Peavy won a special election in 1995 to succeed SJL after she ousted Craig Washington in the primary for CD18; Peavy was re-elected in November of 1995, then Chris Bell (’97 and ’99) and Berry (’01) represented AL4. Had Berry not chosen to make a run for Mayor in 2003, thus paving the way for Ronald Green with an assist from Bert Keller’s bumbling campaign, he might have won two more terms there, and then who knows what might have happened. (All data on city elections courtesy of the City Secretary webpage.) Berry himself was the beneficiary of some infighting over whom to support to continue the tradition of African American representation in AL5. Point being, the history is more interesting than what we have been saying, and for a few terms back in the day there were consistently two African American Council members serving at large; there were three following the 1991 election, when little-known Beverly Clark ousted Jim Westmoreland after he was caught making racist remarks relating to the late Mickey Leland and an effort to rename IAH in his honor. Clark served one term and was succeeded by Gracie Saenz. Thus endeth the history lecture.

Aaaaaaaaanyway. Robinson made a decent showing in AL5 in 2011 (my interview with her for that race is here, and though she was rumored to be a candidate for AL3 in 2013, she declined to run, saying she might try again another time. Which appears to be now. As for Griff Griffin, all I can say is that we can’t miss you if you won’t go away.

Hey, at least it’s not an L

The best bit in this story about Gene Locke‘s campaign kickoff rally at Minute Maid Park yesterday is at the end, and doesn’t really have anything to do with Locke’s party.

Locke’s multi-ethnic audience and endorsers were a refutation of an ethnic appeal made this week by campaign opponent Roy Morales, the county education board trustee who has lost two council races.

Pointing out that the Houston mayor’s race is non-partisan, Morales, a Hispanic Republican, said on Apostle Claver T. Kamau-Imani’s radio show,

I don’t have an R next to my name, I don’t have a D next to name. I have an H next to my name.

To which [Gracie] Saenz, [Victor] Trevino and others might say, “So what?”

Actually, I think the best response comes from Festus in the comments:

I assume the ‘H’ next to Roy Morales’ name stands for “Hopeless.”

I don’t think I can add anything to that. But Greg did, so go check his post out.