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Joe Trevino

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.

November was like 2007, December is more like 2005

Here’s the daily report for the first six days of Early Voting in the runoff. There have been 17,568 votes cast so far, with today still to go. That means there have been more early votes cast in Harris County than there were in the entire 2007 runoff, when 11,374 ballots were cast before Runoff Day. Indeed, we had already exceeded that total by the end of Friday’s early voting. So, even though turnout for the November, 2011 election in the City of Houston was nearly identical to turnout from 2007, the December election is looking more like the runoff from 2005. In 2007, there was a grand total of 25,382 votes cast. At the rate we’re going, Early Voting in this runoff may approach that number. A better model may be 2005, with 38,620 votes cast, though I daresay that may be a bit low. There were only 14,233 early votes cast in the 2005 runoff, but early voting was less popular back then.

Given what we’ve seen so far, I’d put the over/under now at about 50,000 votes. The main difference is that in 2007 the one At Large runoff, between now-CM Jolanda Jones and Joe Trevino, was a much more low-profile and low-dollar affair than what we’ve got this time. Jolanda wasn’t Jolanda yet in 2007, if you get what I mean, so that race was almost beneath the radar – the two district runoffs generated more attention. This year we have two At Large runoffs with three of the four candidates raising money and the fourth having a hundred elections’ worth of name recognition, with the two district runoffs generating some heat as well. The 2005 runoff had only one At Large race, between now-CM Sue Lovell and Jay Aiyer, but it had a fair amount of money as well as some controversy. This year we have some familiar names and enough money to raise the bar a bit. It’s still an extreme low turnout race – we’re talking five percent turnout instead of three or four – but clearly there are some gradations in there.

At Large action

We’ve certainly got a fascinating Mayor’s race going on this year, with three viable candidates that can all plausibly claim a path to victory, but it seems to me that there’s a lot of interesting stuff happening in the At Large races as well. Marc Campos writes about a development that could affect one of them.

Yesterday, Commentary’s shop sent out an email announcing the supporters for Rick Rodriguez, candidate for H-Town City Council, At Large, Position 1. We will be helping him out this election season. Rodriguez is being taken very seriously. One opposing campaign asked him to consider running in At-Large, Position 4 race – no thanks. Another major interest group asked Rodriguez to run in At-Large, Position 5 – no thanks again. It is pretty obvious to Commentary that local political players know that Rodriguez has a strong base and is a force to deal with. Stay tuned!

Stace made notes of this as well. The email Campos’ shop sent included State Sen. Mario Gallegos, who I’m told made numerous calls on Rodriguez’s behalf, State Rep. and former City Council Member Carol Alvarado, and current City Council Members Ed Gonzalez and James Rodriguez, as supporters. And according to David Ortez, who attended Gene Locke’s event at Doneraki’s on Tuesday, at which Locke announced the endorsement of Gallegos, Alvarado, and several other local Latino leaders, Locke has “informally endorsed” Rodriguez as well. I wish I’d seen that before I conducted my interview with Rodriguez, who was as non-committal about his preferred candidate for Mayor as just about everyone else has been, but oh well. That’s an impressive amount of support for Rodriguez, and established him as someone to watch in a race that already has several strong candidates.

Having said that, Rodriguez still has to establish himself. He finished fourth in the District H special election, with 9.5% of the vote. He entered this race late, and reported essentially no money raised as of July 15. He has not won any endorsements yet; the Tejano Dems went with Herman Litt. All this backing puts Rodriguez on the map, and may position him to get into a runoff, but winning it would be another matter; ask Joe Trevino about that. Let’s not forget, Steve Costello raised a ton of money in the first six months, and has won several endorsements; he announced the support of the Houston Contractors Association and the Houston Apartment Association Better Government Fund today. Herman Litt starts out as a fave among many Dems for all the work he did on things like the Johnson-Rayburn-Richards dinner last year, and he came out of the gate with a lot of endorsements from establishment Dems. Karen Derr has been running longer than anyone in this race, and has raised a pretty respectable amount, though she didn’t have much cash on hand as of July 15. She has won some group endorsements as well. Lonnie Allsbrooks trails in all of these categories, but I sure see a lot of his signs in yards around where I live. Point being, this is a crowded field, and everyone in it has a base.

So I can understand the reasons why there might have been suggestions to Rodriguez that he consider another race. I’m going to guess that one reason why he might prefer At Large #1 to #s 4 or 5 is that he might not want to wind up in a runoff against an African-American candidate when there’s a strong likelihood Gene Locke will also be in a runoff for Mayor. On the other hand, a lot of the votes in this year’s runoff are likely to come from Districts A and G, and while Locke has certainly spent time courting Republican support, it’s not at all clear to me that those folks would go on to vote for C.O. Bradford and/or Jolanda Jones as well.

And that brings me to the other At Large races. Melissa Noriega in #3 is uncontested so far, and will likely get nothing more than token opposition. Pretty much everyone likes her, and nobody likes running against an incumbent, especially one with good fundraising numbers. Sue Lovell in #2 has three opponents, first-timer Roslyn Shorter plus perennials Andrew Burks and Griff Griffin. Unlike 2007, when Lovell spent a lot of her time helping Wanda Adams, James Rodriguez, and Jolanda Jones get elected and wound up in a surprisingly close race against the do-nothing Griff, Lovell is taking her re-election very seriously this time. She’s raising money like never before. I see no reason why she won’t win easily, but I daresay she won’t take anything for granted.

At Large #4 hasn’t changed from the beginning. Bradford and Noel Freeman are fairly evenly matched. Both have won some endorsements. Neither has raised a ton of money. Bradford has more name recognition, but that’s not necessarily a positive for him. I understand the logic that would go into gaming out various runoff scenarios, as described above, but I still don’t quite understand why At Large #1 has five candidates and this race has (for all intents and purposes) two. And I say that as someone who likes both of these gentlemen.

And finally, there’s At Large #5. A month or two ago, I’d have expected Jolanda Jones to cruise to re-election. Carlos Obando, whom I interviewed recently, is a nice guy and I thought he had some good things to say, but he has no money and no obvious backing, and it’s just hard to knock off an incumbent in our system; it’s only happened once since we adopted term limits. Now Jones has two more opponents, and I daresay a larger number of people who would prefer to vote for someone else, but I don’t see any of that translating into support for any one person yet. All three of her opponents have fared poorly in previous elections – Obando lost a GOP primary for HD134 last year, Davetta Daniels lost by a 2-1 margin for HISD Trustee in 2007, and the less said about Jack Christie’s abortive attempt to win this same At Large #5 seat in 2007, the better. I can envision there being enough of a not-Jolanda vote to force a runoff, and I can envision the challenger coming out on top in that scenario, but until one of these folks shows me something, like winning an endorsement that Jones has lost or getting some establishment support on his or her side, I think the smart money stays on the incumbent. Again, while I understand the reasons for running in At Large #1, I can’t help but think there’s an opening here for someone.