Pasadena, Texas: MALDEF (Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund) filed suit this past November after the Mayor of Pasadena, Texas successfully pushed a proposition to voters that would change an 8 member city council elected by district to one with 6 single member districts and 2 members elected at-large, by the entire city. Advocates of the narrowly passed measure touted it as a way to ensure that there are some council members looking out for the city as a whole, as opposed to narrowly focusing on the voters in their own district. What sounds like a good democratic goal however, is rife with politics, conflict and mutual mistrust.
The devil is always in those details and MALDEF’s complaint gives a taste of what has been going on in Pasadena, TX these past few years. The setting in which this takes place is a city that is 60% Hispanic but 40% if you count only those eligible to. Hispanic numbers have been on the rise in this city where there appears to be a North / South line dividing a majority Anglo population in the South and Latino neighborhoods to the North.
The complaint describes what it considered as the very odd timing and procedural nature of the 2013 proposition. First, the incumbent mayor was challenged by an Hispanic candidate during the municipal election that year. Of the 8 council seats, four members represented districts with Hispanic voting majorities and a fifth district was quickly emerging as an Hispanic voting majority district. An Hispanic councilman already represented it.
Second, the timing of the Mayor’s decision seemed odd; He quickly formed a citizens committee to consider bond funding for the ballot shortly after the election in which his seat was challenged by an Hispanic candidate and just days after the Supreme Court decided the landmark Shelby case, which released the city from having to obtain permission to make changes in its method of electing council members.
In another odd move alleged by plaintiffs, the Mayor suggested to the “bond” committee that they approve a proposed change to the voting process of the city council. When the committee declined to approve this seemingly unrelated measure, the Mayor dismissed the committees’4 actual bond recommendations for the ballot and instead proposed proposition “1” to the full city council, changing the electoral rules for the municipal election.
The proposal passed on the Mayor’s tie-breaking vote, since all four council members representing Hispanic dominated districts objected. The proposition 1 passed a citywide vote by a hair in what plaintiffs describe as “racially polarized” vote. The new law resulted in four redistricting maps up for consideration by the city council. That’s when things really got interesting according to the complaint:
“At the April 1, 2014 City Council meeting, Council member Pat Van Houte expressed
concerns over the legality of the redistricting plan. While discussing her concerns
regarding the legality of Plan 2, Council member Van Houte exceeded her debate time
limit of three minutes and Mayor Isbell ordered armed police officers to remove her from
the council chambers. When Council member Van Houte was removed from the
chamber, three more council members departed in protest. Plan 2 was passed on first
reading with four council members and the Mayor in attendance.”
Supporters of the at-large seats see a way to get support for some projects in the city that they hope will revitalize working-class, struggling areas of the city. Hispanics and others view these events as a clear attempt to hold onto power in the face of Latino voting strength that was just about to tip the scales in favor of a the “majority” Hispanic population of the city. Put bluntly, the city council was already deadlocked on racially sensitive issues it seemed, and the Mayorship could very well tip in favor Hispanics in the near future, thus self-preservation dictates action.
The lawsuit invokes section 2 of the Voting Rights Act and requests that the city be bailed in under section 3c. The question will be if a court will view the mayor and council’s attempt to make the council less divisive as a thinly veiled maneuver to preserve power at the expense of Hispanic voters.
The Supreme Court and lower courts have said that at-large districts by themselves are not necessarily discriminatory to minority voters, but they are often times used as a tool to do just that. Is Pasadena one of those times? Tell us your thoughts in the comments.