Houston redistricting, blacks, and Hispanics

While I am excited about the Houston City Council redistricting plan, and its new District J, not everyone is as pleased. With the opportunity for two new districts, there was a certain expectation that one would be black and the other would be Hispanic. So far, it seems like the map did not create a new Hispanic district.

This could prove to be a legitimate complaint, given Houston’s growing, and already pretty huge, Hispanic population. However, it isn’t as if there are no Hispanics on the city council.

One could hypothetically include Melissa Noriega, if we count marrying into being Hispanic. But I don’t think it works like that.

Yeah.... I don't think she's Hispanic.

However, while there are two (at least obviously) Hispanic members on city council, there are four black members.

This seems a bit off, given that Houston is 25.3% black, but 37% Hispanic or Latino. However, things are not that straightforward.

First, two of these black council members are at-large positions, elected by the entire city rather than by district. Going by a district-only basis, there is an equal number of Hispanic and black members on city council. So it is not as if the black community is being favored over the Hispanic community, at least not on a cursory view.

Secondly, the distribution of the Hispanic population lends it well to two districts.

Each red dot represents 25 White people, each blue dot 25 African Americans, each green one 25 Asians, each orange one 25 people identifying themselves as Hispanic. “Others” are rendered in gray.

Judging by the orange dots, there are two major isolated concentrations of Hispanic populations: one in north Houston, and the other in southeast Houston. It just so happens that these population concentrations overlay well with two current districts: District H and District I.

This is the old city council map.

And it just so happens that H and I are represented by Hispanic councilmen, and generally preserved under the new plan.

The other population centers seem too small or spread out to create a proper Hispanic district. One could try to combine those two population centers in west Houston and northwest Houston into one district. This would require combining, from what I can see, parts of the new A and F, cutting through G and C.

This is the proposed city council map.

However, creating a district like this would both smack of Jerrymandering (which currently isn’t justiciable, but is frowned upon), and could threaten to throw off the necessary population balance between the districts.

Furthermore, it is very well possible that a strong Hispanic political organization and voter turnout in Districts F or A could lead a Hispanic councilman. Or better yet, a good city-wide organization could get several at-large Hispanic council members. But the Hispanic political organizations so far have failed to accomplish this feat. Which leads to….

Third, Hispanic voter turnout simply isn’t high enough to get any more council members. Yes, Hispanic voter turnout in Texas did grow by 31 percent between the 2000 and 2008 elections. However, turnout in Houston is notably lacking. As Paul Burka noted concerning the 2009 Houston mayoral runoff:

The lowest turnout of any precinct in East Side barrio neighborhoods was 7.8%.

The highest turnout of any precinct in the East Side barrio neighborhoods was 8.9%

[By contrast, a] typical precinct in the Heights had a 30% turnout.

If Hispanic turnout were greater, then Houston would see many at-large positions filled by Hispanic representatives. Strong Hispanic political movements could push impressive candidates to a victory in districts with large, but not majority, Hispanic populations. However, Houston Hispanics haven’t been able to accomplish that. Blacks have at-large city council members, and have had a mayor. The gay community has a mayor and has put forward city council members. The Hispanic community is, ideally, next in line.

It is difficult to comment on this situation without sounding condescending or critical towards the Hispanic political community. But at this point, Hispanics have the population to be a major political force. New districts or no, at-large elections are theirs to lose.

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2 responses to “Houston redistricting, blacks, and Hispanics

  1. So basically an article in today’s Chronicle backs up this blog entry:
    http://www.chron.com/disp/story.mpl/metropolitan/7510480.html?utm_source=feedburner&utm_medium=feed&utm_campaign=Feed%3A+houstonchronicle%2Flocal-state+(chron.com+-+Local+%26+State)

    “There’s two Latino council members and you have, currently, nine districts,” he said. “We’re moving to 11, and we’re going to stay the same. I don’t think that’s progress.”
    Parker said a key priority in the proposal, in addition to fairness, was keeping neighborhoods intact.
    “We have four majority-Hispanic districts,” Parker said of the plan, noting that the portion of seats in play for Latino voters equates to Hispanics’ 40 percent share of the city’s voting-age population. “Whether or not they are represented by Hispanic public officials, the opportunity is there.”
    Wood said two key factors make the creation of a third reliably Hispanic district difficult. First, he said, the Hispanic population is integrated throughout the city, leaving few concentrated pockets around which to draw districts. Second, he said, half of Houston’s Hispanic residents were born outside the United States, driving down the number of registered voters.
    No voting precinct in the proposed A or F districts — the two most likely to elect a Latino other than the existing H and I strongholds – has a majority of Spanish surnames among its registered voters, Wood said.
    Much of the discussion of Hispanic influence centers on the proposed A and F districts, now held by Brenda Stardig and Al Hoang, respectively.
    Parker said Hispanics simply must “find the votes” in those districts, and Rodriguez acknowledged conventional wisdom that Hispanics would have greater power if more came out to vote.

  2. I had also thought about the issue of residents/citizens/registered voters and my suspicion, based on nothing, is that those ratios are more skewed for Hispanics than for other groups. Obviously mere location of birth is not determinative of citizenship (contra some guy) but it will be strongly correlated.

    I used to live in Latin America, and I speak Spanish and Latin. I may not be Hispanic, but somebody tell me I’m not at least a little bit Latino.

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