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.
One could hypothetically include Melissa Noriega, if we count marrying into being Hispanic. But I don’t think it works like that.
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.
And it just so happens that H and I are represented by Hispanic councilmen, and generally preserved under the new plan.
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:
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.