Austin City Council Elections: Wither the Gentleman's Agreement?

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While KT has been busy inspiring other local news sources to dig deeper into the mayor's race, there are three other contests on the ballot this May, which haven't really received too much coverage — Places 2, 5, and 6. Truth be told, it's unlikely that any of the three incumbents are not returned to City Hall, but the process by which this is happening has proven to be somewhat unusual.  

Wither the Gentleman's Agreement?

Traditionally, Austin has avoided geographical representation on our council via the “Gentleman's Agreement,” which “designates” one council seat for a Hispanic member and another for an African-American member. It's a potentially patronizing system that seemingly suggests that one seat is “enough” for each community (and does not include other ethnic or identity categories), and requires the minority candidate to be chosen by a citywide electorate that is itself majority Caucasian. To date, the Gentleman's Agreement has prevented the Department of Justice from forcing Austin to adopt geographic representation, since minority seats are essentially “guaranteed.”

However, this is the first cycle in the last decade in which all of the challengers to the Hispanic and African-American council members are not themselves members of these respective groups. Dr. Laura Pressley is running against Place 2 council member Mike Martinez, while Shaun Ireland is squaring off against Place 6 council member Sheryl Cole. Both challengers appear to be Caucasian and have given no indication of having Hispanic or African-American heritage. Last cycle, Cole and Martinez also faced token challengers, however in that cycle both were the same ethnicity of the incumbents.

It's highly likely that Martinez and Cole will prevail. So by and large, Austin isn't really at risk of having zero minority city council members. And arguably the two challengers distinguish themselves as not being “serious” candidates in the world of city politics since by running they're not “abiding” by the Gentleman's Agreement. Yet the hypothetical end result that two candidates who seemingly support diverse representation would, by winning, decrease diversity is odd.

More about the Gentleman's Agreement below the jump.  Notably, both Pressley and Ireland support a 10-1 SMD plan over our current at-large system, which (like any SMD system drawn appropriately) would result in districts that allow minority communities to elect the candidates of their choice. Pressley stated in her Democratic multi-club questionnaire that the districts should be drawn by a “non-partisan randomly selected committee.” Ireland wrote in his Democratic multi-club questionnaire, “The system is so broken that our African-American and Latino communities must rely on gentleman's agreements and fight citywide just to have someone on the council. Our minority communities deserve the right to have their own district and choose from their neighbors, a champion to represent their unique issues at City Hall.”

There is much in that statement to agree with, but if the challengers were to somehow win — if the majority-Caucasian electorate of Austin City Council elections were to choose the Caucasian candidates — we would have no African-American or Hispanic council members. Additionally we would probably see a big decrease in the appointments of minority Austinites to boards and commissions. Why then didn't they just pile on and run against Spelman with all of other white dudes and lady? Should lighting strike and somehow Austin elect both challengers (and not elect Dominic Chavez in Place 5) we'd be left with a 100% Caucasian city council, which in turn could send in the DOJ and could ultimately take the decision of SMD's, which plan and how many, out of the hands of the City of Austin voters.

Put simply: our community values and desires diverse representation. These challengers say they value diverse representation. But their deeds — their very campaigns — work to reduce it.

This would be a very different story if both Caucasian challengers were strong candidates with extensive service to Austin and significant name recognition in their own right, who chose to buck the agreement and run anyways. Then we'd be having a very different discussion over whether voters needed to vote for minority candidates for the sake of having minority representation, possibly regardless of which candidate more reflected a voter's views on city issues. That didn't happen, in part because the various endorsing entities, donors, campaign consultants, and Powers That Be don't “let” it happen. The insider chatter and gossip last fall centering on whether or not anyone was going to challenge Martinez or Cole only brought up potential minority candidates. As long as a handful of people exert so much control over who runs and who can win, the Gentleman's Agreement abides.

If nothing else, the challengers lay bare the “system” that controls our City Council elections. There's no legal prohibition on Caucasian candidates running in our minority-designated seats. The fact that our Caucasian electorate will elect the minority candidates over the Caucasian ones is a nice finger in the eye of Republicans and redistricting interest groups who don't believe in coalition districts and communities. But it all hinges on a very small, very informed (and very liberal) city electorate that upholds the Gentleman's Agreement in the voting booth.

What remains to be seen is if voters this November pass a charter amendment moving our elections to November, and don't pass an SMD plan. We could end up with City Council elections in Presidential or Gubernatorial cycles, and the resulting high turnout would make it extremely challenging for candidates to communicate with the larger electorate. On the upside, the November electorate has a larger share of minority voters, so it's possible that the move would make it easier to elect an even more diverse council. Regardless, such a shift could make the “Gentleman's Agreement” all but impossible to enforce, and would raise big questions about how to ensure diversity — not to mention how much, and of whom — on our City Council.  


About Author

Katherine Haenschen

Katherine Haenschen is a PhD candidate at the University of Texas, where she studies political participation on digital media. She previously managed successful candidate, issue, voter registration, and GOTV campaigns in Central Texas. She is also a fan of UCONN women's basketball and breakfast tacos.


  1. 10-1 Petition
    A 10-1 Petition is circulating.  It will be on the November ballot.  So vote for the best candidates on May 12th regardless of race, and then vote for 10-1 in November and don't worry about the DOJ.  Nice try BOR.

    • wait what?
      What are you insinuating? I read a thoughtful post on the state of the Gentleman's Agreement, not a piece that tries to sway votes one way or the other in the municipal elections (those are coming later, I am sure, with the site's endorsements).

      Further, just because a petition is circulating doesn't mean 10-1 will get on the ballot. 20,000 signatures is a lot. I signed it just because I want to see something get done (and I don't trust City Council to do anything right now), but I'm not going to hold my breath about it just yet. I, and many of the forces behind the 10-1 petition, as well, still will lobby the Council to take action.  

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