There's an election happening this May that progressives across Texas need to keep their eyes on, over in the northwest corner of Dallas County.
Farmers Branch, a community of 28,000 residents, is holding its first single-member districts municipal election, and stands a chance of reversing its recent history of making headlines for efforts to drive out the town's Hispanic population.
Last year, the city was forced to switch to single member districts after the at-large seats were found to violate the Voting Rights Act. The lawsuit successfully argued that Hispanics in Farmers Branch “had less opportunity than other members of the electorate to participate in the political process and to elect representatives of their choice,” wrote Judge Sidney Fitzwater in his opinion.
This effort to change the system of municipal representation in Farmer's Branch comes six years after a highly divisive and ugly legal battle over an ordinance that targeted undocumented immigrants. In 2006, the Farmers Branch council became the first in Texas to pass an ordinance that fined landlords who rented to undocumented immigrants, allowed police to check immigration status, and mandated English as the official language of the city.
The ordinance was largely viewed as a response to the growth in Hispanic residents in the small, previously Anglo community. (Currently, 37% of residents are Hispanic.) It was the work of then-Council Member Tim O'Hare, who panicked over what he described as an influx of “less desirable people.”
Opponents of the anti-immigrant measure petitioned for a special election to allow voters to decide whether the ordinance should be implemented or not. Unfortunately hate won the day, with 68% of voters supporting the referendum. The mayor at the time, Bob Phelps, opposed the measure, and had his windows broken as a result. He retired in 2008, and Farmers Branch elected O'Hare, father of the anti-immigrant ordinance, as Mayor.
In the ensuing years, the anti-immigrant ordinance has kept Farmers Branch in the news and in the courts, costing $5 million dollars of tax revenue in a short-sighted and divisive attempt to drive away Hispanic residents. The ordinance was blocked in state court, so national anti-immigrant activists helped the Farmers Branch council write new bigotry-mandating ordinances to withstand legal scrutiny. The ordinance was eventually struck down by the 5th Circuit as unconstitutional, since the ordinance's sole purpose was to exclude Latinos from the City of Farmers Branch.
Farmers Branch has been in the news for the last seven years for all of the wrong reasons. Now, the town has a chance to make some positive headlines.
This May is the first election under the single member districts map, and perhaps no contest better represents the potential positive outcome of these pitched legal battles than the race for District 1. Two candidates are now seeking to represent District 1, where 79% of the population is Latino. Ana Reyes, a native of the district, currently serves as District Manager for State Representative Rafael Anchia. William Capener, a self-described conservative and Tea Party activist, says he was inspired to run because of his opposition to single-member districts.
I recently spoke with Reyes on the phone about her candidacy. Learn more about her campaign for Farmers Branch City Council below the jump.
Ana Reyes grew up in Farmers Branch, and has watched as her community has become “a city in the spotlight for all the wrong reasons.” If elected, Reyes wants to help overcome the recent history of divisiveness, and work to bring more diversity not only to the City Council itself but also to municipal engagement as a whole.
“Growing up in District 1, I have a keen sense of the challenges facing the community,” Reyes stated. “With the district being 79% Latino, I will work to promote inclusiveness.”
Reyes puts a particular focus on increasing engagement for the residents of District 1. “Right now, representation by Hispanics and minorities at City Hall is not significant. We are 49% of the entire Farmers Branch population, but vastly underrepresented on boards and commissions.”
Reyes noted that if elected, she would hold bilingual town hall meetings, to lower barriers to engagement for all members of the community.
“Every resident should have an opportunity to participate in decisions about key budget issues, infrastructure needs, and the overall welfare of Farmers Branch citizens. “
Reyes would bring a wealth of experience working to engage constituents and a particular talent for intergovernmental relations owing to her six years working with State Representative Rafael Anchia. In her current role as District Manager, she is responsible for handling the concerns of his 174,000 constituents, which reside in a number of municipalities across Dallas County. She argues that this experience gives her the tools and insight to work effectively not just with other Farmers Branch council members, but also those in surrounding towns.
For instance, Farmers Branch is currently in litigation over a landfill that negatively impacts the quality of life in nearby Carrollton. Reyes notes that her work in the Legislature has prepared her to effectively work with other governmental entities to effectively solve problems.
Farmers Branch has never had a minority serve on the city council, and her election would speak highly to the change that has come to Farmers Branch. Reyes noted that many Hispanics still don't feel welcome at City Hall, owing to the recent spate of litigation. “That effects whether they call for assistance or voice concerns over issues impacting their quality of life.”
Reyes said her campaign is running hard, knocking on doors and urging voters to get to the polls. Early Voting began yesterday, and continues through Tuesday, May 7th.
Early Voting in Farmers Branch
Location: Farmers Branch City Hall — click here for map
Early Voting Hours:
Monday – Friday, April 29th-May 3rd, 8:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m.
Saturday, May 4th, 8:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m.
Sunday, May 5th, 1:00 p.m. to 6:00 p.m.
Monday and Tuesday, May 6th-May 7th, 7:00 a.m. to 7:00 p.m.
Election Day is Saturday, May 11.