Pasadena Mayor Proposes Controversial Redistricting Scheme To Suppress Hispanic Vote

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Pasadena, Texas makes a passable microcosm for the demographic changes in Texas. Now, it is also poised to become a potential test case for redistricting in the post-Section 4 era.

Pasadena Mayor Johnny Isbell has proposed replacing two of the city's eight single-member districts with two at-large districts, a move some consider an effort to decrease Hispanic voters' ability to elect candidates of their choice.

This past week during the Council meeting, Isbell withdrew the bond package set for this November ballot and instead pushed for a package of four charter amendments, plus a fifth amendment on redistricting. Last night, the Council voted 5-4 to put the redistricting charter amendment on this November's ballot. A third reading is set for tomorrow in a special called meeting.

The Houston Chronicle has editorialized strongly against the move, noting that “Historically, replacing districts with at-large seats has been used to discriminatory ends.”

Previously, section 4 of the Voting Rights Act would have required such charter amendments to be pre-cleared by the Department of Justice given Texas's history of racial discrimination in changes to elections processes. Thanks to the Supreme Court, that is not the case anymore.

Below the jump, learn more about the demographic trends in Pasadena and read State Senator Sylvia Garcia's statement on the proposed redistricting.Demographic Changes

According to Census figures, Pasadena has seen a dramatic increase in Hispanic residents over the last decade. In 2000, Pasadena was 48.2% Hispanic. In 2010, Pasadena was 62.2% Hispanic.

These trends helped Democrat Mary Ann Perez win the race for an open and reconfigured HD-144 seat in 2012. State Rep. Ken Legler announced he would retire rather than seek re-election to the redrawn seat, and passed away shortly thereafter.

Currently, there are two Hispanic members of the 8-person Pasadena City council, including the newly elected Cody Ray Wheeler. The last election this past May saw a dramatic increase in Hispanic candidates for Pasadena municipal office. Mayor Johnny Isbell faced a Hispanic challenger himself this past cycle, Gilbert Pena, who ran on a platform of a lack of services in the northern part of the city. Isbell won handily, with 83%, in an election that saw 9.2% of voters turn out.

And yes, in case you're wondering, Pasadena still holds their municipal elections in May on the second Saturday, rather than combining them with higher-turnout November elections that would lower barriers to participation and increase the turnout of Hispanic voters.

Minority Voter Suppression

The Houston Chronicle is clear in their ringing indictment of Isbell's proposed redistricting scheme, which was recommended against by the Charter Review Committee:

As our Founding Fathers wrote in the Federalist Papers, our republic cannot function if the full spectrum of our nation's diverse interests do not have representation in government. Decades of discrimination kept vast segments of society away from the table, and only now do we start to see representation rising to the ideals our nation was founded upon. That progress is brought to a halt when cities such as Pasadena make it more difficult for a growing Hispanic population to take part in the democratic process.

What Happens Now

Last night, despite the objection of the Charter Review Committee, the Pasadena City Council voted 5-4 to put the redistricting charter amendment on the ballot this November. There will be a vote on the third reading for this measure Thursday (i.e. tomorrow) during a special called session.

Meanwhile, State Senator Sylvia Garcia, who represents the northern portion of Pasadena, released the following statement:

SENATOR SYLVIA R. GARCIA DISAPPOINTED BY PASADENA CITY COUNCIL APPROVAL OF A DISCRIMINATORY MID-DECADE REDISTRICTING PROPOSAL

Pasadena Mayor Johnny Isbell submitted a mid-decade redistricting change to the Pasadena City Charter that alters the city council from an eight single-member district council to a hybrid system with two at large seats and six-single member district seats.  The change will significantly increase the population size of each council seat and depending on the map could drastically harm the ability of Latinos to elect their candidates of choice.  The Pasadena City Council approved the city charter amendment on a 5-4 vote despite overwhelming public opposition in a late evening city council hearing on August 20, 2013.

“This decision by the Mayor and the majority of the Council is exactly the type of change the Voting Rights Act was intended to prevent.  I am extremely disappointed that the Council approved this charter amendment despite the opposition by the citizen's commission and the minority community,” stated Senator Sylvia Garcia.

With the Supreme Court decision in Shelby County v. Holder, the City of Pasadena will no longer need to obtain the pre-clearance of the Department of Justice, despite the fact that a similar election change was denied approval in December of 2012.  The measure will likely be added to the November ballot for voter approval.  

According to U.S. Department of Justice, since 1982 Texas has had the second highest number of Voting Rights Act Section 5 objections including at least 109 objections since 1982, 12 of which were for statewide voting changes.  Texas leads the nation in several categories of voting discrimination, including recent Section 5 violations and Section 2 challenges.

We'll definitely be keeping our eyes on this story and will update y'all as it develops.

About Author

Katherine Haenschen

Katherine Haenschen is a PhD candidate at the University of Texas, where she studies political participation on digital media. She has previously managed successful candidate, issue, voter registration, and GOTV campaigns in Austin. In addition to serving as the president of Austin Young Democrats, she is also UCONN's #1 fan in Texas.

3 Comments

  1. At-Large districts will magnify the Hispanic vote, not suppress it…

    The author claims that At-Large districts will somehow suppress the Hispanic vote in Pasadena because, in the past, white majorities have used them as a means of reducing representation of non-white minorities.

    However, this doesn't work when the “minority” is actually a local majority. Since the population of Pasadena is 62% Hispanic, the 2 At Large Districts will obviously be Hispanic majority districts.

    Thus, the influence of the Hispanic vote will be magnified, not suppressed by the redistricting.

    • Ignorant of voting patterns
      Although Latinos are a clear majority of voters turnout in local elections is many time better in older white wealthier districts.  They will control the two at-large seats.

      However, while the mayor feels Hispanics are overrepresented on council, in speaking on this plan he inaccurately said “75 percent of the Hispanics here are illegal,”  he is ramrodding this through with emergency meetings and no time to get the charter revision language correct because there is a 4-4 split on city council and he may lose one of his supporters later this year.  He controls redistricting and will eliminate two independent councilmembers. For the at-large seats his district has the largest share of voters that turn out for local elections.

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