|A few weeks ago I did an introductory piece on the history of city council redistricting in Houston . Let's turn to the present situation as a major new redistricting effort is getting underway.|
For the first time in over 30 years, Houston 's City Council is increasing in size next year, with two new single-member districts being added as required by a deal the city struck with the U.S. Department of Justice back in 1979. When the last redrawing of council districts occurred in 2001, there were about 1.9 million people in Houston , so each of the nine district member represented about 212,000 people on average. The current census is expected to show more than 2.2 million folks now live in the city, but with eleven districts as opposed to the current nine, that means the realigned districts will actually include slightly fewer people than the existing units. (Council districts don't have to be exactly equal in population, but can only deviate by plus or minus five percent from the average for the entire city)
So we know we will have 11 districts, and they will average having about 210,000 people as counted by the 2010 Census. What we do not know, of course, is where existing city council will end up placing the new districts next year while shifting the boundaries of the existing units. Some of the major decisions the council will have to address include the following issues:
(1) What to do with District E? If you look a the current districts, most are reasonably compact with the notable exception of District E which includes the Clear Lake area in far southeast Houston and Kingwood in far northeast Houston. These areas are more than 30 miles apart, and are largely connected by a narrow corridor in east Harris County that Houston annexed when it constructed the canal bringing water down from Lake Houston . To a lot of folks District E looks like a classic gerrymander and there are occasional calls to break it up, which will doubtlessly be voiced when council redraws the map next year. My guess is E survives, because there are good reasons for the present configuration. While far apart geographically, Clear Lake and Kingwood are quite similar in racial, ethnic and socioeconomic makeup. If you split them up and attach Kingwood and Clear Lake to the parts of the city closest to get the population needed to justify a seat, you would be putting the very white, conservative and Republican Kingwood in a district with northeast Houston that is very black, liberal, and Democratic. That would be one hell of a district to represent, a fact known to Council Member Mike Sullivan from Kingwood who will likely not look kindly on such a realignment. And at the other end, if Clear Lake is severed from Kingwood, it would have to be attached to the heavily Hispanic District I now represented by James Rodriquez. I doubt my former student would be any more thrilled by that prospect than Mike Sullivan will be by the opportunity to represent Kashmere Gardens and Fifth Ward. Since both Sullivan and Rodriquez are not term-limited in 2011, look for them to lead the fight to preserve the Kingwood/Clear Lake connection.
(2) Can Montrose be excised from District D? When the original council districts were drawn in 1979, Montrose was placed in District C, a mostly white area that included Rice University , Braes Bayou, and Meyerland. The district tended to elect progressive white members like Lance Lalor and Vince Ryan, and the gay community is Montrose had considerable clout in C at that time. But Montrose was moved out of C some years ago, possibly because the then Gay/Lesbian Caucus leader, Annise Parker, ran against incumbent Vince Ryan. Whatever the reason, Montrose has been attached to D for 20 years, a district dominated by African American voters who have been predictably electing black council members not dependant on white votes from Montrose. The GLBT Caucus would very much like to dissolve the Montrose/D connection, and get back into C again. Unlike the splitting of Kingwood and Clear Lake, I expect this will happen because of pressure from the GLBT, plus the fact that no returning council member will likely oppose such action (Ann Clutterbuck from C is term-limited out in 2011), and, last but not least, the presence of longtime Montrose resident Annise Parker in the mayor's seat on City Council.
(3) Can a third black district be created as many African American leaders expect? Yes, if the political will to do so exists on council next year. Because the black population registers and votes in high numbers, and usually supports credible African American candidates, it will be relatively easy to draw a new District J or K that will be dominated by black voters.
(4) Can a third Hispanic-dominated district be added to H and I with the addition of new seats? Maybe, but it will require a lot more effort than adding a third black seat. My preliminary review shows only one viable path to this outcome. Does the Hispanic community, now more than 40% of the entire city population but less than 15% of the citywide voters have the clout to get this done? Members Ed Gonzalez and James Rodriquez have some heavy lifting coming up next year.
(5) Can the growing Asian communities add a second district to existing F they can have a good chance of winning? Not in my opinion. These communities are simply not large enough, nor sufficiently compact to become a decisive force in a second council district.
Best strategy here is to protect their influence in F, not to overreach by dividing it into two of the realigned districts.
(6) Will the Democratic/Republican balance on City Council shift? City elections are officially non-partisan, but over the last 20 years most office-holders' party affiliations are known. The present districts are represented by five Republicans from A, C, E, F, and G. Democrats represent B, D, H, and I. At a minimum, expect the 11 realigned districts to elect at least 6 Democrats, mainly because the Anglo population in the city, which provides the great majority of votes for Republicans on council, will be smaller in absolute numbers in 2011 than it was in 2001. Meantime, the 2010 Census will count more than 350,000 additional black or Hispanic residents within the city compared to ten years ago.