Wednesday, February 22, 2012

El Paso City Council Redistricting Blues, Part I

El Paso City Council 
Redistricting Blues, Part I

Every ten years, The City of El Paso redraws the boundaries of its city council districts. Each City Representative appoints a commissioner to sit on the commission, which by now, late February 2012, has met several times.


I often tell people that having Chicano(a) office holders in El Paso is a relatively new phenomenon. Keeping Chicano(a)s out of office was achieved has much to do with pre-Voting Rights Act gabacho tactics. These included poll taxes and high filing fees for citizens who wanted to run for office. For example, when Raymond Tellez ran in the late 1950s, the filing fee to run was $2500. Adjusted for inflation that amount would equal $22,659 (2010).

From At-Large to Single Member Districts

However, one thing that the Voting Rights Act did not cure was that the El Paso City Council had at-large district for their councilmen. What I mean is that unlike today, in which each city representative represents a single district, before the late 1970s, a mere 30 or so years ago, city councilmen/women ran at large. This mean they did not represent a single district and everyone in El Paso could vote to put people on city council no matter where they lived.

So say you had three candidates living in the Northeast, it didn't matter. It also didn't matter if no one on city council say lived in the Lower Valley or South El Paso.

The typical result was that White El Paso would vote in who they wanted as they could turn out the vote. And when you had most of city council coming out of one side of town, you could have special pre-meetings, after all you were all from the same neighborhood.

Chicano Elected Officials: A Recent Phenomenon

When looking at El Paso's history, many people do not realize that from 1873-1980, there had been only two Chicano mayors. Chicano had only served 20 terms on the city council. To the present, only four Chicano mayors, five if one counts Joe Wardy.

From 1850 to 1990, only six Chicano(a)s had served as El Paso County Judge. You may be wondering when these six served. They served when the county seat was in San Elizario. Through a sham election, El Paso elites moved the county seat from San Elizario to El Paso and thus started 90 years of White County Judges. There have been four Chicano(a) County Judges since 1990.

Whites and White Candidates

Scholar Benjamin Marquez wrote that “Whites consistently vote for White candidates. The difference between the two groups is that when they were forced to choose between two Chicano candidates, the Mexican American vote split, while the white community supported the 'candidate for all El Paso,' i.e. the one who did not identify with the Chicano community.” 

Marquez also states, quoting a study by Howard Neighbor, that over a 15-year span, Southside El Paso 'choices' for city office (i.e., candidates for office who consistently carried the vote in the area or ward) equaled 37.5% of the actual winners in city elections. He goes on to state that while the upper income Whites in West El Paso chose 84.5% of their preferences.

To Single Member District

Going to single-member districts was something the City of El Paso did not want to do, however, the tide was turning and by 1975, federal courts had declared that the Dallas' system of at-large city council representatives was unconstitutional. In 1976, a coalition of Chicano and Latino organizations threatened to sue and they pushed for a referendum on an amendment to the city charter to provide for the election of alderman from single districts.

Nevertheless, this did not sit well with the White power structure. Single-member district supporters wanted three safe Mexican American districts and the White-dominated city council made accusation that the single-member district supporters were bias.

So City Council created a committee to draw the lines, but the committee could not come to an agreement. The city would eventually create two high-concentration White districts and two marginally-majority districts for each ethnic group. Remember, Chicanos were not the 85% or more population we are today.

Historian Oscar Martinez has said when there are two districts, “ ...that can go either way, they are going to go to the Anglo.”

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