City Council and the “Gentleman’s Agreement”
State lawmakers are considering a bill that would force the City of Austin to adopt what’s known as single-member districts. That is a city council where some members represent specific geographic areas. City leaders have tried half a dozen times in the past 20 years to make the switch. Austin voters may be asked to weigh in again on the idea next year.
The change would have a big impact on minority voters, who have maintained representation on the council for the past 30 years through an unwritten deal–what’s known in Austin political circles as the “gentleman’s agreement.”
The origins of the gentleman’s agreement are murky–part history, part political mythology.
“There was an agreement back in ’77,” said Peck Young, a longtime Austin political operative. “A literal agreement, a handshake agreement–never written down–between two individuals named Ed Wendler and Bill Youngblood.”
Ed Wendler and Bill Youngblood were two big players in Austin politics in the ’70s. Peck Young says Youngblood was afraid if there wasn’t Hispanic or African-American presence on the council, the city would be open to a federal lawsuit that might force single-member districts. So they came up with an unspoken rule that the Place 5 council was the “Hispanic seat” and Place 6 was the “African-American seat.” But the agreement wasn’t aimed at encouraging council diversity–it was aimed at controlling that diversity.
“You have minorities, but you don’t have minorities elected by minority voters,” Young said.
There was a time in the 1980s when Place 5 was not held by a Hispanic member. Place 2, which is now held by Mike Martinez, has become the new “Hispanic seat.” The agreement has mostly endured, even though the original gentlemen are gone.
It’s seen as improper for a candidate to run for a seat they don’t “belong” in. Candidates who try to ignore the agreement are shunned by powerful political interests, which have changed since the original agreement.
“Traditionally, it’s been the white business majority, but now it’s the white environmental liberal majority,” said Kathy Vasquez, the publisher of La Prensa, a bilingual community newspaper. She says the agreement has left East Austin and Hispanics in general, without a voice on the council.
“Think about the demographics,” she said. “How come there’s only one? Why? Because the system works to allow for only person to win, and then that person is chosen by those groups.”
The NAACP’s Nelson Linder says African-Americans haven’t fared much better under the gentleman’s agreement.
“I think we can all agree that if you look at the issues in the city right now, nothing that black people are promoting has been given the proper credibility or attention,” Linder said.
African-American representation on council is at least demographically accurate. Blacks make up about eight percent of Austin’s population. If the city does adopt single-member districts next year–or sooner–the gentleman’s agreement would likely be undone.
Kathy Vasquez says representation should be more about geography than ethnicity.
“It may be that a white person can get elected; but it’s someone from your neighborhood that you’ve known for a long, long time,” Vasquez said. “You know, that understands the problems of your neighborhood, and they will be responsible to you.”
No matter what color you are.