"The city council and the Chamber of
Commerce don't want any minority on
council they can't control. This just scares
the hell out of the real estate industry in
"This issue is not a minority issue,
it's a responsive government issue," says
L.A. "Al" Greene Jr. Greene is the
attorney in charge of court battles being
waged by more than a dozen plaintiffs
against the present system.
The challengers include the Greater
Houston Civic Council, Inc.; the Harris
County Council of Organizations, a black
coalition; the Harris County Women's
Political Caucus; U.S. Rep. Mickey
Leland (D-Houston); Anthony Hall, a
black former state representative and congressional candidate; state Rep. Ben
Reyes (D-Houston), a Mexican-American;
County Commissioner Tom Bass; state
Rep. Herman Lauhoff (D-Houston); Mike
Noblet, Bass' former aide and state representative candidate; Joe Pentony, former
state representative and county judge
candidate; Don Horn, Texas leader of the
AFL-CIO; Lawrence Pope, a defeated
black candidate for city council; the
Political Alliance of Spanish-speaking
Organizations, and Moses LeRoy, an
The defendants are the city council
members and former Mayor Fred Hofheinz, who was in office when the first
of four federal law suits was filed in
Green's clients contend the present
city council set-up is unconstitutional,
that it discriminates against minorities.
Under the present system, there are
eight city council members. Three run at-
large, five are required to live In the
geographic districts they theoretically
represent. But despite the residency requirement, every voter may vote in all
eight council races. So the entire council
really is an at-large body.
The effect is that Houstonians live in
the nation's largest city council district,
both in terms of geography and population. Each Houston city council
member has a constituency larger than
that of 16 governors and 32 United States
The five districts which have been
drawn here do more to confuse the
electorate than promote neighborhood
representation. "Many people think we
already have a mixed system (that is,
some at-large and some single-member
districts)," Greene says.
The unfairness of the scheme can
easily be seen in District D, a predominantly black district in southern Houston.
Incumbent Honier Ford, a white conservative, has failed several times to carry
the area. At least once the district voted
80 percent for Lawrence Pope, a black.
But with the support of west side whites
and a bulging war chest, Ford has consistently been returned to City Hall to
do the work of the downtown power
The absence of single-member districts
is not the only way the current set-up
discriminates against minorities, though.
Chandler Davidson, a Rice University
social scientist and expert witness for
single-member district advocates, says,
"Houston has a full complement of
anti-minority mechanisms. So it's a tough
The city has a place voting system.
In other words, candidates run for specific seats. Elections could be structured
so that each voter would have eight votes,
and the top eight vote-getters would be
elected. It takes a little thought to see,
but if a voter were to cast fewer than
eight votes, he or she would in effect
be casting negative votes for those not
voted upon. This would help minority
candidates, Davidson has shown in his
1972 book Biracial Politics: Conflict
and Coalition in the Metropolitan South,
which is about Houston. So the city
doesn't have such a system.
The city could hold elections with
the rule that the candidate receiving the
most votes for a position, even if it is
a plurality and not a majority, would
be elected. But this, too, would help
minority candidates, Davidson says, so
the city has run-offs.
The city could allow parties to function in city politics. Since Democrats
(not to mention some minor parties)
are more likely to nominate minorities
in primaries, the city charter mandates
non-partisan elections. With Alice-In-
Wonderland logic, the system bans a
key element of politics from elections.
Since 1955, when the present system
was adopted, 96 city council seats have
been filled by election. White, Anglo-
Saxon males have won 92 times. No
Mexican-American has ever won. No
woman has ever won. Ten times, blacks
or Mexican-Americans have carried their
districts, frequently by 2-1 or 3-1
margins, but have lost in city-wide voting.
The only minority candidate ever to
win a seat is Judson Robinson Jr., a black
millionaire real estate broker. He won the
District B spot in 1971, 1973, 1975 and
1977. Significantly, he failed to make the
run-off for the inner-city congressional
district once held by Barbara Jordan and
now held by Mickey Leland.
"I think there is ample evidence the
council and the Chamber of Commerce
(headed by former Mayor Louie Welch)
don't want any minority on council
they can't control," Davidson says.
"This just scares the hell out of the real
estate industry in this town."
Harris County's legislative delegation
was elected under an at-large, place voting
system until federal court-ordered re-
districting. Under that scheme, even such
a consummate black politician as Jordan
was unable to win a seat in 1962 and
Houston Independent School District
created single-member districts for
trustees when the legislature told it to in
1974. But despite repeated efforts single-
member district advocates have been
unable to get a similar mandate from
Austin for city elections.
While virtually the whole deck is
stacked against Houston's minorities in
city elections, Green's clients decided to
concentrate on the most repugnant
element, the at-large system. In 1973,
they filed suit in federal court to overturn the system in favor of single-member
With approximately 40 percent of the
city's population black or Hispanic,
city officials cannot deny minorities
have been underrepresented on council.
So the city presented witnesses who testified the election system was not the
reason minorities are underrepresented.
Susan A. MacManus, a University of
Houston political scientist, testified the
inequality is due to "socio-economic
factors," such as lower education and income levels among minorities. She said
her city-financed study of 243 large
American cities shows minorities are
underrepresented regardless of council
After being paid at least $4,700 for
her research and testimony, MacManus
took the same data and wrote a scholarly
article with Delbert Taebel of the University of Texas at Arlington drawing
opposite conclusions, however.
After Davidson howled in the academic community, MacManus removed
her name from the article and wrote a
new one with conclusions in line with her
court statements. The two articles are
scheduled to be published side-by-side
in the fall issue of the Austin-based Social
Another expert witness for the city,
political scientist George An tunes, is on
record outside the courtroom 180 degrees
opposite his testimony. With a colleague,
Antunes wrote in a chapter of The New
Urban Politics, "In larger communities
at-large council elections dilute minority
Antunes says he was merely summarizing the views of most scholars, not
expressing his own. No such caveat is
made in the book, however. Greene was
not allowed to introduce Antunes' written statements, made before the trial, in
Even the plaintiffs concede under-
representation on council does not by
itself prove the city's government has
been unresponsive to minorities. The
city's attorneys pointed to the city-wide
election of Mexican-American Leonel
Castillo as controller and said minorities'
voice in every council contest has insured
city services are equitably distributed.
They argued single-member districts
would polarize the council and still not
give minorities control, since they could
not win a majority of the seats. Davidson
disagrees. Minority "hell-raisers" could at
least publicize minority issues and reveal
what goes on in closed-door council meetings, he says.
The plaintiffs made their case for inequitable distribution of city services
largely in four areas: police brutality,
municipal employment, Spanish language
services and representation on boards
and commissions. The city's response to
each was weak at best.
The city acknowledged police brutality is "a source of continuing frustration
for the minority community" but said
a civilian review commission is prohibited by state law.
It said "nothing but improvement"
has been made recently in discriminatory municipal employment but added
the problem "cannot be solved overnight."
Of the problem of few Spanish
language services, the city merely said it
is "working toward its resolution."
More non-Houstonians have been appointed to city panels than have minorities, Greene notes, adding, "Most blacks
are appointed to the arts board and
things like that." The city merely contends there is no evidence minorities have