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Diversity doesn’t mean African-Americans will get opportunity in District 1

Monday, July 7, 2014 by Mark Richardson

When members of the Independent Citizens Redistricting Commission began carving the city into 10 new Council Districts last year, one of their biggest challenges they faced was to carve out an African-American “district of opportunity.” After much consideration and debate, District 1 in northeast Austin became that district.

Despite decades of enforced housing segregation, by 2013 African-Americans only made up 8.1 percent of the city’s total population, according to the Census Bureau. It was impossible to carve out a sector that contained an African-American majority, so the commission had to settle for putting the largest group they could find in District 1 in order to meet the requirements of the federal Voting Right Act.

District 1 is one of the largest districts by area created by the commission, being bounded by Interstate 35, bumps up against Pflugerville on the north, SH 130 on the east and reaches down into the eastern parts of downtown and the University of Texas campus. It includes a variety of neighborhoods, such as Copperfield, Harris Branch, University Hills, Colony Park and Rosewood. It also contains Decker Lake Park and a couple chunks of the city’s extraterritorial jurisdiction.

Many of those neighborhoods have a history of being robust, middle class enclaves, but some of them have fallen on hard times in recent years. Merchants and grocery stores have moved out of many of the neighborhoods, and the ratio of homeowners to renters has been declining in recent years.

Under the current at-large Council, there has been a “gentleman’s agreement” among the city’s power brokers since the 1960s that essentially reserved two seats on the Council, one for an African-American and one for a Hispanic. Though the system had produced an appropriate candidate for both seats on the Council every year since it was put in place, it did not pass muster with many people in the community.

However, according to the ICRC, District 1 gives African-Americans their best chance of electing someone from the district, though the Census shows that the African-Americans are still a minority within its boundaries. Indeed, the recent advent of the candidacy of Valerie Menard highlights that fact.

Statistically, there are just under 78,000 people living in the district, and it will be one of the new Council’s most diverse. Among its residents, 28.2 percent are African-American, 43.2 percent are Hispanics and 23.3 percent are white, with the balance spread among several other ethnicities.

Six candidates have emerged to run for a seat on the new Council to represent District 1. They include Andrew Bucknall, Ora Houston, DeWayne Lofton, Sam Osmene, Menard, and Norman Jacobson.

Bucknall works as a mediator and property manager and was previously in the health and human services field with stints at Travis County, Foundation Communities and Lifeworks. He has run for the City Council in the past and has served as chair of both the Urban Renewal Board and the Urban Transportation Commission. He was a founder of the American Dream Self-Sufficiency Program.

His campaign is focused on expanding access to health care and education in the city, promoting cultural and historic preservation, creating a community that is safe for bicyclists and pedestrians, promoting environmental protection and flood control in District 1 and increasing community safety through such programs such as community-based policing. He is a life-long Democrat.

Houston is veteran community activist who retired after working 27 years for a state agency. After retirement, Houston worked for State Senator Gonzalo Barrientos. She served on the Citizens Advisory Task Force for the Imagine Austin Comprehensive Plan, the collaborative council of the Travis County Model Court for Children and Families, Vice-chair of the Upper Boggy Creek Neighborhood Planning Team, and part of the Disproportionality Committee of Family and Protective Services.

She says her campaign is focused on lowering property taxes, increasing jobs and job accessibility in District 1, addressing transportation congestion and workforce housing. Houston identifies as an Independent with “a strong Democratic lean.”

Lofton is employed as a senior deputy for the Travis County Sheriff’s Office and is president of Travis County Sheriff’s Office Reserve Officer Association. He ran for the Council in 2006. Among his public services, he has served on the Austin Human Rights Commission, as director of the Green Doors Community Partnership for the Homeless and as president of the Pecan Springs – Springdale Hills Neighborhood Association.

Lofton is focusing his campaign on transportation, affordability, attracting jobs to District 1, improving infrastructure in the district and economic development opportunities for small businesses. Lofton is a Democrat.

Osmene works as an adjunct professor of government at Austin Community College, and is a civic activist and business executive in the community. This is his third campaign for a Council seat, after running for office in both 2008 and 2009.

His campaign platform focuses on affordable housing, cutting property taxes and public safety. In terms of public safety, Osmene declares that Austinites “must not compromise our safety in the name of political correctness” and, instead, give the city’s police, fire and emergency services the tools they need. Osmene said he has voted as both a Democrat and a Republican in the past, and can identify with both parties.

Menard is a recent addition. She filed her campaign treasurer declaration on June 24. The Austin Chronicle’s Michael King noted that Menard is “publisher of Decisive Latino magazine and president of the Center for Mexican-American Cultural Arts.” Building on that theme, King wrote that “Menard’s entry in the race explicitly calls into question the ‘African-American opportunity’ status of District 1 – the only district drawn to raise the potential for African-American voters to elect a candidate of their choice.”

King continues on to quote a blog post penned by Menard: “The elephant in the room, however, is District 1. With a Latino population of 42 percent, it has been designated an opportunity district for African Americans, who make up only 28 percent of the population there,” Menard wrote. “Previously, a Gentleman’s Agreement was used to address diversity on the City Council – one seat was set aside for Latinos and one for African Americans. But since single-member districts seek to bring representation that reflects the city’s demographic and geographic make-up, it could just as easily become an opportunity district for Latinos bringing potential Latino representation at City Council to four.”

Norman Jacobson is employed as an editor for the TLC Guardian News Corporation, and has self-published six books. He is running for City Council for a second time, after losing to Chris Riley in the city’s last election. In that race, Jacobson focused mostly of his fight against Austin’s continued policy of fluoridating the city’s drinking water.

Senior Reporter Elizabeth Pagano contributed to the preparation of this article.

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