The “gentlemen’s agreement” - A Relic of Austin’s Racist Past: Or, why did we need to change the system, anyway?

Until the passage of 10-1, Austin, Texas used an at-large ‘places’ system to elect city council members.  “At-large” means every voter votes for every council member – and that means none of us had a council member that represented our neighborhood. We were the largest city in the country without geographic representation.   (The ‘places’ don’t refer to geography or location at all -- just when a council member is up for re-election.) In a city the size of Austin, that means that each council member represented all 800,000 citizens.  

At-large elections are a system where communities of color or of lower-income levels have the cards stacked against them.  Citywide elections are expensive to run and in Austin, all elections were city wide before 10-1. Regular folks didn’t have the money to compete. But, we’re Austin. There’s no way that we would intentionally set-up a system that oppresses members of our community? We’re progressive, right?

Maybe not so much.  

Ignorance and Influence: Austin, Texas in the ‘50s

Austin’s recent at-large council system was founded in racism. In 1951, after WW2, Arthur B. DeWitty, an African-American, ran for Austin City Council. DeWitty was the President of the NAACP and a leader in the growing civil rights movement. DeWitty almost won under the system then in place, infuriating the white majority. The next year, city council changed the way Austin held its elections by creating at-large council seats, making it impossible to elect a person of color to council. The new at-large ‘places’ system required that all Austinites approve all councilmembers. That meant that the 1950’s white majority controlled who won council elections.

The racist at-large system created in the 50’s was the same system we had in Austin until 10-1, with the addition of the 1970’s “gentlemen’s agreement” to comply with the Voting Rights Act.

So … What’s the ‘gentlemen’s agreement’?

In the early 70’s, after City Council’s racist history with DeWitty, the Voting Rights Act (VRA) forced Austin to allow minority representation. However, the white power elite found a way to maintain control. Rather than abolish the racist at-large system, Austin’s moneyed interests committed to only support an African-American for Place 6 and an Hispanic for Place 7.

The ‘agreement’ went something like this: To make sure that people of color were elected to council, rich, Anglo business leaders in town vowed to hold 2 seats on the council for people of color: 1 for an African-American and 1 for an Hispanic.

How could they be sure that Austin would consistently elect a minority to those seats? Easy. The power elite promised not to give money to anyone who was Anglo and ran in those spots. That commitment satisfied the VRA, but kept all the power in the hands of the moneyed interests and out of the minority communities.

How did the power elite remain in control? Simple. All council seats were at-large, which meant that all elections remained expensive to run. This also meant that the Anglo majority had to approve all council members – even those two reserved “minority” seats.

Since that time, 15 out of the last 17 mayors and a full 50% of council have come from 4 ZIP codes in downtown and West Austin. The Anglo majority still controls city council, and even controls which minority candidate “represents” the minority communities.

Shockingly, this is how the Austin City Council had maintained minority representation until now. There is history in the making in the 2014 City Council elections. Each corner of the city will have a designated council member, of their choice, on the city council, which means better representation and a better chance of being heard.

Be a part of making history by electing your first Austin City Council District Representative.  Vote early … and don’t forget to vote local at the end of the ballot!