Diversity on Houston City Council

It’s been quite interesting to see what amounts to a ‘minor freak out’ going on in the blogosphere right now. Suddenly, people are starting to realize that the Houston City Council isn’t as diverse as they expected it to be? And, particularly from a gender perspective, will be even less so in 2014. The Council, which currently has four women holding office, will be down to two in the new year.

My response to this… where was the concern before??

The truth of the matter? Houston City Council isn’t “diverse” right now… it’s still no where near parity to our actual city’s population. Four women on council is better than two, but still admittedly short of the 8 needed to be fully reflective of an even gender split. For a city that is over 40 percent Hispanic, Council is very much under-represented in that regard with just two Hispanic members. Not only will Council be losing 2 women in 2014, but it will also be flipping back to ‘majority white’ for the first time in nearly a decade. In a true reflection of the city’s racial makeup, the largest representative group should be Hispanic.

Those are just snapshot observations, but to truly understand the make-up of council requires a broader understanding. Given his expertise on all things Houston politics, I asked Charles Kuffner of Off the Kuff for some history on the subject.

Basically, Districts B, D, H, I, and K have been people of color barring anything strange. That’s five of eleven, or four of nine pre-redistricting. If District F is a non-Anglo, that will give you six of eleven (or five of nine), so you then need only two At Large members to be people of color to have parity.

Since 2003, District F has been represented by MJ Khan, Al Hoang, and now Richard Nguyen. During that time, there have been at least two minority At Large members every term except one, in 2005, when Ronald Green was it. So that was the last election that Houston had a majority Anglo Council. And [technically] Addie Wiseman, who served in District E from 2001 through 2007, was half Hispanic, though she never really identified as Latina.

In 2001, District F was represented by Mark Ellis, so three minority At Large members were needed, but there were only – Gordon Quan and Carroll Robinson. Annise Parker was also an At Large member, if that helps. However, Sylvia Garcia was Controller, and of course Lee Brown was Mayor, so I’d give 2001 a pass. In 1999 there were three minority At Large members – Quan, Robinson, and Orlando Sanchez, plus Parker, Garcia, and Brown. In 1997 there was Sanchez and Robinson At Large, but Martha Wong represented District C, so once again parity was achieved.

Interestingly, 2005… the last time City Council was majority white, was also the only term that it was majority female… 8 women to 6 men served. So by both measurements of race and gender, 2014 will be an anomaly as the most majority male and majority white Council in the 21st century.

That’s the data. But it’s important to frame all of this as an anomaly… simply a result of how the 2013 elections turned out. There were a fairly diverse group of candidates on the ballot, and certainly there is no reason to believe that the decision of voters had anything to do with race or gender. Nor does the lack of diversity serve as any indication that these Council Members will not serve the people of Houston fairly. But perhaps it should cause the city’s political community to take another look down the pipeline to make sure that people from all backgrounds remain interested and motivated in city government. That’s the only way to really ensure that the decision-makers in government truly reflect their constituents in as many ways as possible.

And one more point…

Before you go away and decide that local government is suffering from a loss of diversity, don’t forget that District I set an historic milestone in 2013. Council Member-elect Robert Gallegos will be the first openly gay Latino male to be elected in the city of Houston, and one of a handful of GLBT elected officials statewide. Here’s more from Lone Star Q

Gallegos’ victory makes him the only openly gay Latino city council member in Texas. It also gives Houston two out council members, in addition to lesbian Mayor Annise Parker. Out Councilman Mike Laster was elected to a second term in November. Together Gallegos and Laster are two of only four openly gay city council members statewide — along with Joel Burns in Fort Worth and Scott Sherman in Pearland, according to the Victory Fund.

So even in a very odd election year, Houston City Council still finds ways to make progress.

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