It’s called “cracking” by the courts, long-time civil-rights lawyer Jason Smith wrote in an op-ed piece recently in the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. It is a tactic used often by highly politicized local and state redistricting committees to weaken minority voting rights by dividing compact minority neighborhoods and linking them to white, affluent neighborhoods with higher voter turnout. The Voting Rights Act of 1965 clearly states that voting districts must be drawn to protect “communities of interest” including those of race and income, allowing them to elect those who most closely represent the interests of the community.
Yet, the trustees of the Fort Worth ISD are set to vote on just such a plan tonight, according to a host of opponents from individuals such as Smith to the United Hispanic Council of Tarrant County under the leadership of Fernando Florez to board members Juan Rangel, Carlos Vasquez and T. A. Sims, all of whom have indicated they will vote against the plan. There may be other board members opposed but they have not indicated their intent.
With a minority population of 60 percent and climbing (40.92 percent Hispanic; 20 percent black; 35 percent white in the 2010 census), the district’s newest map before the trustees tonight would change the make-up of District 8 dramatically and weaken the Hispanic voting strength in two other districts as well, rather than strengthen them as the demographics would indicate, opponents charge.
The new configuration would move two high-income, predominantly Anglo neighborhoods (Park Hill and Berkeley Place) from District 5 to the adjacent low- to middle-income, mostly working-class, predominantly Hispanic neighborhoods of District 8, which is home to Paschal High School and its feeder schools. These are in no way “communities of interest” opponents argue.
“Inclusion and acceptance of these [neighborhoods] now will not pass the conditions and legal requirements of the Voting rights Act,” Rangel wrote in an email in August to his fellow board members.
District 5 Trustee Judy Needham, who currently represents Park Hill and Berkeley, requested the changes, based, she said, on the two neighborhoods’ residents requests to be placed in the Paschal pyramid because those are the schools their kids attend. In an email to board member Ann Sutherland, Needham wrote that the plan “keeps communities of interest together. The Hispanic majority in new District 8 is still 64.4 percent instead of 65.5 percent [in a previous plan.]” She ended with, “If you have any questions, please contact Rickey Brantley,” who it turns out is the author of the latest map, drawn at the request of Needham.
Rangel, who has represented District 8 for 15 years, would be moved to new District 9 which would include another affluent neighborhood, Mistletoe Heights. The new district would start at the edge of District 8 then spread northward to the neighborhoods of Riverside and Oakhurst.
Opponents charge the redrawn map – brought to the board by lawyer Brantley, an acquaintance of Needham – would likely have the effect of reducing the number of single member Latino districts to one, rather than increasing the number to four or more to reflect the true population of the district.
In an email to board members, Smith wrote, “If you are for Civil Rights, this is gut check time. If you vote for the Brantley map … you are turning your back on Civil Rights progress in Fort Worth and the fundamental tenents of the Democratic Party.” (Which was, of course, the party that, under the leadership of President Lyndon Johnson, was able to get the contentious Act passed in 1965 after hundreds of years of disenfranchisement of minorities and hundreds of deaths, including that of the martyred Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr.]
Since the Voting Rights Act was passed to guarantee minority communities greater voter protection and participation, the federal courts have not looked kindly on “cracking.” In fact, a recent ruling by the U.S. Justice Department threw out the Republican-led state legislature’s redistricting plan for the U.S. congressional districts and the Texas House as a violation of the Act by diluting Hispanic districts, causing the growing Hispanic majority in Texas to lose voting strength in spite of a surge in the Latino population statewide.
If the vote tonight upholds the Brantley Plan, it too will wind up in court. In a recent press release, Florez wrote that the Hispanic Council is “very confident that our evidence is there [similar to the evidence presented in the state redistricting plan] and we will make similar arguments to the Justice Department if all attempts at a fair compromise are refused.”
However, he added, “We are hopeful that we can reach an agreement.”
The vote is tonight. The board meets at 5:30. The taxpayers will soon know if there is another lawsuit on the horizon of this district.