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April 11th, 2018:

Interview with Martha Castex-Tatum

Martha Castex Tatum

We continue on with interviews in the District K special election, to succeed the late Council Member Larry Green. Today we have Martha Castex-Tatum, who has served in CM Green’s office as the Director of Constituent Services since 2015. She has previous experience as an elected official, having been a member of San Marcos’ City Council after her graduation from Texas State. She also served on the San Marcos Economic Development Council and the Convention and Visitor Bureau and has worked as a realtor. Here’s the interview:

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Anthony Freddie
Lawrence McGaffie

White voters sue Dallas County over claims of voter discrimination

I have four things to say about this.

Are white voters in Dallas County being discriminated against?

That question, which might cause some to chuckle, will be answered after a trial starting April 16 that could change the face of the voting rights struggle in America.

Four white residents are suing Dallas County, claiming that the current boundaries of county commissioner districts violate their voting rights. The case is believed to be one of the first in the nation where a group of whites is seeking protection under the Voting Rights Act.

The lawsuit foreshadows a potential turnabout in Texas’ and the nation’s racial politics. As Hispanics, blacks and other minorities close in on making America a country where minorities make up the majority, some whites are attempting to use civil rights laws to protect themselves from what they see as discrimination.

Dallas County, once dominated by white Republicans until demographic shifts paved the way for Democrats, is the ideal testing ground for such a case.

“There will be people who look up and say ‘oh, come on,’ but the facts are clear and it should not matter who is on the short end of the stick,” said Dallas lawyer Dan Morenoff, executive director of the Equal Voting Rights Institute. “The whole point is to assure state and local government can’t rig elections against races they don’t like.”

The white residents are backed by the Equal Voting Rights Institute. They are asking the court that the current Commissioners Court boundaries, approved in 2011, be redrawn to allow white residents to elect the commissioner of their choice.

[…]

Redistricting experts say the plaintiffs will have a hard time prevailing over the county. The Voting Rights Act, in part, protects victims of historical and systemic discrimination. White voters don’t fall in that class. A challenge to the maps on grounds that the white residents’ constitutional rights were violated has already faded.

“That’s a pretty high hurdle to overcome,” said Michael Li, an election law expert and senior counsel for the Brennan Center’s Democracy Program at New York University. “There hasn’t been a history of discrimination against white voters in Dallas County.”

Justin Levitt, associate dean for research at Loyola University in Los Angeles, agreed.

“You have to prove that the government intentionally took action against people because of their race. That is going to be much harder to demonstrate,” he said. “The case is going to turn on whether there is a history of discrimination against Anglos or present-day signs of discrimination.”

[…]

The lawsuit argues that the political clout of white voters has been purposefully diminished. Whites in Dallas County overwhelmingly vote for Republicans, the suit says, while blacks and Hispanics tend to vote for Democrats. The 4-to-1 Democrat-to-Republican ratio is a sign that whites have become disenfranchised, the suit says.

“The plaintiffs’ view is that a map was drawn on the basis of race to make sure a group couldn’t elect the candidate of their choice,” Morenoff said. “We think the law is pretty clear that it’s illegal. We’re making the same arguments that plaintiffs have made in Texas the past few decades. The law protects racial minorities whoever they are.”

But a white majority exists on the Commissioners Court even though Hispanics represent the largest racial group in the county. According to the U.S. Census, Hispanics make up 39 percent of the county population. The county is 33 percent white and 22 percent black.

[County Judge Clay] Jenkins, [Commissioner Theresa] Daniel and [Commissioner Mike] Cantrell are white. Daniel is a Democrat and Cantrell is a Republican. There is one black commissioner, Democrat John Wiley Price, and one Hispanic commissioner, Garcia, a Democrat.

The plaintiffs are arguing that white conservatives were not able to elect their candidate of choice.

Whites make up 48 percent of Dallas County voters, but essentially elect 25 percent (one commissioner) of the court, the lawsuit states.

Many white voters were packed into precincts controlled by Daniel, Price and Garcia. And others had their votes wasted after being packed into Cantrell’s Precinct 2, the lawsuit says.

Lawyers for the county disagreed in a court filing.

“Plaintiffs’ amended complaint fails to allege or demonstrate how the currently elected County Commissioners are not the candidate of choice of Anglo voters,” they wrote. “Even if the five commissioners are the candidates of choice of African-American and Latino voters, that fact does not preclude those Commissioners from also being the candidates of choice of Anglo voters.”

The trial is expected to take four days.

Li, the election law expert who spent 10 years in Dallas as a lawyer for Baker Botts, says redistricting cases like the one in Dallas County could evolve into referendums on partisan gerrymandering. Two such cases are before the U.S. Supreme Court.

“In the future, instead of race-based claims, they may claim that there was partisan gerrymandering,” Li said.

1. Good luck with that.

2. There are only four commissioners per county, plus a County Judge, so the result of one election can have a dramatic change to the partisan ration – you can go from 50-50 to 75-25 overnight, for example. Add in the County Judge and a “balanced” Court will be 60-40 one way or the other. My point here is that there’s only so much precision one can achieve.

3. Also, too: Harris County is at least as Democratic as Dallas is Republican, and at least as non-Anglo as Dallas is. Yet Harris County Commissioners Court has four Anglo Republicans and one African-American Democrat. Commissioners precincts were also redrawn following the 2010 election in which Jack Morman ousted Sylvia Garcia to protect the most vulnerable of the Anglo commissioners. Be careful what you’re wishing for here, Republicans. And yes, there was a lawsuit filed here over that, and the plaintiffs lost. Anyone think these folks in Dallas have a better claim than the plaintiffs in Harris County did?

4. Too bad the Supreme Court kneecapped the Voting Rights Act, huh? Maybe casting this as a partisan gerrymandering claim will help, assuming SCOTUS finds a remedy for that. In which case, again I say to be careful what you ask for, Republicans.

A copy of the lawsuit is here, and the county’s response is here; they are also embedded in the story. As always, I welcome feedback from the lawyers out there.

Greater Houston Flood Mitigation Consortium report

From the inbox:

“Strategies for Flood Mitigation in Greater Houston, Edition 1”, a report released today by the Greater Houston Flood Mitigation Consortium, calls for accelerating the paradigm shift underway in how the Houston area plans for and recovers from flooding and its consequences. While eliminating flooding in Houston is not possible, there are practical opportunities for reducing the effect flooding has on people’s lives. This initial report, which is based on current information from multiple local agencies and experts, draws a number of key conclusions on Addicks and Barker reservoirs, including the important considerations about the proposed “third reservoir,” and flood mitigation tactics such as regulations, local drainage, and buyouts.

According to Consortium Project Manager Christof Spieler, “When the consortium was formed, its philanthropic funders intended to make Houston a more resilient city and ensure that all communities benefit from flood mitigation efforts. We’ve brought together experts on flooding, the environment, and urban planning, and, together, we are presenting our conclusions thus far. We hope they are useful to decision-makers as the region figures out how to respond through funding, policies, and projects.”

The philanthropic funders include Houston EndowmentKinder Foundation, and the Cynthia & George Mitchell Foundation with additional support from the Walton Family FoundationCullen Foundation, and Harte Charitable Foundation.

 

Among the key conclusions within the report:

Flood Mitigation Infrastructure:

 

v  There is no publicly available information that clearly proves or disproves the structural integrity of Addicks and Barker reservoirs. Rather than continue to subjectively debate this topic, there is a call for a clear report on the condition of the dams, including public transparency on risks and any required structural improvements that may be needed.

v  The “third reservoir” as currently proposed is primarily intended to mitigate new development. It is not designed to reduce flooding in Buffalo Bayou nor does it solve issues with the Addicks and Barker reservoirs. The “Plan 5” reservoir defined by the Cypress Creek Overflow Study creates a scenario that allows future development of the Katy Prairie, land that currently absorbs a considerable amount of stormwater.

v  A new reservoir in northwest Harris County, specifically designed to address the Cypress Creek watershed, could significantly help mitigate repeated flooding of Cypress. A “third reservoir” in the same general area studied in the Cypress Creek Overflow Study, that targets reducing flooding in the badly damaged Cypress Creek watershed, could be very effective in addressing repeated flooding in the downstream areas of that watershed.

v  Where watersheds remain undeveloped, acquisition of land along the bayous and creeks is a cost-effective flood mitigation tool. Whether in the upper undeveloped watershed or downstream along the channel and its tributaries, undeveloped land gives the water room to spread out in a flood event, to prevent the impacts that new development on that land would have, and to preserve these green spaces for flood mitigation.

Regulations:

 

v  Under current detention regulations, new development, especially in previously undeveloped areas, still increases downstream flooding. Natural ecosystems and agricultural areas absorb some water, hold some water through ponding, and release the rest slowly. While current detention regulations limit the rate of water, the assumed conditions in these calculations overestimate pre-development runoff rate and thus underestimate the increase in runoff. The regulations also do not limit total runoff volume, which is critical in multi-day storms.

 

v  The existing regulatory system overseen by multiple jurisdictions is confusing at best and possibly counter-productive. The current patchwork approach, with platting, detention, floodplain management, infrastructure requirements, and building regulations handled by multiple entities, makes it difficult to address watersheds, and as a whole, can allow harmful projects to slip through the gaps.

Buyouts:

 

v  Buyouts studied alongside flood control infrastructure allow for determining the most effective and least expensive solutions. This proactive approach is a departure from a system that is currently reactive, only buying homes that are hopelessly deep in a floodplain.Benefits can include preventing future flood damage, providing land for better flood control infrastructure, new parks and open space, and improved housing stock.

v  Extensive buyouts without a coordinated housing plan will worsen the affordable housing shortage already confronting the region. A countywide housing plan could anticipate future housing needs, particularly after a flood event and identify locations with access to work, schools, and social services.

v  Flexible funding from non-federal sources allows more properties to be included in buyout programs and encourages property owners to participate, avoiding the “checkerboard effect.” Federal funding comes with limitations while local funding can be flexible, addressing properties within a buyout area that don’t meet federal requirements and offering compensation and relocation assistance that makes moving feasible for residents.

Public Engagement:

v  An educated public is fundamental to building and sustaining support for the long work of mitigating flood impacts. Robust engagement through the decision-making process will not only improve results but ensure equitable outcomes.

General:

 

v  The level of flood protection across watersheds is not equitable. Addicks and Barker reservoirs are already able to handle the current 1 percent design storm. Even with the federal projects, Brays Bayou, Clear Creek, Hunting Bayou, White Oak Bayou and Greens Bayou will not be able to handle the 1 percent storm, and tributaries of those bayous, and well as several other major bayous like Cypress Creek and Vince Bayou have not been studied in detail or had projects identified.

v  Most flood control assessments, including the federal government’s cost-benefit ratio, calculate benefits through economic value, not impact on human lives. We can measure projects by the number of people who benefit or use more sophisticated tools like Social Impact Assessment.

A link to the full report can be found houstonconsortium.org.

In the coming months, watershed analyses will be completed, which will allow for more detailed conclusions and Edition II will include these findings.

See here for a bit of background, and here to find the report. It’s one thing to come up with good and constructive ideas, it’s another to get them implemented. You can start out with the support of political leaders, you can persuade them to adopt your ideas, and you can elect people who campaign on the promise of pursuing those ideas. I look forward to the next step in this process, because we’re going to need one. The Trib has more.