Now that precinct data is out, the Chron has an updated take on what sunk the Astrodome referendum.
Overall, 53.4 percent of Harris County voters rejected the bond issue that would have renovated the long-vacant Dome into a convention and exhibit space. In Houston, 50.1 percent of the voters turned it down, while in unincorporated Harris County, 56.4 percent snubbed it.
Political analysts saw overlapping trends with the preliminary data, released last week by the Harris County Clerk’s Office.
First, residents who lived farther from the Dome were more likely to vote it down. Second, conservative areas – not only the suburbs but also inside the city, particularly the west side – tended to oppose the measure. And third, whites opposed the measure, with blacks in support.
University of Houston political scientist Brandon Rottinghaus and others agreed race was not the controlling factor, however. Rottinghaus said age could explain the correlation: Many black neighborhoods inside the city are full of older folks who have lived in their homes for decades, he noted, and might have more memories of the Dome.
“If you conceive of the Dome question as being a question of those who had a nostalgic feel for the Dome, older people gave it what little support it had,” Rottinghaus said. “But newer areas of Houston or people who have been transplanted from other places, those people are less likely to have a nostalgic feel for the Dome.”
Rice University political scientist Bob Stein was less convinced that nostalgia was a driving force. Data shows the deciding factor was proximity to the Dome, he said.
Political philosophy drove the Dome’s poor showing in typically conservative areas, including the suburbs, said Republican communications consultant Jim McGrath. He noted the ballot language specified, at the request of Harris County Commissioners Court, that approval would result in a tax hike.
“I kept hearing it was a boondoggle and nobody wanted to sign on for that,” McGrath said. “A lot of people said it was great architecture and ought to be preserved and it was the Eighth Wonder of the World. I get all of that, but the passion was on the side of the folks who said, ‘We ought not be spending this kind of money, we have other priorities in the county.’ ”
A lot of what is being said here was said before, only this time now we have the numbers. And here’s what they look like by my check:
Dist For Against For % =============================== A 7,172 8,693 45.21% B 6,817 6,203 52.36% C 15,428 15,288 50.23% D 9,874 7,954 55.38% E 7,819 12,302 38.86% F 3,674 4,189 46.73% G 11,049 14,766 42.80% H 4,761 4,390 52.03% I 4,400 4,042 52.12% J 2,782 2,540 52.27% K 7,872 6,420 55.08%
Here it is broken down by various groups:
Group For Against For % =============================== Houston 81,648 86,787 48.47% Harris 30,312 41,699 42.09% Dem 49,152 44,297 52.60% Rep 26,040 35,761 42.14% Swing 6,456 6,729 48.96% AA 24,563 20,577 54.42% Latino 9,161 8,432 52.07% Anglo 41,468 51,049 44.82% Other 6,456 6,729 48.96%
My percentage for the city of Houston is lower than what the Chron cites because of split precincts, by which I mean precincts that are partly in Houston and partly not. I’ve tried to tease it out where I can, but for the most part in a precinct where there are city of Houston votes, all of them are counted towards the Houston total.
The other groups are determined by Council district. I’ve defined “Dem” as Districts B, C, D, H, I, and K; “Rep” as A, E, and G; and “Swing” as F and J. Similarly, African-American districts are B, D, and K; Latino districts are H and I; Anglo districts are A, C, E, and G; and Other are F and J.
The numbers basically speak for themselves. I agree with the observation Houston Politics makes in its presentation of maps that show the vote by precinct that there was a lot more fervent opposition to the Dome project than there was fervent support. There were people who were passionate about saving the Dome, but that didn’t necessarily translate to them being passionate about this specific plan to save the Dome. I agree with Jim McGrath’s point about people thinking this plan wasn’t worth a bump in their property taxes. Now, I’m sure some of these people would rather starve to death than vote to increase their property taxes, but I think a lot of people just didn’t see the value in this particular plan. Some of that may be due to lack of campaigning for the Dome, some of it may be due to lack of a clear understanding what the New Dome project would mean and how it would work, and some of it may be due to other factors. While at this point I think it’s probably best to take another crack at finding a private investor to do something with the Dome, I do think it’s possible that a different referendum for a publicly-financed Dome project to pass. That referendum will need a clear statement about what the money is going to be used for and how it will benefit the County, and it will need a better conceived and executed sales plan to get the voters to buy in to it.
I believe a similar lesson can be learned from the successful but too-close-for-comfort joint inmate processing facility referendum. Here are those numbers, with the same disclaimers as above:
Dist For Against For % =============================== A 7,146 7,707 48.11% B 5,797 6,146 48.54% C 15,897 12,366 56.25% D 7,864 8,437 48.24% E 8,295 10,719 43.63% F 3,530 3,884 47.61% G 13,390 10,726 55.52% H 4,075 4,370 48.25% I 3,543 4,258 45.42% J 2,620 2,371 52.49% K 6,754 6,320 51.66% Group For Against For % =============================== Houston 78,911 77,304 50.51% Harris 33,468 34,600 49.17% Dem 43,930 41,897 51.18% Rep 28,831 29,152 49.72% Swing 6,150 6,255 49.58% AA 20,415 20,903 49.41% Latino 7,618 8,628 46.89% Anglo 44,728 41,518 51.86% Other 6,150 6,255 49.58%
Here it’s clear that this referendum owes its passage to the voters in Districts C and G. What this says to me is that just because an item has no opposition doesn’t mean it needs no advocacy. In the absence of other information, it’s likely that some people read this referendum and wrongly concluded that it meant increasing jail capacity like the failed 2007 bond, or another bump in taxes like the Astrodome item. People can’t be blamed for reaching faulty conclusions if they have incomplete evidence. There needed to be a campaign to create and send mailers to targeted voters explaining the virtues of this referendum – no new taxes, no increase in jail capacity, better city-county cooperation, better and more efficient means to divert non-violent offenders into drug counseling and/or mental health treatment, etc. Given that there were no outside groups that had a stake in this, and given that it was an item on the to do lists for Commissioners Court and the Sheriff, I think what should have happened is that Judge Emmett, Sheriff Garcia, and each of the Commissioners should have kicked in a few bucks from their personal finance accounts to help create a PAC to advertise this referendum. Mayor Parker could contribute, too, since closing the city jails was a key component of this. They could work it out among themselves who gave how much, then they could find a couple of respected folks from the mental health or drug rehab worlds to over see the PAC and design the message. If accomplishing an important piece of local government business requires a vote from the public, then local government leaders need to do more than just put the question before the voters and hope the come back with the right answer. There may be campaign finance issues to be dealt with for something like this to happen, but my bottom line remains the same: No opposition doesn’t equate to automatic approval. Let’s learn that lesson and be happy we didn’t have to learn it the hard way.