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Minority voting strength Holding out for more on Houston’s city council the city’s minorities it must submit the plan to the Justice Department for pre-clearance. In 1977, without consulting Justice, the council annexed dominantly white areas that made the minorities’ voting situation even worse by decreasing their proportions in the expanded city. While the 1973 lawsuit awaits decision on appeal, the department has recently concluded that the city violated the Voting Rights Act by this dubious maneuver. However, the Justice Department may be flaking on requiring single-member districts. In giving the city two choicesestablishing at least some single-member districtsJustice was not requiring that all council members be elected from separate districts. And the department has said approval of the nine-five plan would probably correct the city’s violation of the federal law. \(The city had also drawn up a proposal to retain the current at-large system, but Justice ordered it off the ballot and was backed up by a three judge federal panel in July. Of course, the George Brown, the aging tycoon of Brown & Root, himself testified, in a public hearing before the council, for the retention of the at-large system. The Establishment well understands that its control and access to many plump contracts are at stake in this issue. But the city itself happens to be running out of money just now. Litigation would mean that the Justice Department probably would prohibit the city from holding the bond election it must rely upon to pay its bills and which has already been postponed. The mayor, Jim McConn, whose troubles arising from his gambling losses in Las Vegas have not enhanced his standing with the voters, has been holding out for a plan that minimizes the strength of minorities in single-member districts, while Kathy Whitmire, the controller, has advocated single-member districts and roundly criticized the mayor and council for defending the comfy system of a bygone political era. Ben Reyes is one of the Mexican-American leaders in Texas everyone trusts never to sell out. Mickey Leland, elected to the congressional seat vacated by Barbara Jordan, likewise is a trusted and sophisticated spokesman for the blacks. Neither man composes his rhetoric or his programs on a narrow ethnic foundation. In Houston they have aroused the troops to the importance of the fight as well as they can with both the Houston dailies fuzzing up the issues. In Washington Reyes and Leland have perfected, in the halls of the Justice Department, a one-two punch, the chicano representative coming on first, then the black congressman dancing in with the clinching jabs. The outcome on August 11 is in doubt, but it is quite possible that the nine-five plan will be defeated. If that happens, the coalition headed by the two minorities plans to gather the signatures necessary to hold a November election on the plan they have agreed to support, a 21-member city council with 16 elected from single-member districts and five \(including the R.D. A major change in the Houston city government will be voted on there in an August 11 election. The single issue on the ballot is a city council redistricting scheme that would take a halting step toward more representation for minorities. The city council would be enlarged to 15 members, nine of whom would be elected from single-member neighborhood districts and five Practically no one likes the plan. The Houstonians who agitated for a change in the first place oppose the proposed city charter amendment on grounds that it doesn’t go far enough. The present city council, which would prefer to keep things the way they are, resents having had to draw up the plan as a result of pressure from officials of the U.S. Justice Department, who are themselves merely trying to carry out new responsibilities imposed on them by Congress through 1975 revisions of the Voting Rights Act. About two-fifths of Houston’s citizens are black or brown, but only one blackand not a single Mexican-American sits on the present nine-member council. Judson Robinson is the only black elected to the Houston council in the 20th century, and nary a Mexican-American has been so elected, although politicians from the minorities have been running for the council since 1959. The reason for this situation is simple: the elections are at-large. Each candidate must run citywide and the anglo majority overwhelms the minorities. According to the prevailing estimates, about 650,000 of Houston’s 1.7 million citizens are black or brownabout 25 percent black and 13 percent brown. Although they are now therefore about 38 percent of Houston, a black has 11 percent of the voting power on the council and Mexican-Americans 0 percent. State Rep. Ben Reyes and Congressman Mickey Leland have developed an effective, if fragile, coalition to change this. They are leading the struggle that is now climaxing to establish single-member city council districts. Along with anglo liberals, they have b6en joined on this one issue by Republicans, suburban types from Clear Lake and Alief, and the League of Women Voters. Nevertheless, a tri-ethnic coalition is likely to survive after the matter is settled. For the time being, the allies strongly oppose the nine-five plan in the August election, with all hands holding out for more radical change. A lawsuit to force single-member districts was filed in 1973. Jockeying for arguments to use in the pending trial, the city council presented to the city’s voters, in 1975, a choice on the ballot between continuing to elect all members at large or going to single-member districts. To the council strategists’ surprise, the citizens favored single-member districts 53 percent to 47 percent. Although this was a nonbinding straw vote, it was the only such expression of opinion taken in Houston since the end of World War II which the council did not subsequently implement. Obviously a lot of the council members are fighting to preserve the at-large system without which they will find them selves returned to private life. Under the Voting Rights Act, before a city can make an annexation that has a substantial impact on the voting power of THE TEXAS OBSERVER 9