The city of Irving, Texas, has long been known as a genteel white suburb—fed first by white flight from nearby Dallas and later by the arrival of headquarters for international corporations such as Exxon Mobil Corp. It’s also known as the home of the Dallas Cowboys. Driving into Irving from the east, you’re greeted by the town’s most recognizable building: white-domed Texas Stadium, with its iconic hole in the roof under which the Cowboys played home games for 37 years.
But Irving is changing fast. The Cowboys have decamped to Arlington—30 minutes to the southwest—where they’ll play in a new stadium this fall. Texas Stadium will be demolished. More significantly, Irving—like many suburbs, and most of Texas for that matter—is becoming much less white. According to the latest Census Bureau figures, in 2007 Latinos made up about 41 percent of Irving’s population.
Latino families have been moving to Irving for the same reasons as Anglos: affordable housing, quality of life, low crime, good schools. The city’s makeup has changed at a stunning pace. In the 1980 census, Irving was 93-percent white. Latinos are now the biggest group, and Anglos the minority. Many expect the 2010 census to put the Latino population at more than 50 percent.
You don’t need the census figures to see Irving’s changing demographics. Just wander around town. Many restaurant signs and billboards are in Spanish. Even at the Barnes & Noble inside the Irving Mall—a place you might expect to find teeming with white folks—there is a large section of Spanish books. At the Starbucks across the street, customers on a recent Friday morning were ordering lattes en Español.
Yet one place in Irving remains unchanged—city hall. Anglos make up 35 percent of the population, but the mayor and all eight City Council members are white.
Those officials, and the sliver of the population that elects them, are clinging to power. The city has tried to stem the influx of Latinos with tough-on-the-poor housing policies and zero-tolerance of undocumented immigrants. The white elite has maintained control with an election system that makes it nearly impossible for a Latino or African-American candidate—or any outsider—to win elected office, and the city has rebuffed numerous attempts to alter the system.
That impasse may be ending, thanks largely to a 68-year-old, retired aircraft mechanic named Manny Benavidez. A longtime Irving resident, Benavidez has twice run for the school board and lost. In Irving, city officials are elected through at-large, citywide voting. Though each council and school board member represents a certain section of town, all are elected citywide. Many large cities in Texas and across the country allow voters in each district to elect their representatives. Single-member districts have proved successful as a way for African-American and Latino neighborhoods to elect minority candidates. Not in Irving, though, at least not yet.
Benavidez, along with many Latino community leaders, believes the voting system is unfair. So he found a bulldog Dallas attorney and, in November 2007, sued Irving in federal court, claiming that the city’s at-large voting system is discriminatory and violates the 1965 Voting Rights Act.
On July 15, a federal district judge in Dallas agreed with Benavidez, ruling that Irving’s system had illegally barred minorities from winning city elections. The court forbade the city from holding another City Council election until it institutes single-member districts.
“The voting system was obviously pernicious,” says Bill Brewer, the Dallas attorney who argued Benavidez’s case. “It was designed to exclude minorities from local government.”
Whether or not it was designed to keep minorities out of power, there’s no denying that has been the effect. Only one African-American has ever served on the Irving City Council, though the city of more than 200,000 is about 12 percent African-American. One former council member was half-Latino, though he didn’t have a Latino name and didn’t identify with that community. The seven-member school board historically has been all-white, although it’s had slightly more diversity than the council: Two African-Americans were elected recently. No Latinos currently serve on the school board.
Some are holding on to the status quo. The City Council voted in early August to appeal the federal court order to the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals, even as city leaders negotiate with Brewer to settle the lawsuit and compromise on some form of single-member district system. (The key point of dispute: Brewer and Benavidez want the entire City Council elected by districts; some city leaders, including the mayor, have proposed hybrid plans featuring from three to five seats from single-member districts, with the rest elected at-large.) Meanwhile, the city is seeking to reverse the court-ordered ban on elections so that Irving can hold campaigns while it appeals the lower-court ruling and negotiates with the plaintiffs.
Whether Irving agrees to single-member districts or is dragged to them by the courts will set a precedent for other cities across Texas and the Southwest. As Texas becomes a majority-Latino state, many formerly white suburbs—places like The Woodlands, SugarLand, Plano, Farmers Branch—are becoming increasingly diverse. Like Irving, those cities will have to decide how or whether to bring minority leaders into a historically white power structure. The issue will become especially urgent after the 2010 census reveals how many Latinos live in these places.
Latino civil rights activists are already talking about the Irving case as a road map for other suburbs to adopt single-member districts. If Irving, despite its resistance, is forced to accept them, other communities might institute them voluntarily rather than endure a long court battle.
“Irving is in transition. It’s no longer a white suburb. It’s a big difference for a lot of the original citizens of Irving,” says Al Zapanta. He heads the Irving-based United States-Mexico Chamber of Commerce, comprising major U.S. and Mexican companies. Zapanta straddles the debate. As a Latino, he wants to see at least some single-member districts in the city. He also has ties to the business community and says he doesn’t want to see all city leaders elected that way. He would prefer a 6-3 hybrid system in which six council members are elected from single-member districts. Most of all, he wants the city to settle the dispute out of court and institute a system that grants Latinos and African-Americans some representation at city hall. “Irving is the bellwether city in Texas,” he says. “If we do it right, it’ll help other cities in Texas make the transition.”
The lone Irving City Councillor with Latino roots was James Dickens, who had one Hispanic parent. Elected in 1999, he represented a district in south Irving that is at least 50-percent Latino, but he wasn’t exactly a vocal leader for Latinos. Dickens never publicly discussed his Hispanic heritage, and because of his name, many Irving residents didn’t know he was Latino.
In 2007, a conservative named Tom Spink—angered by city leaders’ failure to keep the Cowboys in town—challenged Dickens. Spink ran on an anti-immigration platform, espousing zero-tolerance and deportation of undocumented immigrants, and won handily. During the campaign, Spink said Irving had become a “sanctuary city.” The fact that an anti-immigration zealot like Spink now represents a district that’s majority Latino symbolizes, for many, the problems with Irving’s voting system.
Spink is a polite, soft-spoken man of 70. He lives in a sprawling ranch house on a mostly Anglo block with his wife and four golden retrievers. Immigration is no longer his top issue. He says Irving has made huge progress on that front. In 2007, after Spink’s election, the city instituted one the nation’s toughest immigration policies. Undocumented individuals detained by Irving police are turned over to the federal immigration service for deportation. At first, Irving was deporting hundreds of Latino immigrants a month, which led to angry demonstrations in 2007 and accusations from Latino leaders of racial profiling. The controversy has died down (along with the number of deportations), but it fueled the perception among some Latinos that a white majority was trying to hold on to power. Spink says the program has been a success and cites the city’s falling crime rate as evidence (crime has dropped 7 percent in each of the past two years). His new top issues are fighting nationalized health care—”I’ve got a lot to say about that,” he says ruefully—and supporting Gov. Rick Perry’s re-election.
Asked about single-member districts, Spink shrugs. He has no problem with the idea, he says, if that’s what people want. He says he voted to appeal the federal court’s ruling because, like other council members, he doesn’t feel the city did anything illegal. While he’s fine with a few single-member districts, he doesn’t want to see the entire council elected that way, as it is in Dallas.
This is a common refrain among those opposed to single member districts. Some in Irving look at places like Dallas, Los Angeles and Chicago, and see what they don’t want to become—Democrat-run, disorganized, corrupt cities. After all, Irving began as a place for white people to escape that kind of city.
Spink, like many in Irving, speaks carefully about the issue. Race is always a sensitive subject, even more so when federal courts and the media are watching. But when white residents who oppose single-member districts talk about not wanting to become “like Dallas,” it’s hard for minority leaders not to suspect that racial code is being spoken. Whatever their problems, those big cities are places where many minority politicians have been elected.
Supporters of single-member districts dismiss the Dallas comparison. The dysfunction in Dallas or Los Angeles or any city isn’t related to single-member districts, they say. It’s a symptom of big-city politics and large city councils (Dallas has 14 members). They point out that cities such as Arlington and Grand Prairie have gone to single-member districts without any trouble.
Quite a few Anglos now see single-member districts as inevitable. Joe Putnam, who served on Irving’s City Council for 13 years and mayor from 1999 to 2005, has urged former colleagues to scrap the at-large voting system. “They didn’t listen to me,” he says. “They’re people who benefit from the present system in one way or another, and so they simply can’t envision a change from the status quo. The truth is that change occurs anyway, and people will accept it. … The town has outgrown the at-large system.”
Still, proponents of single-member districts have been rebuffed numerous times. As early as the 1970s, there were ballot initiatives for single-member districts. Since Benavidez filed his lawsuit, city leaders have fought it vigorously at every step.
Minority candidates have trouble winning under the current system for two main reasons. Although Latinos make up more than 40 percent of the population, many aren’t citizens and can’t vote. Moreover, many who can vote don’t. The majority of people who vote citywide are Anglos. The second problem is money. Running a citywide campaign costs more than a single-district campaign. For a minority candidate who isn’t well known to white residents, it’s hard to raise enough money to introduce yourself.
In 2003, Rene Castilla, who works at a local college and chairs a city advisory committee, ran for an open City Council seat. He had once served on the Dallas school board and thought he could break the color barrier in Irving. Castilla was seen as an outsider. He had come from Dallas to a town that views all things Dallas with suspicion (except the professional football franchise that bears its name). He was Latino, and he wasn’t well known by the city’s insiders. He had no name identification with voters and found it hard to raise enough money. On election day, he was defeated by a better-known, white candidate.
Castilla sees a system that has locked out most minority candidates and created a leadership elected by a small, like-minded slice of voters. Irving City Council members hardly ever hold town hall meetings, community clean-up days, or outreach events seen in cities with single-member districts. “They operate more like a corporate board,” Castilla says. “They make their decisions, and they give reports to the stockholders once in a while.”
That closed political culture has led to strict housing policies that could limit the number of Latino families in Irving. City officials have also cracked down on code enforcement at apartment complexes, even condemning several low-income apartment buildings. The reduced low-income housing stock has forced some families out of Irving, Latino community leaders say.
The man caught in the middle of all these tensions is Mayor Herbert Gears. He has worked with a nonprofit that helps immigrants earn their GED and find jobs, and he came into office making friendly overtures to the Latino community. But his political future depends on appeasing the Anglo electorate.
During an interview in his office, Gears says he supported the city’s legal appeal to “keep our options open.” He hopes the city will reach a deal with Brewer and Benavidez in the next few weeks. He wants Irving to resolve the single-member district issue without further litigation and to set an example for other Texas cities.
Brewer, the Dallas attorney, says that after the 2010 census, many communities will have to redo their election systems to allow the elections of more minorities to office, or face lawsuits. He hopes the Irving case will prompt other communities to “hopefully change their system voluntarily to allow our new friends and neighbors to participate in municipal elections.”
If Irving—the once 93-percent white town that hosted America’s Team—can change, it can happen anywhere.
Read more Dave Mann in “The Contrarian“.