Fernando Florez is 80 years old and has lived in Fort Worth’s City Council District 9 since the 1960s. The self-described Tejano has never had a council representative who looked like him.
Florez lives in the historically Hispanic South Hemphill Heights area, just a mile west of TCU.
He remembered his neighborhood in the 1980s “was in bad shape; the crime rate: unbelievable.”
He began to believe that the interests of the Hispanic Southside were being overshadowed by the majority white wealthy neighborhoods surrounding TCU in District 9, where streets were safer.
“A few precincts down there in Tanglewood were winning the election,” Florez said of city council elections in the early ‘90s. “Hispanics didn’t have a voice. We didn’t matter.”
The concerns of Florez and others who feel they have been cut out of the democratic process take on renewed weight as Fort Worth prepares to redraw its city council district lines, as is done every 10 years following the census. The process takes on added importance - and the potential for different problems - this cycle, as Fort Worth will add two city council districts to account for growth, for a total of 10 districts.
Redistricting, nationally and in Texas, has a history of being discriminatory, going back to the days of segregation. Minority populations were split to dilute their voting power or clumped in a few districts to provide limited representation. Protecting the seats of incumbents can take precedence over ensuring equitable minority representation.
Fort Worth is trying to involve more citizens in the redistricting process this time in the interest of making the process more transparent. But, as of now, the council will draw and approve the final map, though some residents say forming an independent commission would remove politics from the equation.
Those who favor an independent redistricting process are particularly concerned about Hispanic representation. Hispanics make up around 35 percent of the city’s population, but District 2, which takes in the city’s majority Hispanic Northside, has been the only council district to have a Hispanic representative.
Black representation has been a sign of hope for some that things are changing. Making up around 19 percent of the population, there are three Black council members. But their representation isn’t guaranteed; advocates are concerned it could change if redistricting isn’t done mindfully.
Demographics by council districts
Map shows Fort Worth's city council districts shaded by each district's predominant race/ethnicity. Blue is white, red is Hispanic/Latino and green is black. Tap the different districts for population, income, race/ethnicity, and language spoken at home. Data is from the City of Fort Worth's Demographic reports from mySidewalk, using US Census ACS 5-year (2015-2019) data.
Redistricting is ‘the most important thing’
When people see themselves represented in local government, it can increase the likelihood that they’ll be more involved in government in general, said UNT political science professor Andrea Silva.
“We need people that are invested, especially people that have been historically marginalized,” Silva said.
Michael Li, a redistricting expert with NYU’s Brennan Center for Justice, said the more people of color are equitably represented, the more likely it is that government can better represent the city it serves.
“Drawing districts that reflect how people see their communities results in a representative who is more effective at doing those kinds of constituent services,” Li said.
But it can sometimes be a challenge to get people involved.
“Redistricting is so boring,” said Silva. But it’s also “the most important thing that we can talk about to ensure equity and equality to get to good representation.”
The city has been trying to involve residents in the process and keep minority representation in mind. It formed a redistricting task force that was tasked with defining criteria for this year’s map-drawing to protect district lines from being drawn unfairly. The city has invited residents to try their hands at drawing maps and has hosted training sessions on the necessary software.
The task force’s efforts show an emphasis on ensuring equitable minority representation. High priorities set by the task force include not allowing the packing of minority populations into one district or splitting them in a way to dilute voting strength; protecting a delineation called “communities of interest,” or people with similar interests, income levels or other characteristics; and taking care to create districts in which minority voters can control the outcome.
But the city’s efforts have still faced criticism.
The mapping software is complex for the average person, and many who are most interested in redistricting are unfamiliar with technology. No one is sure how the council will factor maps submitted by residents into the final product, if at all. And those who participate must submit a map for the entire city, not just the area they live in.
“If I draw a map of the entire city, well, I know my neighborhood, but ... I don’t know what their concerns over on the east part of town are,” said Byrwec Ellison, who is an advocate for an independent redistricting commission.
Based on feedback from the initial round of redistricting software training this summer, city staff is encouraging citizens to collaborate on their maps. The city will have more training next month that pairs residents with staff or volunteers who are more comfortable with technology.
History of discrimination
Despite criticism, the openness of city’s efforts are a long way away from how the city operated before 1975.
Minority city council representation was unheard of before Dr. Edward Guinn made history as the first Black councilman in 1967.
In the ‘60s and early ‘70s, “Black people were still living in segregated conditions, so being discriminated against in terms of representation was not an acceptable thing but it was part of the norm,” said Bob Ray Sanders, communications director of the Fort Worth Metropolitan Black Chamber of Commerce and former associate editor/columnist at the Star-Telegram.
Until 1975, the Fort Worth City Council was elected at-large, meaning the candidates with the largest number of popular votes from across the city became council members. Electing minorities under these conditions was nearly impossible, Sanders said.
There just weren’t enough Black and Latino voters to get minority representatives on the council. Guinn wouldn’t have been elected without the support of established businesses on Seventh Street, Sanders said.
Once the city charter was changed to elect council members in single-member districts, Black residents historically had at least one and often two representatives.
Remnants of gerrymandering
But some remnants of discrimination remain. Community leaders, researchers and independent redistricting advocates suspect that several of Fort Worth’s city council districts have been subject to gerrymandering, or redistricting done in favor of protecting political interests.
In the ‘90s, District 2 stretched up much farther north, incorporating Alliance airport and the white neighborhoods surrounding it and minimizing the voice of the Hispanic Northside, said TCC professor Peter Martinez. But now the district is concentrated in the northwest part of the city and doesn’t stretch as far north. It’s between I-35 and Jacksboro Highway and includes majority Hispanic and Spanish-speaking neighborhoods such as Diamond Hill and the Historic Northside and Meacham Airport area.
Martinez has studied the effects of redistricting on Latino representation in Fort Worth. He said District 9, where Fernando Florez lives, is another that might be a district “cracked” to minimize Latino representation. Cracking occurs when minority populations are split so their voting power is diluted by other demographic groups, and it can factor in voting patterns, not just population totals.
For instance, Latino people make up nearly 57% of the district’s population and white people make up less than 35%, but historically low turnout of Hispanic voters has contributed to the pattern of white representation in city elections, which typically draw a low turnout overall.
But Martinez also said it’s difficult to prove that a district like District 9 has been gerrymandered because majority Hispanic areas are so close geographically to the wealthier areas near TCU.
Some, such as redistricting task force chair Lorraine Miller, have also said that the significantly Black districts 5 and 8 could be “packed” districts, meaning minority groups are accumulated into one district to minimize their influence across multiple districts.
“In the case of Fort Worth and probably a lot of southern cities, African American parts of town or communities are well entrenched because of restrictive housing covenants from decades ago that the influence still lingers,” Martinez said. “So it’s pretty easy to draw those districts for African American representation ... but you probably couldn’t draw many other districts and have African American representation.”
Shifts in demographics in recent decades have challenged such influences as areas across the city are getting less segregated.
Representation for people of color
Martinez said some still fear that drawing lines in favor of a minority group might not translate to a seat, particularly because of Latinos’ history with low voter turnout.
“The idea is to have more representation for Latinos, more representation for people of color, and you may wind up having more of a representation for the Anglos, instead,” said Martinez.
District 9 is evidence of that. Wealthier white areas of the district had higher voter turnout in the city elections this year generally than historically Hispanic areas. For instance, the majority white Park Hill precinct had a nearly 44% voter turnout while only 6% of eligible voters in the majority Hispanic Worth Heights area made it to the polls.
Hispanics had no council representation for 12 years, after Jim Lane took over District 2 from Carlos Puente in 1993. He stayed until 2005 before Sal Espino became the district’s councilman.
“To some of them, it’s not really about having a Latino in the council as much as it’s having somebody who represents the Latino community,” Martinez said.
Martinez said he thinks it’s likely that Latinos will get at least a second seat on the council in the next election or, while less likely, even a third.
Call for an independent commission
Some advocates say the most secure path toward equitable representation is redistricting done independently, as cities and states like Austin, Hawaii and Colorado have done.
Citizens for Independent Redistricting, of which Fernando Florez and Byrwec Ellison are members, has been vocal in the effort to bring a version of an independent commission to Fort Worth. The group last advocated for it at an Aug. 10 city council meeting.
Because the city initially denied forming a commission in 2019, the group has adapted its request to form a “hybrid” independent redistricting commission. It would be made up of representatives from across the city and would be formed independent from the council to draw district maps. But the council would still have final approval over the maps.
Assistant city manager Fernando Costa said the council could still implement this hybrid option if it chooses at a Sept. 14 council meeting. The current schedule calls for the council to have a final map completed in April 2022 to give potential candidates ample time to establish their residency in a particular district before the 2023 election.
Kenneth Jones, a pastor at Como Missionary Baptist Church, has been outspoken about the importance of an independent commission. Since four council members and the mayor were newly elected this spring, he said, they weren’t there to reject a commission in 2019.
“Where do we most want our elected officials spending their time?” he said. “You have now more educated, more trained people in redistricting that are citizens of Fort Worth, than you have that’s on the council right now.”
Not everyone is sure an independent commission would be a solution though, including Miller, the redistricting task force chair.
She said she’s heard of similar groups that are established only to be corrupted and lose sight of their mission.
She added, “I don’t know what the solution is.”
Li, the redistricting expert at NYU’s Brennan Center for Justice, said citizen involvement in the redistricting process is important.
“You get maps that have more democratic legitimacy,” he said.