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Dallas Strong Mayor Proposal Raises Minority Underrepresentation Fears

By Sujata Dand, KERA Reporter

Dallas Strong Mayor Proposal Raises Minority Underrepresentation Fears

Dallas, TX –

Jerry Christian, President, African American Pastors' Coalition: We stand at the forefront of being the swing vote to make sure the Blackwood proposal is defeated. That's why we're doing what we're doing today, partnering with other organizations to make sure we get a large voter turnout in the African American community.

Sujata Dand, KERA Reporter: Dr. Jerry Christian and the African American Pastors' Coalition are mobilizing their congregations to vote against the strong mayor proposal. They say the plan conflicts with the Federal Voting Rights Act of 1965 because it weakens the current single member district system - a system widely recognized for increasing black and Latino representation on the Dallas city council - a system born out of a federal lawsuit and years of political unrest. 15 years ago, racial tensions in Dallas reached a boiling point. Thousands of African Americans filled the streets protesting their lack of power. 1990 census figures showed minorities had become the majority - almost 30% of Dallas was black, 21% Latino - but the police department and the city council were majority white. Marvin Crenshaw and fellow activist Roy Williams filed a lawsuit seeking to change the way Dallas elected its city leaders. They wanted a plan that divided Dallas into14 single member districts; only the mayor would be elected at large. At the time, the council was made up of 11 members, eight elected from districts and three, including the mayor, who were chosen citywide.

Marvin Crenshaw, Dallas activist: There was no such thing as diversity on the council. The council was basically controlled by the North Dallas bloc. For the African American community, we had two council representatives that would represent the whole southern part of the city.

Dand: Even though Dallas voters rejected 14-1 twice, a federal judge agreed with Crenshaw and approved the plan, aimed at boosting minority representation by creating majority-minority districts. Since 1991, at least six of the 15 council seats have been held by minorities. Dallas political consultant Pat Cotton led the campaign to defeat 14-1 in 1990. Today, some would say she's switched sides as she leads the charge to defeat the strong mayor proposal and retain the strength of 14-1.

Pat Cotton, Dallas political consultant: I think it has had an enormously positive impact in terms of bringing people into decision-making process that would have never gone there before. Now, the other side is a lot of people who aren't really qualified have that opportunity. But, that is what this whole system is all about. They don't ask you to pass a test when you decide to run for office.

Dand: Cotton is against the strong mayor proposal because she believes it weakens the power of all council members, including those who represent North Dallas.

Cotton: I'm thought of as a North Dallas white Republican woman who probably doesn't like minorities very well, and here I am leading this group that is helping minorities get to where they want to go against the wishes of some other white folk.

Dand: Cotton says opponents of 14-1 believed it would create ward politics, in which council members would take care of their own districts to the detriment of the city as a whole. More than a decade later, she hears those sentiments echoed by Dallas attorney Beth Ann Blackwood, author of the strong mayor proposal on May's ballot.

Beth Ann Blackwood, Dallas attorney: It's a structure that's not used by any other city in the United States. There is no other city operating with 14 single member districts under a city manager government. It just doesn't work.

Chris Luna, former Dallas city councilmember: I do think it needs to be tweaked and it needs to be fixed, but you don't go fix a problem with a sledgehammer.

Dand: Chris Luna doesn't support the Blackwood proposal. As the first Latino councilmember from the Oak Lawn area elected after 14-1, he says the current system works. But, he thinks the mayor needs more power, at the very least to hire and fire the city manager.

Luna: When we were pushing for 14-1 in 1990, had we been visionaries, we probably would have tweaked the mayor's duties at that time. Because clearly if you are going to have one person that's elected - only one person elected citywide - he or she probably should have a little more power.

Dand: African Americans are not as quick to give the mayor more power. Some political observers believe that has more to do with the contentious relationship between Mayor Laura Miller and the black community than any proposal for a strong mayor. In a debate on the Glenn Mitchell Show yesterday, Mayor Miller argued the Blackwood proposal preserves 14-1.

Laura Miller, Dallas Mayor: One of the greatest checks and balances is 14-1 system because in the proposal all legislation, all policy and the budget have to be approved by that city council. The mayor can't accomplish anything without working as a team.

Dand: But for those who fought for a more equitable system of government, the memories of being left out of the political process are still strong, and there's fear that under a strong mayor proposal Dallas would return to a city ruled by a wealthy elite. For KERA 90.1, I'm Sujata Dand.


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