Redistricting is not a spectator sport, but the outcome is much more important than most games.
The arduous process usually involves lawyers, math, geography and all the things that might make people tune out of a conversation. But for Fernando Florez, it is the difference between securing fair representation for Hispanics in Fort Worth – and maintaining the status quo. The redistricting process, which occurs every 10 years, has kept his attention since the 1990s.
“We’re a minority-majority city now,” Florez said. “We need a City Council that better reflects the population.”
Florez is a member of Citizens for Independent Redistricting Fort Worth. He said the redistricting process as it stands creates barriers to minorities securing adequate representation.
“I have seen how it is and the top priority is not about fair representation but it’s about city council members typically wanting to create districts where they can get elected,” Florez said.
In addition to a years-long debate about how to draw City Council lines in Fort Worth, there’s also an ongoing debate about where to draw them. People of color say that the lines should be drawn in such a way that they get the representation they’re entitled to while people in the northern part of the city say the lines should reflect the growth there.
Russell “Rusty” Fuller is the president of the North Fort Worth Alliance. He doesn’t dispute that the people of color need sufficient representation. He just has his own interests to look out for, too, he said.
His organization is looking to “maximize the representation for those of us above the loop.” Census data shows that North Fort Worth, the area Fuller represents, has seen up to 75 percent growth
Under current lines, most people above the loop are lumped into a single district (District 7) with two other districts poking out above the loop (2 and 4). Fuller hopes to have two solid districts representing the interests of North Fort Worth, he said.
Meanwhile, despite Hispanics making up 36 percent of the population, the City Council has only one Hispanic member. Florez said getting more Hispanic representation has been a long, frustrating process that has pushed many away from voting in city elections.
“In the Hispanic community, people have just given up. They’ve never had a voice, so they don’t even bother voting,” Florez said. “But that does not negate the fact that they need representation.”
Fuller and Florez agree on a lot, including that the redistricting process has to be transparent. If it is, all should be able to lend their voice to fight for equal representation, they say.
“If we can have a meaningful dialogue on how to redistrict, it will build acceptance,” Fuller said. “That’s always better than the council saying, ‘Here it is!’”
Before the numbers are released
The redistricting process promises to be more transparent in 2021 than it has been in years past. Assistant City Manager Fernando Costa coordinates the redistricting process for Fort Worth. He said improvements in transparency are in motion.
“The council’s resolution establishes the procedures which include preventing backroom deals on redistricting and ensuring that any discussion about changes in the starter map occur at public meetings,” Costa said.
The starter map Costa refers to is the map city staff draws after reviewing maps residents submit. The Redistricting Task Force had recommended use of an “independent contractor” to create a starter map, but the City Council did not adopt that recommendation.
The city uses a software called Esri, which residents can sign up to receive training on. Fuller submitted a map for consideration in 2011. He said the software is fairly easy to use, as it gives users live updates on the total number of population captured in a district as they draw it.
The city has not yet scheduled the training dates for the public.
Along with allowing residents to draw maps, Costa said the council is making other efforts to make the process of redistricting as transparent as possible. He added that, in the past, he said, the City Council has seriously considered resident-drawn maps.
“I think you can say that they do have weight,” Costa said
Before any maps are drawn, communities can register as communities of interest. It’s a way that communities with a common identity can ensure they all end up in one City Council district.
The independent redistricting task force identified preserving communities of interest in a single district as a high-priority to be considered in the redistricting process.
David Howard moved to Stop Six Sunrise Edition in 2009. Last time the City Council went through redistricting Regina Blair submitted a map to be considered by the council. Stop Six is a historically black neighborhood which qualifies as a community of interest.
Preserving his community’s collective identity is essential to making progress toward more jobs and development in his neighborhood, Howard said.
“Those lines could be drawn to hurt us economically,” Howard said. “But the good thing is, if you’re in the community and you’re cognizant of what is taking place and you have your ears to the ground, you can create change by mobilization and effective communication.”
Census numbers are expected to be released by the end of September. From October to November, residents will be able to submit maps for consideration, while city staff reviews the maps and draws their own.
In January, the council will hold a public hearing, select an initial map, and then hold another hearing before any changes are made to the chosen map.
In February and March the council will produce a proposed map. After that, there will be four or more public hearings before the council finalizes the map to use in the 2023 municipal elections.
The numerous opportunities for community input come from complaints Costa said the city received during the past redistricting period when people complained the process wasn’t transparent enough. There was a sense that council members received maps from consultants and community members, went into a back room, and emerged with the new district map.
Some goals that were in place during the past redistricting period are gone this time around. Fuller said in 2012, maps drawn tried to have all districts connect back to the inside of the 820 loop, and council members pushed to have their house remain in the district they currently represent. In 2021, those factors won’t be considered.
“It’s a step forward,” said Bruce Miller, a former TCU physics professor, who is also a member of Citizens for Independent Redistricting Fort Worth and has long critiqued the redistricting process.
An independent commission
Florez and Miller were among those pushing for an independent redistricting commission. The commission was first suggested in 2018 by the Fort Worth Task Force on Race and Culture.
The task force found that “historically there has been a long history of drawing political lines (gerrymandering) to favor one group/party/class of voters over another, or to protect incumbents. Gerrymandering disproportionately affects minority communities, diluting their representation and voting impact.”
The report suggested the council create a Charter Review Task Force to decide if the city should amend the city charter to create an independent redistricting commission. Instead, the council created the Redistricting Task Force with the understanding that no independent redistricting commission would result from the task force.
Five of the 10 members of the task force voted to recommend creating the independent commission anyway, and the council rejected that recommendation. Months later Florez, and others, including the Tarrant County League of Women voters, insist that an independent commission remains the best way to ensure they are accurately represented.
“People want a stronger voice that we haven’t had, and redistricting is a way to make minorities voiceless or have less of an impact,” Florez said. “Minorities are getting tired of this.”
Fuller, though, sees an independent council as offering less accountability. “Council people should be the ones to determine the lines on the map because voters can hold them accountable. An independent commission would be a group of citizens qualified to draw the maps, but they would not be accountable to a group of voters,” he said.
Bruce Miller, who has long advocated for an independent commission, said he thinks council members are not qualified to draw the redistricting maps.
“City Council members really have no background in redistricting,” Miller said. “It’s not their thing.”
Early voting for runoff and City Council elections began this week. The elections could change the makeup of the City Council and renew the possibility of the formation of an independent redistricting commission.
Regardless of who draws the lines, the city’s charter directs the council to vote to approve the final map. Thus, the incoming City Council members will have to get involved in the redistricting process. To do that, council members will hear from the redistricting task force.
“That’s particularly important since there will have been so much turnover on the city council,” Costa said.
The biggest change at City Hall will be the new mayor elected June 5. Both candidates spoke about redistricting during the Historic Southside Neighborhood Association’s virtual forum Saturday.
Candidate Deborah Peoples supported forming an independent redistricting commission, candidate Mattie Parker indicated that she wanted to hear from community leaders about the issue before coming to a final position.
Both Florez and Fuller hope whoever ends up in city council seats and the mayor’s office, citizens will be able to participate in a mapping exercise that, however dull, sharply impacts Fort Worth’s political future.
Editors note: This article was updated Thursday, May 27 with the addition that Florez and Miller, who are mentioned in the article both belong to the group Citizens for Independent Redistricting Fort Worth.