The Houston City Council in 1979 consisted of eight men – seven Anglos and one African-American – including real estate developers, lawyers and a former major league baseball catcher. All were elected citywide, although five nominally represented geographic districts in which they lived. A year later the council had grown to 14 members, nine of them elected from single-member districts. The revamped body included three African-American men, one Latino man and two women, both Anglo. Some of the members elected under the new system would have a lasting impact on their city. Anthony Hall would serve as chairman of the Metropolitan Transit Authority board and as a top mayoral aide. Eleanor Tinsley would establish a legacy as a champion of parks and beautification efforts. Ben Reyes would become a leader of local Latino politics before serving time in federal prison for bribery. All of this happened because of lawsuits filed under the federal Voting Rights Act. Next week in a Houston federal courtroom, this landmark law will again be invoked in a challenge to an allegedly discriminatory council system, this time in a suburban city that’s undergone a dramatic demographic transformation.
The lawyers involved in the case, Patino v. Pasadena, will face off in an atmosphere of growing anxiety among activists struggling to preserve minority voting rights. Hampered by the Supreme Court’s 2013 invalidation of a key provision of the voting rights law, these advocates face uncertainty created by the election of Donald Trump as president.
“With Trump, you’re certainly not going to have a Justice Department we can go to if you see some (voting) irregularities,” said longtime Houston political consultant Marc Campos. “They’re certainly not going to be a friend we can count on in future litigation.”