Cody Ray Wheeler has a cowboy’s name. It’s a product, he says, of being born the son of a North Texas refinery worker. In some ways it’s emblematic of a changing Texas: Wheeler, who is Hispanic, represents a city council district with a majority-white voting constituency in this Houston suburb. It’s also a name that has put him at the center of a voting rights battle over whether city leaders here pushed changes to the council map to undercut the electoral power of a booming Hispanic majority. “A Hispanic wasn’t supposed to win that seat,” Wheeler said over barbecue on a recent steamy afternoon. He’s convinced his non-Hispanic last name made the difference in his narrow 33-vote margin of victory in 2013. “I could not run as a Hispanic candidate,” he said. “I would’ve lost.”
His victory marked a milestone for a city with a racially acrimonious past. Though most Pasadenans are Hispanic, it was the first time two Hispanics served together on the eight-member council.
Wheeler’s election also brought longtime Mayor Johnny Isbell’s majority on the council down to one vote. Joined by two white city council members who represented majority-Hispanic districts on the north side of town, the two Hispanic members fell into a voting bloc that often pitted them against Isbell and the four council members who represented the southern, mostly white side of Pasadena.
After the 2013 elections, many Pasadenans believed the balance of power was about to shift, with hopes hinging on one of the districts represented by an Isbell ally that was predominantly made up of Hispanic voters. But that summer, the U.S. Supreme Court gutted the portion of the federal Voting Rights Act that had prevented dozens of jurisdictions with a history of discrimination against voters of color — including Texas and its municipalities — from changing their election laws without federal approval.