When the movie Urban Cowboy made this refinery town famous in 1980, the honky-tonk Gilley’s was booming and wannabe cowpokes from the white Houston suburbs flocked here to drink and dance. Houston was the big city, but Pasadena was for kicks. Today Pasadena is a mostly working-class Hispanic suburb that looks as hard-ridden in some pockets as the mechanical bull that bucked John Travolta. Gilley’s burned down years ago. Now a federal lawsuit accuses the town’s white council members of leading a discriminatory plan to turn back the clock. Pasadena is preparing to change the makeup of its city council in a way that city leaders hope fosters new development, but that some Hispanics say dilutes their influence. The case could become a test of the Supreme Court ruling last year that struck down most of the federal Voting Rights Act, giving cities in many Southern states new latitude to change election laws affecting minorities without first getting federal approval.
“Clearly it was racism,” Ornaldo Ybarra, one of two Hispanics on Pasadena’s council, said of the planned council changes. The campaign for a new voting system “was meant to scare Anglos, and it was effective,” he said.
In Pasadena, which is roughly 60 percent Hispanic, voters approved a ballot measure that replaces two of the eight council seats, all representing districts, with at-large seats, a move that Hispanic leaders say will negate the clout arising from their growing population numbers. The new format was proposed by the mayor, who is white, in July 2013, one month after the high court decision.
The mayor and supporters counter that the new format will bring more participation by all Pasadena residents because they’ll have more to vote for. They note that other cities, including Houston, have at-large council members.