If you like Jigsaw Puzzles, You’ll Love City Council Redistricting Politics
By Jeff Siegel
For the past decade, East Dallas and Lakewood neighborhoods have fought vested interests – real estate developers, downtown bankers and government bureaucrats – to ensure the survival of their neighborhoods.
For the most part, the battle was successful. The developers are gone, the bankers are broke, and the bureaucrats are cowed.
But the war may not be over.
East Dallas’ and Lakewood’s newest foe has been introduced as a friend, as a democratic reform instead of the usual dictate from above. But to neighborhood activists, it remains a wolf, not matter how many layers of sheep’s clothing it wears.
What worries neighborhood activists is Dallas’ impending City Council redistricting: any redistricting, be it the court-imposed 14-1 plan or the Council-favored 10-4-1 scheme.
For lost in the rhetoric, controversy and racial strife gripping Dallas is a disquieting truth: Regardless of which plan is adopted, East Dallas and Lakewood almost certainly will suffer.
Under the current 8-3 City Council alignment, most of East Dallas and Lakewood are in one City Council district, something neighborhood activists agree is a blessing.
But under the 14-1 plan, the area bounded by White Rock Lake, North Central Expressway, Mockingbird Lane and Fitzhugh Avenue will be placed into three City Council districts. And although the 10-4-1 plan only splits the area into two single-member districts, it manages to further divide the are into two at-large districts.
“We run the risk, under either plan, of becoming such an insignificant part of a representative’s district that we will be ignored,” says Lou Williams, chairman of the Old East Dallas Coalition.
“Despite our activism, if you are only 10 to 15 percent of a representative’s district, you’re going to be ignored.”
There are hundreds of redistricting horror-stories in East Dallas and Lakewood.
Pick a plan and you’ll find one, whether it involves the 14-1 system (14 single-member districts with the mayor elected at-large) imposed by federal Judge Jerry Buchmeyer, or the 10-4-1 plan (10 single-member districts, four representatives from quadrants and the mayor elected at-large) approved by voters and favored by the City Council.
Under the current 8-3 system (eight single-member districts, with the mayor and two councilmen elected at-large), most of East Dallas and Lakewood are in the Fifth District, with a small portion along Lower Greenville Avenue in the Oaklawn district of Councilwoman Lori Palmer.
But consider these changes under the proposed redistricting plans:
In the 14-1 plan, a four-block stretch of Swiss Avenue winds up in three separate districts – District 112, which forms a U under the Park Cities from the Garland border to the intersection of Lovers Lane and Inwood Road; District 3, which runs from Bachman Lake to I-30; and District 2, which includes part of Oak Cliff, Oak Lawn and Downtown in addition to lower East Dallas.
In the 10-4-1 plan, the Greenville Avenue residents near Henderson Avenue are in the same single-member district, but they are in different quadrant districts.
The 14-1 plan has several examples of districts cutting two- and three- block paths through neighborhoods, such as Vickery Boulevard between North Central Expressway and Greenville Avenue. Two blocks north is District 9, and two blocks south is District 3. The block itself is in District 12.
District E in the 10-4-1 plan, although not as badly gerrymandered as its counterpart in the 14-1 plan, still stretches from Bachman Lake in the west through lower East Dallas to Military Parkway south of I-30 in the east.
“East Dallas is made up of specific neighborhoods, and they don’t go by precinct lines (which were used to draw both redistricting maps),” says Judy Summers, president of the Greater East Dallas Chamber of Commerce.
“We want the communities to stay together as much as possible, and one thing that we fear are these divisions.”
Many neighborhood leaders are afraid that once East Dallas and Lakewood are broken in two, three or four City Council districts, the neighborhoods will lose much of their influence.
For the most part, an important issue in one part of East Dallas or Lakewood – such as the proposed zoning change to eliminate liquor sales along Columbia Avenue – is an important issue throughout the district.
But will a city councilmen whose district includes the industrial parks along the Trinity River and apartment complexes near Bachman lake care – or even know- about Columbia Avenue issues.
Neighborhood activists say problems with parking, police protection or zoning are easier to solve when a city councilman receives phone calls from his district’s dozen neighborhood groups requesting identical action.
If these groups are just another voice in a chorus demanding services, getting action will be that much more difficult.
“Regardless of which plan is adopted, East Dallas as an entity just won’t be well off,” Williams says. “We’ve been divided into sub-communities.”
In a city famous for conspiracy theories, it should come as no surprise that more than a few East Dallas and Lakewood residents are convinced both redistricting plans were part of a plot to punish the neighborhoods for their past independence.
How else, they say, can you explain a couple of district maps that treat the city’s most cohesive neighborhoods as though they were part of the factional fighting in Lebanon?
“I really think there were some hidden agendas early on,” says Steve Mabry, a neighborhood activist and member of the city’s Historic Landmark Commission.
“The conservatives felt they needed to put a wall between themselves in North Dallas and the rest of the city.”
A more likely explanation, Summers says, is that East Dallas and Lakewood were victims of their success.
As one of the city’s few integrated neighborhoods, East Dallas and Lakewood were the palette from which demographics drew paint for their sketching; a little black from here, a little Hispanic or white from there.
In East Dallas and Lakewood, there was more than enough paint to go around, particularly for the strict minority resident requirements of the 14-1 plan.
“I’ve tried to be realistic about all of this, and because of the makeup of East Dallas, that’s just the way it’s going to be,” says former District 5 City Councilman Craig Holcomb, who still considers himself a neighborhood activist.
“The current system is going to have to change, and that’s something we have to face.”
In fact, Holcomb says, the changes might not be as bad as East Dallas residents fear. Holcomb says that East Dallas and Lakewood remain the most organized portions of the city – to the chagrin of many City Council members – and the neighborhoods should be accustomed to adversity.
After all, he says, the area has long been divided between three state legislative districts, but the effects haven’t been disastrous.
“The key will be to maintain alliances between neighborhoods,” Holcomb says. “That’s what they do now in the Lower Greenville area, where they have tried to work with Districts 5 and 2.
“I know I always wanted to try and vote the same way as the District 2 representative, because I knew that’s what my constituents wanted.”
Look at each redistricting map long enough, and a couple of truths emerge.
In one respect, Holcomb is right: Under either plan, East Dallas and Lakewood will have the opportunity to wield their considerable influence in more than one portion of the city.
Says Summers: “The redistricting is not a negative itself. It’s an opportunity for more voices. We’ve always stressed unity among our members.”
And yet it will be hard not to worry the next time you drive down Swiss Avenue and cross three City Council districts in as many minutes – areas where residents have the same concerns about crime, traffic and the like.
“I don’t know what we can do,” Williams says. “We can’t work much harder than we already are.”
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