All over the map
Social justice activists question the fairness of new city council districts
Seattle voters in November passed a proposal to elect city councilmembers by district in a 2-to-1 margin, a slam-dunk.
This means that come 2015, every member of the Seattle City Council is up for re-election. With seven new districts and two at-large seats, this is poised to be a major shake-up for the nine-member body.
What’s unknown is how the change from full at-large representation to city council districts will affect communities of color. Elsewhere, district elections have a reputation among civil rights activists for increasing fairness in elections. Some Seattle community activists say that people of color were not considered when the city’s district map was made.
With the new map, people of color make up the majority of just one district. District 2, which covers southeast Seattle, consists of 77 percent people of color. District 3 in the Central District is the next most racially diverse, where people of color make up just 31 percent of the population.
City districts can often expand the representation of people of color, but this will not be the case in Seattle, said Catherine Moore, chair of the Seattle Human Rights Commission.
“Generally, districts are better for minority representation, but in this particular case, in the way it’s drawn [the map] reduces minority representation,” Moore said.
The new map lumps people of color and poor people into one district, said Adam Glickman-Flora of SEIU Healthcare 775NW, a nursing and homecare staff union.
“People need to understand that poverty and inequality have to be an issue that the whole city tackles and the whole city addresses,” he said. “You can’t leave it to one person in the overwhelmingly poor district.”
Proponents of district elections argue that people of color have a better chance of getting elected now that they can run in smaller districts and reach a smaller number of voters.
“It is an enormous victory for communities of color and poor people,” said John Fox, executive director of the Displacement Coalition and proponent of district elections. “It now quashes away the dominance of corporate and downtown interests.”
Faye Garneau, a North Seattle neighborhood activist who funded the districts proposal and was its primary sponsor, said any candidate who is smart enough will be able get elected.
“The color of their skin, to me, is immaterial. They have brains, and if they want to run for office [district elections] opens the door for them.”
The map’s borders must be adjusted by an appointed commission after the 2020 U.S. Census to make each district close to the same population.
Fox stands behind the district map voters passed in November. He said it was the only one that could surpass two major hurdles: It had to be legal, and it had to be palatable to voters.
Federal and state law require that the maps conform to existing neighborhoods and geographic divisions. The proponents could have crafted a map with nine districts, allowing at least one more district with a majority of people of color, but voters had already rejected those kinds of proposals in the past, Fox said.
“It ain’t easy, I’m telling you,” he said of creating districts.
Richard Morrill, a University of Washington geography professor who helped craft the map, said it is better to create one district with a strong majority of people of color than have two districts with less representation in each.
Catherine Moore, of Seattle Human Rights Commission, disagrees.
“I’m not convinced that it had to be drawn the way it was drawn,” she said.
Moore, former Human Rights Commission chair Chris Stearns and representatives from SEIU 775NW and OneAmerica favored a nine-district map that created three districts south of downtown.
However, such conversations stalled earlier this year, before the map could be finalized. Once it was completed, no one mounted a serious campaign to oppose the district map on the grounds of social justice. A few opponents fought the measure, but for different reasons. They warned that city council members beholden to neighborhoods would raise taxes to pay for neighborhood pet projects.
Opposition was scarce and unfocused. A few social justice organizations encouraged their members to vote no on district elections, but they were too busy with other campaigns, such as the $15-an-hour minimum wage effort, to mount a serious challenge.
“There was a bandwidth issue at the time,” said Rich Stolz, CEO of OneAmerica Votes.
Others were complacent.
“I think that people were very skeptical that it was going to pass,” Moore said. “A lot of people didn’t think it had a chance and just really weren’t paying attention.”
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