A re-election rally held today for City Council member Mike Martinez focused on the long debated Gentlemen’s Agreement. For decades, that unwritten, unenforceable agreement among Austin’s political players has stipulated that two seats on the City Council be reserved for one black member and one Hispanic member.
Martinez is one of four council members up for re-election in May; although neither Martinez or his surrogates mentioned his opposition in Place 2 by name, the incumbent is being challenged by Laura Pressley, an Anglo woman. Place 2 incumbent Sheryl Cole, the council member serving in the African-American seat “reserved” under the Gentlemen’s Agreement, is also being challenged by an Anglo candidate, Shaun Ireland.
“My message is clear,” Martinez told the press. “Austinites deserve Hispanic representation and African-American representation. Both of us, as incumbents, are facing challengers who are not a part of that community.”
Martinez says it is time to move away from the agreement and have single member districts. But former Austin Mayor Gus Garcia said until that happens, the Place 2 seat on the City Council – currently held by Martinez – needs to remain Hispanic.
“Probably single member districts would work better, but since we don’t have that particular provision in the charter, this gentlemen’s agreement is a good substitute,” said Garcia.
According to Garcia, the agreement dates back to 1971 when the city had its first African-American council member. The first Hispanic council member was elected in 1975.
The City Council appointed the Charter Revision Committee look at the issue of single member districts. That task force made their final recommendations in February. One proposed plan would divide Austin into 10 districts, with the mayor the only official voted on at-large. The council is considering a separate hybrid system of district-based seats combined with at-large seats.
Martinez said that any change to the city charter regarding representation needs to ensure minority participation at City Hall. A change to single member districts would require the approval of Austin voters in a November vote, but that has not yet been placed on the ballot.
“I think we need to evolve into a community agreement that says we will still fight for and maintain representation from all parts of our community, including Asian-Americans, including African-Americans, and Hispanics,” Martinez said.