Political Winds of Change

A new county study predicts an explosive minority population increase

It's a political road map for up-and-coming Houston minority leaders such as City Controller Sylvia Garcia and Councilmen Orlando Sanchez and Gabriel Vasquez. A recently released report predicts that within five years Harris County will be a solid minority majority, and in a decade Hispanics will be nearly equal with Anglos as the largest population segment.

"This is major," says Harris County Tax Assessor-Collector Paul Bettencourt. He commissioned the study as part of a larger $418,000 survey by the Deloitte & Touche accounting firm to guide the planning of customer services by his office. "It's the biggest change in Harris County demographics certainly in the lifetime of anybody that's going to read your piece."

The political implications are huge. They suggest the current all-Republican political bureaucracy may be pre-extinction mastodons in the path of a demographic asteroid.

Dr. Richard Murray, director of the University of Houston Center for Public Policy, and senior researcher Mark Hinnawi authored the report. It documents the rapid rise of the county's Hispanic population from only 6 percent in 1960 to an estimated 28 percent this year. Meanwhile, the black population has remained at 19 percent since 1950, and Anglo percentages dropped steadily from 76 to 46 percent over the same period. Further erosion is likely as white flight continues into surrounding counties.

Black political power in Harris County may have crested, with African-Americans occupying the mayor's office, a county commissioner's seat and a state Senate post. "Hispanics, just by simple virtue of this explosive growth, clearly have a lot more potential," says Murray, "and Anglos, even more than African-Americans, will be fighting to hold some share at the table."

Combined with a growing Asian-American population, the study predicts non-Anglos will constitute 58 percent of the county's 2005 population and 62 percent by 2010. Hispanics and Asians now do not turn out to vote in numbers commensurate with their size, so it would take concentrated voter registration campaigns to realize their potential political power.

Three factors drive the changes, according to the study. The increase in births over deaths was dominated in the past ten years by Hispanics, who had more children per couple than blacks or Anglos. Immigration into the county was also heavily Hispanic, while the main outflow was nearly 100,000 residents, most of them Anglo, moving to developments in surrounding counties.

While Republicans have had success in recent years recruiting upper-income minorities to their ranks, the study indicates the new minority majority will lag far behind Anglos in income and education level. Census figures for the county in 1990 showed white families at twice the income levels of blacks and browns, and substantially more than Asians. More than four times as many blacks and Hispanics fell below the poverty level as whites. The GOP has not appealed in the past to poor constituencies in Harris County.

"The Republican Party in 2010, if it's going to be competitive," says Murray, "is going to have to look a lot different than the Republican Party that two weeks ago rejected an African-American judge and put in an older conservative Anglo."

The five-member Harris County Commissioners Court currently boasts only one minority, Precinct 1 Commissioner El Franco Lee, who is black. By 2005 Hispanics in Jim Fonteno's Precinct 2 are projected to outnumber Anglos by roughly 400,000 to 300,000, with 100,000 blacks as the swing vote. Whoever aspires to be the first Hispanic county commissioner should start planning now.

Political consultant Marc Campos opines that the changing demographics make a race by a Hispanic Democrat for Fonteno's seat "doable." He's concerned that the GOP-dominated commissioners court will seek to stave off that eventuality by redistricting Anglos from adjacent precincts into Precinct 2. He also suspects that Bettencourt, a former GOP party treasurer, commissioned the survey with precisely that motive in mind.

Bettencourt justifies the study as necessary to improve his office operations. With lower-income populations -- people who tend to pay for items such as license tags with cash rather than credit cards -- projected to increase, Bettencourt says, county services will need to be retooled to handle more cash-and-carry customers.

There are also linguistic implications. The study predicts that by 2010 nearly 10 percent of county residents will not be fluent in English or will not speak it at all, and a language other than English will be spoken in a third of the county's homes.

"I know the future's changing," says Bettencourt, "and what this says is how much it's going to changeŠ.America reinvents itself every X number of years, and Harris County is going to reinvent itself in the next ten to 20 years."

To the suggestion that it might prevent him from equaling predecessor Carl Smith's 51 years in office, the GOP tax assessor laughs.

"I don't plan to be here that long."

Stocking Up on Gifts

Harris County Judge Robert Eckels has become the head cheerleader for tougher ethics regulations on county officials and employees, but his latest financial disclosure report raised a few eyebrows.

In the gifts category, the judge reported that former Sports Authority chair Jack Rains, Eckels's old friend and ally, gave Eckels's young daughter Kirby Rae 400 shares of E-Stamp Inc. stock last year. This followed Rains's unsuccessful attempt to retain his Authority chairmanship, a fight in which Eckels backed Rains.

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