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Jump-starting a Political Engine

Golden years: Mayor-elect Whitmire celebrated her 1981 victory at Montrose's Parade disco.
F. Carter Smith

Nearly 20 years ago Houston's political spotlight swung to the inner-city neighborhoods of Montrose as its premier resident, then-city controller Kathy Whitmire, defeated then-sheriff Jack Heard in a bitter contest for mayor. She ran on a platform of municipal reform embraced by a coalition of the area's gay activists, liberal whites and minority voters.

During that era Montrose produced a string of progressive City Hall politicians, including Lance Lalor, George Greanias and Vince Ryan, all of whom served terms as the councilmember for District C. The area included the Montrose amalgam of bungalows, brownstones, clubs and shops roughly boxed by the Southwest Freeway, Shepherd, Allen Parkway and Main. Lalor and then Greanias later succeeded Whitmire as city controller.

That was the area's zenith of political influence, eventually undercut by redistricting mandated by population changes in the 1990 census. Now, results of the 2000 census are primed to come out this spring, and the expected numbers could create a chain reaction that would restore Montrose to its former status as a progressive engine in city politics.

In 1992 Montrose and its civic leaders were dragged kicking and screaming out of District C, which ran from the inner city in a southwest swath, and deposited in District D to the east. That district has been dominated by African-American voters, with its spiritual center in the black intellectual bastion of the Third Ward. Montrose, instead of producing its own distinctive politicians through district council races, henceforth was reduced to a role as the swing vote that helped decide which black leader held the seat. Mayor Pro Tem Jew Don Boney is the current District D councilmember.

The '92 move was precipitated by a population decline in District D, brought on as residents migrated outward into suburbia. Each of Houston's nine council districts must be roughly equal to one-ninth of the city's total population. So D needed bodies, and they would have to come from neighboring District C. It was only a matter of where.

Some gay activists blamed the move on then-District C incumbent Ryan. He had been opposed the year before by a consensus gay candidate, Annise Parker, whose base was Montrose. Ryan had moved to the suburban quadrant of the district, where his strongest political support was centered. By jettisoning Montrose, Ryan effectively would eliminate a political headache.

Ryan denies personal politics played any role in the drawing of the district lines. He characterizes the decision as a "Hobson's choice" that offered no good option between losing Montrose or splitting away the Westbury area of southwest Houston.

So Montrose went and Westbury stayed. The district became more suburban-dominated, and subsequently elected two councilmembers, Martha Wong and Mark Goldberg, with a distinctly conservative bent.

In the last eight years Montrose has existed uneasily within the District D framework. "It became paired in District D with some rather disparate neighborhoods -- with no historic ties between Montrose activists and neighborhood folks in the rest of the district," explains Parker, who now holds one of the city's five at-large positions. She says its infrastructure needs were also very different.

Ryan empathizes with the feelings of some Montrose leaders that the district no longer got the attention it did as part of C, when its representative was also a resident.

"They had three councilmembers [from C] in a row who were very, very in tune to Montrose," recalls Ryan. "So I think that anybody succeeding us had a difficult situation, to say the least."

City Planner Jerry Wood is awaiting the results of the 2000 census but says early indications are that there will have to be a series of district boundary adjustments. District E, which includes Clear Lake and Kingwood, is expected to have excess population that must be moved westward. The logical district in position to take those voters is D, but it in turn would have to spin off population to its western neighbor, District C.

"So if D has to give up," says Wood, "the question is what does D give up? And that's where the possibility of Montrose arises."

Wood says there are other possibilities where D could reduce population, but one of them is in predominantly black neighborhoods in the city's south and west edges in Fort Bend County. That option would likely be precluded by the federal Voting Rights Act, which prohibits states with a history of racial discrimination from engaging in "retrogression," watering down the ethnic makeup of districts represented by minorities. The same principle would make it unlikely that D could give up voters to H on the north, since that district is a protected Hispanic seat.

Wood says that after the city receives the census figures, planning officials will submit a finding to council that certain districts are imbalanced. That means they are more than 10 percent above or below an average population he estimates at about 180,000 people. Once that's done, there would be public hearings, and planning officials would draw up proposed district lines for a council vote.

"I have to wait for people to make testimony before I can reach any conclusion," explains Wood. "I have to look at the numbers and can't go into it with the expectation of any particular outcome. It may be that some other area in D is transferred rather than Montrose."

Parker predicts a better than 50-50 chance that Montrose will be back in C before the next municipal election.

If redistricting is needed, Ryan favors returning his old neighborhood to his former council district.

"I would hope that if Montrose could go back, C would be a good place for it. There's a lot of community of interest between Montrose and other parts of the district, especially since a lot of the parts of the district are redeveloping just like Montrose."

When it comes time for hearings, Parker expects City Council to get an earful from Montrose leaders.

"They feel that they have more in common with the neighborhoods they used to work with in District C in city politics than the new neighborhoods in District D," says the councilwoman. "They may have been the tail that wagged the dog before, but now they feel that their voices aren't heard in district politics."

Two councilmembers who will have a lot to say are D's Boney and C's Goldberg. Boney is term-limited and cannot run again. As an ally of Mayor Lee Brown's, he might prefer to see C become a more liberal district with the addition of Montrose. After all, Goldberg's affinity for the conservative bloc on council has not exactly endeared him to the mayor and supporters. And Boney, whose base is in the Third Ward, might have more control over naming his successor if the Montrose wild card was dealt elsewhere. The mayor pro tem declined comment through an aide.

Goldberg is the politician with the most to lose in the redistricting shuffle. Having angered the mayor by siding with conservatives on the recent tax rollback vote, he could be an endangered species when it comes time to vote on new district boundaries. He says he'll have to see the entire redistricting plan before taking a position on any of the particulars.

Grant Martin, a veteran fund-raiser and strategist in inner-city politics, predicts that a return of Montrose to C would guarantee the instant emergence of a challenger for Goldberg's seat next year.

"If the Montrose precincts come in, then a progressive candidate from anywhere in C would have a good chance of winning," he figures. "Even more than expecting it, I would try to make that happen."


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