Expert Q&A: Drawing city lines with Eliot Tretter

Last November, Austin voters approved the election of city council members from 10 geographic single-member districts, in an amendment known as “Proposition 3,” or “10-1.” Longhorn Life spoke to Dr. Eliot Tretter, a lecturer in the department of geography and the environment in the College of Liberal Arts, about what this redistricting will mean for students, locals and the city as a whole.

Longhorn Life: What is Austin’s history of geographic division?

Eliot Tretter: In the 1980s, Austin was driven by local politics. Now, the state government is a huge driver in Austin; citizens may want something and receive something completely different. There is a limited effect of what the local government can deliver [due to state government limitations]. When institutions and reforms don’t deliver, Austinites end up more disenfranchised and disappointed. 


LL: What is the history of Austin’s political system?

ET: The history taints so much of the present. Positions six and seven are here because a black candidate almost won a seat, and the council realized they had to give a position to a black guy so they wouldn’t dilute white rule as a consequence. Moreover, the council created a brown and black space to change the at-large system. It has everything to do with blacks in East Austin turning out in big numbers [during elections], and having legitimate power to change the system. Look back and imagine West Austin power in the 80s driven by business leaders and the real estate council. More representation will lead to equality in social services.


LL: How will redistricting affect the City of Austin politically?

ET: That’s a complicated question, but my sense is that it will potentially lead to people who self-identify on the council. Since business leaders dominate the council, it is impossible for minority candidates to be elected. If you look at the demographic data, the Latino population has increased, but only one person, Mike Martinez, identifies with the group. Skepticism of the redistricting plan stems from politics in the 1980s. Redistricting will diminish power in neighborhood council and change political configuration. 


LL: How will redistricting represent historically underrepresented groups?

ET: The interior of Austin is becoming whiter, but the region is becoming browner because of an Asian and Latin American increase. Redistricting will change the geographic makeup of the region. The percentage of the population is small, but it’s driven by demographics and it is driving political change. Austin is a minority city of nonwhite persons, Hispanic, Asians and others. Trying to accommodate  certain people’s claims will end up with more voices, but may not end up with minority voices. There will be more seats on the Austin City Council to gain political power. An increase in minority representation and a decrease in business power equal more members of council. There will be a slight increase in tangible and different politics. One problem with running a political campaign is money across space; the capacity to campaign, organize voters and control levels of economic power. 


LL: What do you think about UT having the opportunity to represent themselves in Austin’s shift to geographic representation?

ET: It’s an interesting and complicated case. Student enrollment peaked in 1975 and leveled off. Most students reside in West Campus or dorms and since they were unable to build more housing, the university proposed a shuttle system. The shuttle system was a deconcentration of student population with the desire to reconcentrate. In the past, the council didn’t want students at UT voting for Lloyd Doggett, primarily, and there was an attack on student voting rights. Students made a pretty significant impact, and it proved that students have influence on whoever is in the district. I have no idea how 10-1 will help students, but students have proven that  they are able to unify behind one single candidate and mobilize across different places.