Friday, July 6, 2012

Race and Representation in Takoma Park

The Montgomery County Gazette reported, in the June 27, 2012 article "Filling the minority void in municipal government," on the noticeable lack of minority representation on the Takoma Park City Council. The article was fair and timely but missed important nuance. I'll aim to fill in gaps and offer more complete analysis of ideas and initiatives that would promote minority inclusion.

Diversity and inclusion

The community is aware of the council-diversity challenge. The situation is actually both better and worse than the Gazette described. The council has long had one or two gay or lesbian members -- Mayor Bruce Williams, who joined the council in 1993, is Maryland's first openly gay elected official -- and I project that Ward 5 will elect Jarrett Smith to the council on July 17 (for reasons other than his race, as I'll explain below), changing the council's racial make-up. Yet the distribution of councilmember ages is skewed (which doesn't worry me so much) and only one of the current six is a woman (which is definitely worrisome).

We can and will redress the imbalance, but not solely by focusing on council representation. We need to encourage broad engagement and inclusion, in lower levels of city government and also in non-governmental neighborhood activities and interactions. After all, engaged neighbors enrich the community, and they become community leaders and then council candidates, as local experience shows. We are so fortunate that local groups such as Takoma United, the Takoma Park Community Action Group, and the Takoma Foundation have stepped forward to promote engagement, along with worthy projects such as CHEER (Community Health and Empowerment Through Education and Research). The best part is that these groups have shown that community betterment can be FUN! Ask the hundred or so folks who attended a June 23 Community Potluck and Dance, sponsored by a coalition of local groups and organized by Takoma United for an Engaged Community.

Stepping stones to council candidacies

Local activities, and also participation on city-government committees and neighborhood and tenant associations, serve as a stepping-stone to council candidacies. Witness: The three individuals first elected to the Takoma Park City Council in November 2011, Kay Daniels-Cohen, Tim Male, and myself, earlier served on total of ten city committees, and two of us were neighborhood-association presidents. Not incidentally, the candidate likely to win the up-coming race for the vacant Ward 5 council seat, Jarrett Smith, has served ten years on the city's Commission on Landlord-Tenant Affairs, six as chair, and also served on the city's Washington Adventist Hospital Land-Use Committee. His rivals have no record of city service, and that's the primary reason, I believe, Jarrett will win on July 17.

Takoma Park is fortunate that many dozens of residents volunteer to serve on city boards, commissions, and committees. Unfortunately, many committees lack minority participation. The city publicizes vacancies -- there are a number currently; please consider serving! -- and council and committee members recruit to fill them, but are there new, unconventional ways to encourage greater city-committee participation? Yes, of course there are. How about if we consider paying a stipend to committee members, say $25 for each meeting attended? Payments would sum to $300/year for a member who attends monthly meetings. I'd guesstimate the overall yearly cost, across committees, at $20-40 thousand plus administrative costs. The city can afford that amount. We could try payments for one year as an experiment.

The city could similarly pay a stipend to officers of neighborhood and tenant associations -- contingent on the associations' meeting certain membership and activity goals -- and could subsidize association start-up, operational, and activity costs.

City committees and associations are important in themselves, and they serve as a feeder system for elected office, so let's get more people more involved. How else could we encourage council candidacies? Campaign costs are sometimes seen as an obstacle to running for office. Public campaign finance would level the playing field for candidates who lack financial resources. It's another approach we could explore.

But not every proposal has equal promise.

Would choice voting help?

Rob Ritchie and FairVote advocate that Takoma Park move to three at-large and three ward-elected council seats. Putting aside voting-rights questions -- my understanding is that Takoma Park moved from an all at-large council to a ward system to address concerns about minority representation -- what has local experience with multi-member districts been? At-large races covering Takoma Park, Long Branch, and Silver Spring have elected only two non-white candidates in decades!

Consider Maryland legislative district 20, which was 48.27% minority when boundaries were redrawn in 1992. D20 elects three members of the House of Delegates, yet our delegation has been all-white at least since 1975 (and perhaps always), with the exception of one term served by Gareth Murray, who was the product of 2002 machine politics designed to unseat former Delegate Dana Dembrow and block Green Party candidate Linda Schade from taking the seat.

Further consider the Montgomery County Council, which has had four at-large seats since 1986. Only one non-white candidate has won an at-large seat. All four seats have been held by non-white council members since 2002, when Ike Leggett was elected county executive.

Were voters forced to prioritize a single candidate in a multi-seat race, per a choice-voting set-up, would the outcome likely be different? Local experience does not support such a claim. Nonetheless, I'm quite happy to hear FairVote's arguments. I've been working with Rob to help others hear them as well and have suggested that FairVote pursue a Takoma Park ballot referendum. The process would first determine whether a threshold of voters see the proposal as attractive enough for a vote. If the proposal makes it to the ballot, voters will have an opportunity to weigh in on this proposed, significant electoral-system change.

Holding a mirror up to the Gazette

But one more point: Getting information out helps. The thought that an informed public is essential to democracy dates to James Madison, if not earlier. The Takoma Park city newsletter is mailed to all residents, and all city wards have neighborhood e-mail lists, even if some are more active than others.

The Gazette newspaper, however, redlines two of the city's wards.

The Gazette doesn't deliver to the New Hampshire Gardens neighborhood or the apartment buildings on New Hampshire Avenue, in the Takoma-Langley Crossroads area, in Ward 6, nor to the neighborhoods bounded by Flower Avenue and Sligo Creek Parkway in Ward 5. These are heavily minority neighborhoods. City council members and local activists will do what we can to spur minority inclusion and representation. I'd like to see the Gazette's non-delivery policy, which discriminates against an underrepresented segment of the population, change as well.