By Jon Cassidy | Watchdog.org
BEAUMONT – The Department of Justice is blocking a voter-approved plan to convert the board of the Beaumont Independent School District from a system of seven geographic districts to one with five districts and two at-large seats.
Yet local Latinos say that it’s the Justice Department that’s doing the disenfranchising by insisting on a system that excludes a growing minority group.
In the 2000 census, the city of Beaumont was just 7.9 percent Latino. By 2010, the overlapping school district was 14.7 percent Latino, 45.8 percent black, and 35.3 percent white, according to the Department of Justice.
With 14.7 percent of the population, Latinos have the raw numbers to elect at least one representative to the district’s seven-member board, if their voting strength could be concentrated in one district.
Yet the new district maps the school board is working on do the opposite, spreading Latinos through all seven districts, at no greater density than 19.8 percent of the population in any one district.
That’s the sort of thing that the Department of Justice has consistently fought to prevent, at least since the 1973 Supreme Court case of White v. Regester, which overturned multi-member districts drawn to dilute minority voting strength.
It’s not entirely the board’s fault. The district’s mapmaker, attorney Chad Dunn, told the board Tuesday that Latinos are spread across the city. One activist agreed, saying the best Latinos could do would be 32 percent of a district.
That’s why some community members who spoke at the meeting Tuesday would like to see the five districts and two at-large seats system enacted. They say they have their best chance at representation by winning an at-large seat.
Resident Raul Garcia criticized the board’s unwillingness to recognize a growing minority.
“These are the same arguments that were used prior to 1965 against the blacks,” Garcia said. “What surprises me is that those who have benefited from that have gerrymandered the districts to make it impossible for Hispanics to get elected.”
Garcia was referring to the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which the Justice Department has enforced for decades to keep white majorities from excluding sizable black populations from boards and councils. It does this, in large part, by insisting on majority-minority districts rather than at-large seats.
In a Dec. 21, 2012, letter to the school district, Assistant Attorney General Thomas E. Perez blocked the switch to the five districts and two at-large members on the grounds that it would “preclude African American voters from electing a candidate of choice” to one of the two at-large seats, despite their majority.
Perez was obliged by Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act, he wrote, to ensure that electoral “changes ‘neither (have) the purpose nor will have the effect’ of denying or abridging the right to vote on account of race color or membership in (sic) language minority group. … The voting changes at issue must be measured against the benchmark practice to determine whether they would ‘lead to a retrogression in the position of racial minorities with respect to their effective exercise of the electoral franchise.’”
In a scathing March audit of Perez’s administration of the Civil Rights Division, the Justice Department’s own inspector general wrote that the “Division’s current leadership has stated that it interprets the ‘retrogressive effect’ test under Section 5 not to be applicable to White voters who are in the numerical minority in a particular jurisdiction. … In addition, according to Perez, applying Section 5’s retrogressive-effect protections to White citizens would create ‘dramatic complications.’”
So, under Perez’s interpretation of the law, white people aren’t covered, but Hispanics certainly should be. Yet nowhere in Perez’s two long letters to Beaumont blocking official actions does he discuss the effects of voting law on Latinos.
Garcia said he thought Latinos had the best chance with an at-large seat. Dunn, the mapmaker, told the board that Latinos were a swing vote, and that a Latino candidate might win under a seven-district system with the support of either black or white voters.
Lori Cox, a member of a citizens’ group opposed to the board majority, said any concern shown by board president Woodrow Reece was insincere.
“For the past 18 months, the board, with Reece as spokesman, has stated that Hispanics are strictly a ‘language group,’ so they don’t come into consideration,” she said. “This caring about Hispanics is a new tack he’s taken.”
At its meeting Tuesday, the board voted unanimously to postpone any action on new district maps. Board members got a ninth draft of a seven-district map a half-hour before the meeting.
Board member Mike Neil exploded when he realized the map had been redrawn at the last-minute to move the residence of likely reform candidate Linda Gilmore from District 4, where she would face incumbent Gwen Ambres in the fall, to District 3, which won’t hold an election for two more years.
“I think it’s a bunch of crap. You’ve got a credible African-American challenger to Gwen Ambres,” Neil said.
Ambres pointed out that she’d beaten Gilmore 84 percent to 15 percent in 2011, so she didn’t find Gilmore too credible.
A lot of people might be credible, Neil said, “after the votes we’ve been recording the last two years.”
The most controversial of those votes was a decision by the district to continue doing business with an electrician named Calvin Walker, who is on the state’s debarred vendors list after state auditors and federal prosecutors dug up piles of evidence that he has been cheating the district with forged invoices and such totaling millions of dollars.
After a mistrial, Walker took a plea deal on a tax evasion charge.
The school board may yet get the five districts and two at-large system voters approved two years ago on a 56-percent to 44-percent vote. On Feb. 27, the U.S. Supreme Court heard the case of Shelby County v. Holder, which regards the constitutionality of Section 5 pre-clearance requirements. The court is expected to strike down the requirements.
Contact Jon Cassidy at [email protected] or @jpcassidy000.