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 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.

5 Replies to “Race and Representation in Takoma Park”

  1. Gazette is owned by The Washington Post Company.

    A question: I'll check out their website, but can you tell me what CHEER does? All I've seen is questionnaires asking people things like, "Do you feel that you live in a healthy community?" I'd love to hear why you think it's worthy. So far I haven't seen much that warrants their receipt of city money.

    Thanks, Seth

  2. My take is that CHEER is transitioning from study- and information-focused to also recommending and acting, but regardless, all along CHEER has involved, in its activities, members of the diverse communities it has studied.

  3. Hi,Seth,

    I'll paste in an excerpt from email I sent relating to this on the listserv – apologies in advance for its length!
    Rob Richie

    This is Rob Richie, executive director of FairVote fairvote.org)….I would like to address oncerns about electing three seats by choice voting.

    The key missing point is that choice voting is a not a winner-take-all voting system. It is a form of proportional representation, one with a long track record. Today it is used by every voter in at least one governmental election in Australia, Ireland, Malta, New Zealand, Northern Ireland and Scotland. It also has been used to elect the city council and school board in Cambridge (MA) since 1941) and in Minneapolis (MN) for certain offices since voters approved it in 2006.

    Choice voting also has a history in major city elections in the US (like Cincinnati and New York City), where a consistent outcome was fairer representation of racial minorities. You can see more on choice voting at choicevoting.com and fairvote.org, or, if doing internet searches, using the term "single transferable vote," which is its traditional name based on the initial way the ballot-count was done.

    … relating to this history and its applicability to Takoma Park:

    1. ..There's not the slightest chance that going to our proposal for choice voting would be found to violate the Voting Rights Act…

    2.,The experience of winner-take-all voting methods in multi-seat districts has little relevance to a discussion of choice voting…

    3. With choice voting, a candidate cannot be denied a seat if backed by just over 25% of voters. That is, if you are the first choice of one more than 25% of voters, you will definitely win. In practice, you can win with far less than 25% of first choices…

    4. Cambridge (MA) provides instructive lessons. African Americans have never been as much of 20% of the population. But with choice voting elections every two years, African Americans have had continuous representation on city council since the 1950s…

    5. …There is no vote-splitting to worry about,s o there's every incentive to run and every chance to build support over time…

  4. Seth:

    As I told you in an email, the Gazette's CEO asserts there has been no "redlining" of delivery areas. Instead, Karen Acton told me that the newspaper has made delivery decisions based on how best to serve the entire community, given the cost of delivering hundreds of thousands of newspapers every Wednesday. Beyond that, she couldn't discuss specific details, not being as familiar with all delivery areas as are the circulation folks.

    I would never purport to defend the Gazette or its methods (I worked for the paper years ago and can tell many tales about its previous owner), but I do feel I should add that based on my own reconnaissance of NH Ave. and my perusal of the publicly available list of bulk drop-off locations, that the paper is indeed delivered to New Hampshire Towers. The building manager told me that she wishes fewer papers were delivered, as so many of them end up scattered around the lobby. In addition, despite what was claimed to me in an email from Ward 6 Councilmember Fred Schultz, the paper is also available on Holton Lane, in a box in front of the Post Office. (Mr. Schultz had said that businesses on Holton could not find a paper within walking distance.) A businessperson in the row of shops where the Citibank is located also said the paper is delivered to his shop, and he believed it was dropped off at all the businesses in that strip mall. The newspaper's web site lists a number of establishments along NH Ave where it is dropped off in bulk.

    I have sent emails to both you and Councilmember Schultz relating the details of my conversation with Ms. Acton and urging you to call her to discuss this issue in the hopes that it can be resolved amicably, and that people who are not getting the paper but wish to receive it, will be able to do so.

    Mr. Schultz, to my surprise, said that because his efforts over two years to get the Gazette to take notice of his complaints have borne no fruit, he has now thrown in the towel. He said he hopes someone else can take up the fight. Apparently he will not even call the CEO of the Gazette to discuss this matter. That's too bad, and is surprising to me, especially as Mr. Schultz spoke so forcefully about the National Defense Authorization Act detention provisions–provisions which probably will have no effect on his constituents. That he had time to devote to that national issue but wishes to devote no more time to this one, which directly affects him and the people in his ward, strikes me as bizarre. I hope you or some other elected official will see fit to actually pick up the phone and begin a dialogue with the newspaper, now the only English-language publication covering Takoma Park that is actually printed and delivered. Perhaps you could hold a public hearing to clear up this issue. You could invite Ms. Acton and get some publicity, which could have the effect of shaming the Gazette into delivering to the areas that are now allegedly "redlined."

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