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Pasadena, a voting rights battleground, prepares for pivotal elections

After having its city council districts declared discriminatory, the city of Pasadena is preparing for May elections that could have statewide implications.

Oscar Del Toro, who lost a Pasadena City Council race for an at-large seat in 2015, and is running again this year, points to the city's redistricting map. 

PASADENA — When voters head to the polls here Saturday, their city council and mayoral picks could have repercussions well beyond this working-class Houston suburb. 

It will be the first election since a federal judge struck down the city's 2013 redistricting plan as discriminatory, paving the way for a new balance of power at City Hall.

It comes as Texas Democrats redouble their efforts on the local level after a 2016 election that gave them ample reason to be optimistic about their future, especially in Harris County.

And it could offer a gauge of just how far down the ballot President Donald Trump, unpopular in even a deep-red state like Texas, is energizing Democrats.

For Pasadena, a city whose representation has long lagged its majority-Hispanic population — much like Texas writ large — it could actually be the "new day" that multiple candidates are promising.

"You have racial discord undergirding partisan politics," said Brandon Rottinghaus, a political science professor at the University of Houston. "You’ve got one side trying to use the rules of the vote to change the structure of elections. And the other side is using the legal process ... to fight the electoral damage that might result."

"That," Rottinghaus added, "sets the stage for Pasadena as an important part of the story in Texas' transition to a new racial electorate."

"That Pasadena history"

Sprawling southeast of Houston, Pasadena is home to nearly 150,000 people, making it the second most populous city in Harris County and 19th most populous in the state, ahead of places like Midland and Waco. Oil refineries line the highway on the drive into town, an industrial hub with a prime position on the Houston Ship Channel. 

Before the redistricting battle, spearheaded by outgoing Mayor Johnny Isbell, the city already had a racially fraught history. It was the site of the Ku Klux Klan's state headquarters in the 1980s, a fact the city's ascendant Democrats often raise when describing theforces they're up against.

"I’m third-generation Pasadena, so I know that Pasadena history," said Jennifer Halvorson, president of the Area 5 Democrats, a group of local activists. "And I’ve always tried to get beyond that with people."

"You have to tell people, you know, Pasadena still is really diverse," she added. The redistricting lawsuit, she said, "re-emphasized that point."

The lawsuit is a challenge to Isbell's 2013 redistricting scheme, which he put forward days after the U.S. Supreme Court struck down a key part of the federal Voting Rights Act, which had required Texas and eight other states to receive federal permission before changing their election laws. In his plan, Isbell proposed redrawing the Pasadena City Council map from eight single-member districts to six single-member districts and two at-large, a plan voters narrowly approved later that year.

It did not take long before Pasadena was sued over Isbell's plan, which nonetheless was used in the city's 2015 elections. In January, a federal judge struck it down, saying Pasadena was "intentionally discriminating against Latinos and disproportionately diluting their voting power." Two weeks later, a federal appeals court ordered the city to return to using eight single-member districts for this year's May 6 elections. 

It was a blow to Isbell, who is still fighting the initial ruling. And he is not staying out of the headlines, either. At a council meeting earlier this year, he referred to a Hispanic member, Cody Ray Wheeler, as "boy," while telling him to speak up. Isbell ultimately apologized, but to his critics, the comment embodied the racial undertones of the mayor's tenure. 

Isbell's office did not make him available for an interview.

His opponents are optimistic for what's around the bend.  

"I think Pasadena is coming around to a new day," said Nina Perales, the lead attorney in the redistricting case, who represents the Mexican American Legal Defense Fund (MALDEF). "Mayor Isbell is term limited — we’re going to have a new mayor for sure. And I think some of the misdeeds the judge identified in her opinion are going to fade into the past."

Council change

In court, MALDEF argued that the at-large districts in Isbell's 6-2 plan disadvantaged candidates like Oscar Del Toro, a Mexican immigrant and local businessman who lost to a white opponent in 2015. Del Toro concentrated his campaign efforts on the predominantly white south side, where one woman told him "you know why" she would not vote for him, according to court documents. Another told Del Toro Pasadena was a "good old boy town" and that he should leave his materials on the porch instead of handing them to her, according to those same records.

Del Toro is running again on May 6, this time for one of the single-member districts. While he is confident in his chances — "100 percent" more, compared to last time — he is ambivalent about whether the elections will fully put the Isbell era in the rearview mirror. 

"Yes and no," he said. "Just because you change someone doesn't mean the system changes."

The Texas Democratic Party has endorsed five city council candidates in Pasadena — more than it has endorsed in any other municipality for the May 6 elections. Other Democratic groups are on the ground in the city, including Battleground Texas, which has been working to make the state more competitive for Democrats since the 2014 election cycle.

Much of their efforts are focused on two council races — in District A and District B — that are considered key to ushering in a new Democratic, predominantly Hispanic majority at City Hall. Battleground Texas is specifically working with District A candidate Felipe Villarreal and District B candidate Steve Halvorson, husband of Area 5 Democrats President Jennifer Halvorson, the only instances this election cycle where the group has directly partnered with candidates. 

In those districts, which cover the heavily Hispanic north side of Pasadena, Democrats face a test similar to the one they face statewide: turnout. 

"Those two districts — they vote overwhelmingly Democratic in November elections," Jennifer Halvorson said. "Those voters don’t typically vote in May elections." 

Moving on from the Isbell era

The mayoral race is viewed as more of a toss-up than most of the council contests and is almost guaranteed to head to a runoff. It features seven candidates, including two current council members, Jeff Wagner and Pat Van Houte, and two former state representatives from the area, Robert Talton and Gilbert Peña. Then there is San Jacinto College trustee John "JR" Moon, construction company manager David Flores and Pasadena ISD Assistant Superintendent Gloria Gallegos. 

Gallegos is among those pushing for a clean break from the Isbell years, promising, for example, to abandon the city's legal appeal of the redistricting ruling, which she calls "nonsense" and "craziness." In an interview Friday at her campaign headquarters, she did not mince words about the current administration.

"What I see and what I hear is that the leadership that currently exists, whether it's the mayor, whether it's the leadership that are in the different departments, is that they lead by fear and intimidation", she said. "And people are tired of it — very, very tired of it."

Not all candidates are running away from the Isbell era. Wagner, considered an Isbell ally on the council, said he would give the outgoing mayor a B grade for keeping the city on solid financial footing and ensuring quality services. Asked how he would handle the redistricting case appeal, he said he would instruct council members to solicit feedback from their constituents and act on whatever consensus emerges.

Yet in an interview Friday outside City Hall, Wagner acknowledged some changes need to be made to city government, namely its openness. 

"The box has to be broken," he said, referencing the political influence currently concentrated among a small group of people in Pasadena. "I have no loyalty to anyone inside that box." 

The Democratic groups involved in the council races have mostly stayed out of the mayoral contest, which features more than one candidate considered a Democrat. Cliff Walker, the campaign services and candidate recruit director for the state party, said the party's role in that race is to get as many Pasadena Democrats to turn out to vote as possible.  

Statewide consequences 

Texas Republicans are well aware of the stakes on May 6. Paul Simpson, the chairman of the Harris County GOP, called Pasadena a "significant priority" and said the party is pouring resources into the May 6 elections — phone banking, block walking and distributing literature that helps voters understand which candidates are Republicans. 

"The Democrats have been frustrated and obviously defeated at the national level," Simpson said, "so now they’re focusing a lot of their efforts on local races, and we see that in many different ways." 

The May 6 elections are also significant for the political landscape in Harris County, which turned solidly blue in the 2016 presidential election after producing less-decisive results during the previous two cycles. A strong showing by Democrats on May 6 in Pasadena, the county's second-largest city, could push the county even further into the blue column — a shift with implications for the 2018 statewide elections and beyond.

The threat — or at the least the specter of it — was evident later Friday at the Harris County GOP's annual Lincoln-Reagan Dinner, where at least one Pasadena candidate was in attendance. As the night's program got underway, guests were shown a video that offered something of a doomsday scenario for Texas' long-dominant Republicans.

"If the Democrats can control Harris County," one slide read, "the next prize is Texas."

Disclosure: The University of Houston has been a financial supporter of The Texas Tribune. A complete list of Tribune donors and sponsors is available here.

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