CG4TX January 2018 meeting: “Endorsed by God? Blending Religion and Politics”

Our first meeting of 2018 took place on Saturday, January 6, at the Old Quarry branch library at 7051 Village Center Dr.

The meeting took the form of a panel discussion on something deeply embedded in American democracy: separation of church and state. In recent months religion has entered the political spotlight in several ways, such as the calls for repealing the 1954 Johnson amendment, which prohibits religious organizations from endorsing or opposing candidates for office, on pain of losing their tax-exempt status.

What is the importance of the Johnson amendment today, and what would be the consequences of its repeal? Should church donations be tax-deductible at all? When religious beliefs clash with partisan loyalties, how do we resolve the conflict?

These and other issues were discussed by the panel, whose members were (left to right):

  • Rev. Mary Wilson, Church of the Savior
  • Rabbi Neil Blumofe, Congregation Agudas Achim
  • Sheikh Yassir Fazaga, Islamic Center of Brushy Creek
  • Rev. Brian Ferguson, Wildflower Unitarian Universalist Church

The discussion was moderated by Mike Ignatowski.

Posted in Common Ground meetings, Legislation | Leave a comment

CG4TX October 2017 meeting on CodeNEXT from multiple district perspectives

What: CodeNEXT from multiple district perspectives
When: Saturday, October 7, 2017, 2:00 PM – 4:00 PM
Where: Yarborough Branch Library

Jimmy Flannigan, Council Member, District 6
Jeff Travillion, County Commissioner, Precinct 1
Dr. Elizabeth Mueller, Associate Professor of Community and Regional Planning, UT Austin School of Architecture
Moderated by Mike Ignatowski.

At the Common Ground for Texans general meeting, we took a look at CodeNEXT, the City of Austin’s proposed new land development code, which was recently published in a second draft version. Writing this code is a major challenge because it needs, as the Austin American-Statesman says, to balance two competing goals: encouraging greater density and preserving city neighborhoods.–politics/how-codenext-maps-could-forecast-change-for-two-austin-neighborhoods/HOOEWlnV4b2wMXL93xbRyL/

CodeNEXT is now soliciting comments on the new version of the code. What will this new development code mean for the future growth of Austin? How will various parts of Austin view it differently? What’s the plan for making sure that affordable housing needs are met? These are some of the questions we hoped to answer at this meeting.

Posted in Common Ground meetings, Community Conversations, Events, Uncategorized | 1 Comment

CG4TX September 2017 meeting on the Mayor’s Task Force on Institutional Racism and Systemic Inequities

On September 9, 2017 Common Ground for Texans hosted a panel discussion, moderated by Mike Ignatowski, on the Mayor’s Task Force on Institutional Racism and Systemic Inequities.  In recognition of our two-hour time limit, we focused on the first two of five chapters: Chapter 1, Education and Chapter 2, Real Estate and Housing. The Austin American Statesman published a History of Austin’s Racial Divide that provides background and context for the Task Force Report.

Our panelists:

  • Paul Cruz, PhD, Austin Independent School District (AISD) Superintendent and co-chair of the Task Force
  • Alba Sereno, Project Manager for the Task Force
  • Kazique Prince, Project Manager for the Task Force

Common Ground for Texans has finally moved into the 21st century!  For the first time, but not the last time, we videotaped the program and made it available above.  If you don’t have time to listen to the entire 90 minute program, here are a few highlights from each speaker’s introductory remarks.

Paul Cruz, PhD, AISD Superintendent and co-chair of the Task Force

AISD’s mission is to educate all students; making sure all kids have an equal life.  Although many metrics can be used to determine whether this goal is achieved, Dr. Cruz’s main metrics are (1) whether our kids are ready for college career and/or life career and (2) whether they are graduating on time.  Although AISD’s on-time graduation rate has risen from 70% in 2000 to 90% in 2016, the Task Force Report spotlighted implicit bias in the area of socialization.  For example, students suspended for similar offenses received different penalties, and the suspension rate for students of color was significantly higher. Subsequent discussions amongst educators, teachers, and principals on how to deescalate rather than exacerbate bad behavior resulted in a substantial decrease in suspension rates.  AISD also began to look at equity issues such as how comparatively few students of color are enrolled in Advanced Placement courses or in magnet schools, etc. These inequities are now being addressed.

Kazique Prince, Project Manager for the Task Force

The Mayor’s Task Force conversation began by exploring criminal and civil justice biases and inequities in our community, but soon expanded into issues of housing, education and ultimately grew into the five-chapter Task Force Report. 

Chapter 1: Education
Chapter 2: Real Estate and Housing
Chapter 3: Health
Chapter 4: Finance, Banking, & Industry
Chapter 5: Civil & Criminal Justice

In 1928 Austin established a ‘Negro District’, and in 1957 Austin’s City Planning Commission zoned all property in East Austin “industrial,” making it difficult for homeowners to secure bank loans for home mortgages and repairs. What are we going to do as a community not merely to reverse the effects of these events but to make real differences in people’s lives?  As we talk about our next steps (the Report contains over 200 recommendations), we want to make sure as an implementation team and as a community that we are on the same page, we have a common language, we have a common lens to look at the challenges we are facing.  How do we bring people together from all different backgrounds?   How do I bring my talents and skills to the table and see them as valued?

Alba Sereno, Project Manager for the Task Force

Ms. Sereno shared a personal story from her first days as a kindergarten pupil in the Rio Grande Valley. As she walked from a general classroom to an ESL classroom, other students passing by yelled things like “wetback” and other “interesting” terms.  Her small border town was split by a railroad track. Even as a child she was aware of the stark differences between neighborhoods on the track’s opposite sides. Fast forward to when she came to UT to get her Master’s in Social Work.  She really wanted to dig into those childhood questions about these differences in this particular community. 

Her studies led her to the conclusion that racism in this country is our groundwater truth.  The groundwater seeps into everything– all of our systems.  Institutional racism refers to the persistence of legal, social, and economic structures that treat people of different ethnic groups differently. When Ms. Sereno accepted the invitation to join the Task Force, its goal was an official document that says we admit that structural racism and systemic inequities exist in our history, that they still persist, and that we as a community must undertake to eliminate them.

Opening remarks were followed by an hour of Q&A. 

We encourage you to listen to the entire program.

Posted in Common Ground meetings, Events, Institutional Racism | Leave a comment

The new front in the gerrymandering wars

The nine Justices of the US Supreme Court.

The nine Justices of the US Supreme Court.

On Friday October 3, the U.S. Supreme Court will hear arguments in Gill v. Whitford, the court case concerning a voter redistricting plan created in 2011 for the Wisconsin State Assembly which used partisan gerrymandering.  The question they will answer: Is partisan gerrymandering unconstitutional?

Why does this matter? Because it was partisan gerrymandering that enabled the party that won 47% of the vote for Wisconsin State Assembly in the 2012 election to take 61% of the Assembly seats. The Court’s decision is likely to shape American politics for years and perhaps decades to come.

Extreme gerrymandering is the subject of an excellent article in the September 3, 2017 edition of the New York Times Magazine: “Democracy vs. Math” by Emily Bazelon.  The article focuses on two concepts of particular importance: partisan symmetry and efficiency gap.

The article describes how the 2011 Wisconsin Assembly map was struck down by a three-judge panel relying primarily on a metric called the efficiency gap, which measures “wasted votes.”  Wasted votes are votes cast for a losing candidate, or votes exceeding the number a winning candidate needed to prevail.  The efficiency gap is low when the number of wasted votes in a given election is similar for both parties, and it’s high when one side’s votes are wasted at a far greater rate, because its voters are concentrated densely (“packed”) or spread thinly (“cracked”).

The plaintiffs in Gill are asking the Supreme Court not to stop gerrymandering entirely but to agree that extreme gerrymandering can go too far.  They argue for a baseline, proposed by Bernard Grofman of the University of California, Irvine, and Gary King of Harvard, who have studied redistricting for decades, for assessing how much gerrymandering is too much.  Called partisan symmetry, it has widespread support among social scientists.  Instead of dictating that a party with 46% of the vote must take 46% of the seats (that’s proportional representation, which the Supreme Court has rejected), partisan symmetry requires that if winning 46% of the popular vote gives the Republican party 60% of the congressional seats, then the Democratic Party should also win 60% of the seats if it wins 46% of the vote. It has been shown that the partisan symmetry standard can be logically derived from the equal treatment of individual voters, a right guaranteed by the 14th Amendment and Article 1 of the Constitution.

For more on the context and history of this highly consequential issue, I highly recommend that you read the NY Times Magazine article.

Posted in Redistricting, Supreme Court | Leave a comment

How to have true conversations with people we disagree with

Common Ground for Texans advocates positive solutions through civil engagement (stress intended).

In her TED talk, Megan Phelps-Roper describes how she grew up in —and escaped from—an environment of extreme polarization, and draws some sharp conclusions about how we can engage across ideological lines.

Through her experience she discovered four conversational norms that made real dialogue with people who disagreed with her possible:

  • Don’t assume bad intent or ill motives by “the other.”
  • Ask questions. Questions signal they are being heard.
  • Stay calm.  It takes practice and patience.  Escalation creates road blocks.
  • Make the argument.  We often assume the value of our position is or should be obvious or self evident.
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Civility and US political discourse

The Annette Strauss Institute For Civil Life at UT-Austin compiled research into a two-page graphic on Civility and US Political Discourse for the June 22 Texas Lyceum meeting, “Is Civility Lost? When Did Compromise Become a Dirty Word? Finding Common Ground in a Fractured Society.”

Common Ground for Texans is not surprised that the survey found that 8 in 10 Americans said the lack of civil discourse in our political system is a serious problem and that incivility is linked with:

• reduced trust
• less reasoned discussion
• polarization
• difficulty reaching bipartisan compromise
• gridlock


Posted in Civility in Politics | Leave a comment

CG4TX Meeting on Redistricting

Photo of panel members.

Harriett Harrow, Stefan Haag, and Frances McIntyre sharing their experience in Austin’s redistricting.

Beginning with the 2014 election, members of the Austin City Council are no longer elected citywide. In response to a 2012 amendment of the City Charter, the city was divided by an Independent Citizens Redistricting Commission into ten geographic districts. The Mayor is elected citywide, and each of the other ten Council Members is elected by residents of one of the districts.

On Saturday April 1, 2017, Common Ground for Texans hosted a panel discussion among three folks who are intimately familiar with the replacement of Austin’s citywide elections by single-member districts:

  • Frances McIntyre (League of Women Voters — TX Redistricting Issues Chair)
  • Harriett Harrow (member of the Commission)
  • Stefan Haag (ACC retired professor of government and Commission member)

Each of the Commission members told of the great pains they took to ensure that the Commission would be free of political influence. At the end of the day, how did they know they had succeeded? No suits were filed against the process! Continue reading

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Thoughts on Increasing Voter Participation

Last week, I was honored to participate in a panel discussion sponsored by the League of Women Voters of Dallas, on ways of increasing voter participation. Also on the panel were Dr. Matthew Wilson, professor of political science at Southern Methodist University, and Toni Pippins-Poole, Elections Administrator, Dallas County.

My points were organized into three sections:

  1. The pros and cons of moving the date of elections to November.
  2. Increasing competition by creating the conditions for a multi-party system — using multi-member districts and proportional representation.
  3. Making the electoral college more fair by adopting the National Popular Vote Interstate Compact.

For anyone interested, the slides I used in my presentation may be viewed here: Ways to Increase Voter Participation.

I really enjoyed sharing my thoughts with the Dallas League and I think they found them worth listening to.

Feel free to let me know what you think in the comments section.


Posted in Electoral reform, NPVIC, Redistricting | 1 Comment