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By W. Gardner Selby June 6, 2014

Few Hispanic residents elected to Austin City Council through history

Austin City Council member Mike Martinez, who declared his candidacy for mayor in April 2014, says he could be part of historic changes in the November 2014 elections.

We didn’t catch Martinez’s precise remarks at the May 28, 2014, HABLA Platica gathering in East Austin. Asked later to repeat himself, Martinez said in a voice-mail message: "I think we’ve had four Latinos in the designated ‘gentlemen’s agreement’ seat" on the council," plus, he said, another council member who says he was Latino, the late Robert Barnstone.

"That would be five total," Martinez said, adding he speculated at the event that up to five Hispanic residents could be elevated to the council all at once in the November elections.

For the first time, voters are poised to fill 10 council seats from within geographic districts with the mayor’s job filled, as before, by citywide balloting.

And has Austin, which was incorporated in 1839, only had a few Hispanic council members?

News organizations including the Austin American-Statesman have noted the "gentlemen’s agreement" mentioned by Martinez as explaining why the seven-member council, elected citywide, has rarely had more than a black and an Hispanic member. Under the so-called agreement, certain seats on the council were seen among many as reserved for members of those minority groups to seek.

The results: A "Milestones" web page created by the city says John Treviño was the first Hispanic citizen elected to the council; he won Place 5 on May 3, 1975. Voters had made Beryl Handcox the council’s first African American in May 1971, according to the page.

An Aug. 20, 2010, Statesman news feature story on local Mexican American pioneers called Treviño the first Hispanic on the council and further said Gus Garcia, a former Austin school board trustee, later won election to the council before winning election in 2000 as mayor.

Garcia, who like Treviño initially won Place 5 on the council, said Treviño and Richard Moya, the first Mexican American elected to the Travis County Commissioners Court, were "young Turks" who sought to break free from a long-standing system in which a handful of Hispanic leaders and businessmen had access to Anglo leaders, the story said. "We wanted to make it more democratic," Garcia said then. "None of us thought about doing this so we could be recognized. We did it because there was a need in the (Mexican American) community."

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To our request for detail, city spokeswoman Alicia Dean guided us to the Austin History Center where researcher Jeff Carrillo pointed out city election results through history, posted online. This enabled us to build a chart indicating four Spanish-surnamed winners of council seats.

In 2000, environmental activist Raul Alvarez won election to Place 2 on the council, to which Garcia didn’t seek re-election, our chart indicates. Alvarez was re-elected in 2003 but didn’t seek another term in 2006, when Martinez initially won the seat.

This leaves Barnstone, who succeeded Treviño in Place 5 in 1988.

Garcia, asked for his recollections, told us by email that in Austin’s Mexican-American community, Barnstone wasn’t considered "one of us."

Separately, the center’s Molly Hults pointed out Barnstone’s June 25, 2008, Statesman paid obituary stating Barnstone grew up in Laredo as part of a "legendary Texas and Mexican family." At the time, the Statesman’s front-page news story on Barnstone’s passing described him as a charismatic developer and "campaigner who never failed to use his fluent Spanish on the trail - his mother, born in Veracruz, Mexico, raised him; his Anglo father died before Barnstone was born."

Our ruling

Martinez said there have been four or maybe five Hispanic council members.

We'd say five. We rate this statement as True.

TRUE – The statement is accurate and there’s nothing significant missing.

Click here for more on the six PolitiFact ratings and how we select facts to check.

Our Sources

Telephone interview, Mike Martinez, Austin, May 29, 2014

Web pages, "About City Council, Milestones," "Election History," City of Austin (accessed May 29, 2014)

News feature story, "Mexican American trailblazers recognized by Austin History Center," Austin American-Statesman, posted online Aug. 20, 2010, last updated 12:42 a.m. Aug. 21, 2010 (accessed May 30, 2014)

American-Statesman news stories, "Barnstone defends work for `little guy,'" June 12, 1989; "Alvarez wins seat on Austin council; Candidate takes narrow victory with votes in Central, East Austin,", June 4, 2000; "No project too tall for 'visionary' developer; On council, he was a prophet of city's dense urban destiny," June 24, 2008 (fetched from Statesman electronic archives)

Chart, "Election History," winners of Austin City Council races based on "Election History" web page with individuals having Spanish surnames bolded (compiled by PolitiFact Texas, May 30, 2014)

Emails (excerpted), Jeff Carrillo, administrative reference assistant, Molly Hults, reference archivist, Austin History Center, May 29, 2014

Paid obituary, "Robert Barnstone," as published in American-Statesman, June 25, 2008 (accessed May 30, 2014)
Emails (excerpted), Gus Garcia, May 29-31, 2014

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Few Hispanic residents elected to Austin City Council through history

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