Meet the Man Who Will (Probably) Draw the New Dallas City Council District Boundaries
|Image via Amarillo.com|
|"Gerrymandering damages communities," says Bill Betzen.|
If for some reason you haven't been following redistricting with undivided attention, Betzen's name might not be familiar to you. But if you've gone to even one meeting, he's impossible to miss: He's the gent with silver glasses, snowy white hair and a mustache to match, sitting somewhere near the front of the room and smiling like he's watching aurora borealis or something. He always looks genuinely delighted to be in these commission meetings, no matter how long they drag on, and he listens intently to every public speaker. Betzen is also the submitter who's presented three different maps to the commission, two of which made it to the final 15 Tuesday night.
So who is this guy, and why has he devoted the last four months of his life to redistricting?
"I've been concerned about politics and gerrymandering for a long time," Betzen told Unfair Park in a phone conversation Wednesday. Betzen is a native Texan who moved to Oak Cliff in the mid-70s. A former Catholic seminary student (he quickly decided against the priest thing), he was a social worker for 28 years, 17 of them as a child abuse investigator. His decision to move to Oak Cliff, he said, was based on that job: "I knew this zip code had one of the lowest child abuse reporting ratios. I knew people didn't beat their kids as much here. I didn't want to run into my clients."
In 2000, Betzen switched from social work to teaching; he was the computer applications teacher at Quintanilla Middle School until earlier this year, when he took the buyout and retired. He was already five years past retirement age, he said, and "there were a lot of young teachers coming in" who could use the jobs, so he decided it was time to go. His main crusade during his time as a teacher was against the high dropout rates in DISD schools, something he's going to return to full time once redistricting is over.
Three or four years ago, though, Betzen noticed "how terribly gerrymandered the south side of town is." It's a situation that he's convinced the "white power structure" of Dallas has deliberately allowed to develop, he said. "They allowed the south side to gerrymander themselves because they knew it would politically handicap them." (Interestingly, one of the only commissioners who didn't vote to move forward Betzen's plan was Mary Hasan, who represents District 8 -- his own district. "I was surprised," he said, sounding a little hurt, adding that he would "love to know why" she didn't vote for his map.)
Redistricting meetings haven't exactly been packed to the gills, something Betzen acknowledged. "It is hard to get people's interest, because very few people understand what it's about," he said. "Part of the problem is that in our schools we don't talk about gerrymandering and redistricting and what districting is. We need to talk about it more, because it's really a core basic of representative democracy. We don't tell kids enough about how it can be manipulated.
"The terrible stalemate going on in Washington is basically due to gerrymandering," he continued. "All those guys can sit there and do nothing, and they know they're going to be re-elected. If we would draw tight, tiny districts that weren't scrambled all over the place, then those guys might work a little harder."
With that in mind: There's just a few more meetings left, including tonight's, plus a public comment forum that will be held on August 20. You can come down to share your thoughts on any redistricting plan, or maybe just scope out the commissioners and the ordinary guy who have all given so much of their free time to redistricting. There might even be more shouting, though honestly, things have been comparatively civil the last couple times. (Giving the commissioners a bathroom break and some chocolate cake -- er, separately, of course -- seemed to help their mood tremendously Tuesday night.)
Betzen said "rough edges" are all part of the redistricting process, in his view, and added that the way Dallas is going about redistricting is actually incredibly progressive. "Austin, Houston, Philadelphia -- Dallas is way out ahead from everybody about how open they were about this," he said, pointing out a recent press release documenting how how a private company in Philly is trying, for the first time ever, to solicit redistricting plans from the public.
"This is going to a pioneering example of how to do it in the future," Betzen said. "I really think we're breaking ground here. I'm very, very proud of Dallas."