Watsonville lawsuit appealing general election sets precedent for California cities to move to district elections

On a Saturday in 1989, Rebecca Garcia and others of Latin descent stood on the steps of Watsonville City Hall. The council was holding a closed meeting to appeal the court’s ruling that the general election in Watsonville illegally diluted the Latinx vote — a claim that, decades later, the city of Santa Cruz is now facing.

“Basically, we were almost set to fail when it came to a Latino running a successful general election campaign,” says Garcia, who is now a councilman serving Watsonville’s Fifth Ward.

General elections allow all residents to vote for each representative running in a city, and elected officials, in turn, represent the entire community. Prior to the Voting Rights Act of 1965, general elections were the most common form of representation in the United States.

But when the Voting Rights Act was passed, cities with general elections became subject to lawsuits if the votes of minority populations were found to be diluted.

Because of this, cities across the country have started moving to district elections, a system where residents choose a representative for their area of ​​town. Proponents of district elections claim that this type of system helps localize democracy and elect more diverse representatives, or at least representatives more sensitive to minority interests.

“Watsonville had an almost all-white city council. The only Latino on the board was a wealthy real estate agent and didn’t advocate for us,” Garcia says. “Before the district elections, Latinos were totally ignored. We weren’t part of the political process – and the trial proved that.

The trial in Watsonville set the stage for cities in California. It went all the way to the Supreme Court, and after the city was found guilty of watering down Latinx votes, cities in the state, including Salinas and Pajaro Valley Unified School District, moved on to district elections. rather than being hit with a similar lawsuit.

Now, the city of Santa Cruz is facing a civil lawsuit that claims voting in Santa Cruz is racially polarized and that the city’s general election is weakening the chances of equal representation for the Latinx community.

As City Council decides whether to move to district elections or fight the lawsuit, residents and council members wonder if district elections will be an effective way to further diversify the council and address the lack of representation of Latinx.

A case study

“We blamed ourselves for not having succeeded in the campaigns we worked on,” explains Celia Organista, former president of the League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC). LULAC is the nation’s largest and oldest Latinx civil rights organization.

Organista had watched with initial hope, then dismay, as nine people of Latino ran for seats between 1970 and 1985 and lost. According to the 1980 census, people of Latin origin made up 36% of the population. In reality, Rebecca Garcia estimates that Latinx residents made up a larger portion of the population, probably closer to half of all Watsonville residents, given the large number of undocumented residents living in the city. Yet the city council had never elected a person of Latin descent in its 120-year history.

In the mid-1980s, Joaquin Avila, who was the president of the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund (MALDEF), came to Watsonville and spoke with LULAC.

He told Organista and the rest of the band about a trial in Texas, where people of Latino made up a large portion of the population, but despite running for office, they never seemed to get elected. Part of the problem, according to the lawsuit, was the general election, which helped decentralize the Latinx vote.

“A light bulb went on, and you’re like, ‘Oh, well, maybe we eliminate these things, then our chances would be better,'” Organista says. Avila brought to light what Organista had touched on without being able to name it: a systematic disadvantage.

Under Organista’s guidance, LULAC befriended the court during Dolores Cruz Gomez’s v. City of Watsonville, and the court ruled in their favor.

In 1989, Watsonville had district elections for the first time. Four Latinx candidates ran for city council, but only one, Oscar Rios, was elected. Despite the three losses, Garcia was encouraged by the results.

“Only one Latino was elected, but the majority of those elected were strong supporters of the Latino community. And they stood up for Latinos,” Garcia says.

Even now, as city councilwoman, Garcia gives district elections more responsive representatives and a more representative council.

“By doing district elections, I feel like I can connect better with those I represented,” she says.

But Organista has a different perspective. Yes, the council is more diverse (four of Watsonville’s six current council members are of Latin descent), but she wonders if district elections have ultimately hindered the city’s progress. It’s a challenge critics point to with district elections: Representatives are beholden to the needs of their district, which could create more division as representatives battle for their constituents’ priorities.

“There are days when I don’t think there’s been any change,” says Organista.

Organista also says a transition to district elections should come with a clear purpose and serve a purpose. She points to Watsonville’s apparent exclusion of people of Latino descent from city council seats in the 1980s and wonders if this parallel can be drawn in Santa Cruz.

“What is the basis? Our base was very clear. We had tried and tried and tried and tried to get Latinos elected. But they were overpowered because there was a much higher vote from the white community,” says Organista. “Is Santa Cruz being sued just because the state wants them to be in districts, or is there a pattern of [Latinos being] disenfranchised? »

Status in Santa Cruz

“I’ve lived in Santa Cruz for 23 years now and I’ve never heard anyone complain about the at-large system. It kind of makes you think, “Is a problem that doesn’t exist somehow being imposed on us”? asks Rory O’Brien, head of the political science department at Cabrillo College.

Every year, cities in California that use blanket systems face civil complaints and lawsuits for intentionally or unintentionally using voting systems that discriminate against minorities, violating the Human Rights Act of 2001. California vote (CVRA). Over the past seven years, more than 150 cities have gone to ward elections rather than spending more than $1 million contesting the lawsuit.

The Santa Cruz lawsuit was filed by Fargely Law, a Santa Barbara law firm, on behalf of Travis Roderick, an area resident who also filed a similar lawsuit against schools in the city of Santa Cruz, which therefore moved on to district elections.

The civil complaint claims that Santa Cruz’s general system interferes with the ability of Latinx residents to elect their chosen candidates to city council, a charge city officials deny. Only two people of Latin descent have been elected from 2000 to 2018, although Latinos make up about 30% of Santa Cruz’s population. Currently, no one of Latin descent sits on the city council.

But whether district elections will be the cure is up for debate. Maria Cadenas, who ran for city council in 2020, thinks reducing Latinx underrepresentation to a matter of electoral systems simplifies the matter. But, she says, district elections have the potential to make running more accessible.

“In general, it will cost more money to operate. It’s hard for someone who isn’t engaged in established circles to be heard, valued, or uplifted,” Cadenas says. “To win, you have to compete, both in dollars and by reaching the whole city. And that in itself, for any contestant, limits accessibility.

Still, board members wonder whether the move to a general election will actually pose a risk to board diversity. Currently, the city council has a higher representation of blacks in proportion to their demographics in Santa Cruz.

“It’s a pretty diverse council, in terms of race and ethnicity. So there’s a concern that the move to district elections won’t allow for that kind of diversity,” says Councilwoman Shebreh Kalantari-Johnson.

But geographically speaking, the council is quite homogeneous: the seven members of the council live in the center of Santa Cruz. There are no city council members who come from outlying areas, including Prospect Heights, Santa Cruz Gardens, and parts of the Eastside. This is expected to change if the city moves to district elections, which requires council members to live in the district they represent.

Cadenas emphasizes the importance of designing these neighborhoods taking demographics into account.

“If you create a neighborhood that covers the city center across the quay, for example, you have a very heavily commercial neighborhood,” Cadenas says. “And yet, in this district, you have mostly low-income communities of color. For a person of color to run against commercial interests will be extremely difficult. »

It’s a concern that the public and members of city council also echo. Will the way constituencies are drawn have a negative impact on the chances of success of minority candidates? Does the city risk gerrymandering, the practice of drawing neighborhoods to favor a group or a party?

Kalantari-Johnson says these are important issues and the city and state need action to address these concerns, such as public workshops, a third-party redistricting commission and the hiring of a demographer. expert to draw districts based on census data.

“It won’t happen in a vacuum,” says Kalantari-Johnson.

The city is set to review draft maps in November and December and will make a decision on whether to implement district elections in March 2022. At the council meeting in August, council member Justin Cummings asked if it was possible to challenge the lawsuit, but the legal costs are daunting and, to date, no jurisdiction has successfully challenged a lawsuit for violation of the CVRA.

In any case, the city will have to pay. Even without taking the lawsuit to court, the city will pay a maximum of $30,000 in legal fees, money that comes from the city’s legal fund.

Kalantari-Johnson says the council is likely to adopt ward elections, which the city was already considering in 2018.

“There is an opportunity for growth here. We can really work on developing the pipeline to leadership in our community,” says Kalantari-Johnson.

To contribute ideas on how districts should be drawn, email: [email protected]

Keep up to date with the next district election community meeting at: www.cityofsantacruz.com/government/city-departments/city-manager/transition-to-district-elections.

Bernard P. Love