Lawsuit Aims To Elect More Latinos In Escondido
Latinos are nearly half of the city’s population, but there is only one Latino on the city council.
Wednesday, April 4, 2012
Aired 4/4/12 on KPBS News.
A lawsuit working its way through the court system alleges the city's current system for electing city council members disenfranchises Latinos. Proponents want the city to implement district-wide elections.
SAN DIEGO In the last decade, Latinos have become nearly half the population of Escondido, making them the North County city’s single largest ethnic group.
But you might not know it if you visited City Hall, where only two Latinos have served on the City Council in the city’s 123 year history.
A lawsuit working its way through the court system could change that if the plaintiffs can convince a judge that the city’s current system for electing council members disenfranchises Latino voters.
In December, several Latinos and a union group filed the suit under the California Voting Rights Act, asking the court to throw out that system.
In the current system, council members are elected at large, meaning they run citywide. All voters in the city choose from the same slate of candidates.
But the lawsuit alleges that the system dilutes the ability of minority communities to elect candidates of their choice. Even though they may be a plurality of the population, as voters, minorities are often outnumbered.
If the suit prevails, the city would be split into geographic districts. Each district would have its own candidates, and voters could only vote in their district’s election.
That system would give communities where Latinos live a better shot at electing a candidate of their choice.
The suit was filed by a union that has been battling with the conservative council over labor policies. A judge recently ruled that the union had no standing in the case, but several Latino plaintiffs remain.
Demetrio Gomez is one of them. He is a Mexican-American, a construction worker, and a union organizer who lives on the outskirts of town.
“We are 49 percent of the town and yet we’re not being taken into consideration,” Gomez said. “This is just one of the ways that we can get politically involved from the top down. A minority of the town is running this city to their benefit.”
In the last decade, Escondido has garnered a national reputation for its tough stances on illegal immigration.
For several years, the police department had immigration officials on hand at sobriety and drivers license checkpoints.
In 2006, the mostly white, conservative council temporarily passed a law that penalized landlords who rented to undocumented immigrants.
Those policies have left many Latinos - even citizens - feeling attacked by City Hall, and outmatched on the City Council. Its sole Latina member, Olga Diaz, is regularly outvoted by her four conservative colleagues.
The lawsuit could open the door for changing the makeup of the council.
Though the city’s mayor, Sam Abed, has vowed to fight the suit, the law that undergirds it has proven powerful and effective.
Like the Federal Voting Rights Act, the 2001 California Voting Rights Act helps minority communities gain political representation if they can prove that an at-large voting system results in “racially polarized voting,” meaning the candidate preferences of minorities are diluted and defeated by white voters.
But the California law is even more powerful in forcing cities to implement district elections because unlike the federal law, it does not first require minorities to prove they can create a district in which they are a majority.
Rather than face expensive lawsuits from activists, many city councils and school boards across the state have just agreed to switch to district elections.
But here in Escondido, Mayor Sam Abed has vowed to fight.
“This will be the worst option for every citizen of Escondido, including the Hispanics,” he said.
He said the council’s sole Latina is in fact representative of the city, because the number of eligible and actual Latino voters is just a percentage of the Latino population as a whole.
“I think, personally, this is very polarizing. Very divisive in a smaller community like this,” Abed said. “And I think this is going to isolate the Latino community geographically, politically, economically and socially.”
But Demetrio Gomez disagrees. He believes the current system so stacks the odds against Latinos that it discourages them from voting.
“How are we going to get these people involved if they have no hope?” he said.
The lawsuit is not expected to be resolved before this year’s elections. But if it succeeds, Gomez thinks Latinos could have a shot in at least two districts come next election.