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District Elections Supposed To Increase Diversity; So Far, San Diego Results Are Mixed

Escondido Councilwoman Consuelo Martinez talks with kids in a local park, Jun...

Photo by Claire Trageser

Above: Escondido Councilwoman Consuelo Martinez talks with kids in a local park, June 7, 2019.

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Since 2012, all but five cities in San Diego County have switched to district elections for their city councils with the intention of increasing diversity. But so far, that hasn't always happened.

Aired: June 27, 2019 | Transcript

Since 2012, all but five cities in San Diego County have switched to district elections for their city councils with the intention of increasing diversity.

But so far, that hasn't always happened.

KPBS did an analysis that found five of the 10 cities that have held district elections did not see increased diversity. Three of them, Encinitas, Poway and Santee, have councils that are all white.

But another four cities have boosted their Latino representation: Chula Vista, Escondido, Oceanside and San Marcos.

After switching to district elections, Carlsbad now has one nonwhite representative.

Reported by Roland Lizarondo

Across the county, there are only two African American council members, in La Mesa and the city of San Diego. La Mesa, as well as Coronado, Del Mar, Lemon Grove and National City have not switched to district elections.

RELATED: San Diego Cities Are Switching To District Elections To Increase Diversity — But Is It Working?

The analysis did not include the city of San Diego, which switched to district elections in 1988. Before the switch, its council was seven white members and one African American. Now, it has five white members, one Asian, one African American and two Latina members.

Why cities switched

Most of the cities that switched locally, and across the state, did so under the threat of lawsuits. While city councils may have other kinds of diversity, including religion, gender and sexual orientation, the lawsuits focus only on racial diversity.

The ACLU and the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund have threatened to sue some cities under the California Voting Rights Act for not having elected bodies that represent the racial diversity of their cities.

District elections, those lawsuits argue, increase diversity on city councils by giving minority populations a chance to elect someone who represents just their area.

Other lawsuits have been brought by Kevin Shenkman, a Malibu lawyer who has been suing cities up and down the state and earning millions in legal costs when he wins. He said that so far, the results on whether forcing cities to switch to district elections actually increases diversity have been mixed.

"I hadn't appreciated all of the obstacles, it's not just getting it done in court," he said. "Cities need better district maps sometimes, or more minority organization, and people to actually run."

But, he said, in places where there may not have been strong organization among minority communities, a switch to district elections may spark some action.

The case in Escondido

One city locally that has seen increased diversity is Escondido. It held its first City Council district election in 2014. In that election, the council did not diversify, but in 2018, Consuelo Martinez unseated Ed Gallo in the district drawn to have a very slight Latino majority.

So now the council has two Latinas, up from one before the switch. It also has a Democratic majority, another change that followed district elections.

RELATED: Escondido Voters Will Decide On New Election System

Martinez recently made the rounds of a busy neighborhood park in Escondido, chatting with a young couple eating ice cream, stopping by a group gathered at picnic tables for a birthday party and talking to kids about a plan for a skatepark. It seemed she couldn't walk a few feet without running into someone she knew.

"I always run into people at the park," she said.

And that's part of the point of council districts, to have someone like Martinez represent her neighbors. She said she wouldn't have run without district elections because campaigning citywide was too expensive.

"It would make it more accessible for an everyday person to run for office, it would diversify the city leadership, it would spread out the representatives," she said, pausing to wave at another passerby. "And therefore you would have attention being given throughout the city."

In her first six months in office, Martinez moved City Council meetings to 6 pm so working people could attend, and got a water treatment plant slated for her district moved to an industrial area.

One of her constituents, Daisy Zavala, said Martinez makes her feel heard.

"Now that there's someone in office who understands the struggle of being born a minority and being raised a minority, I feel like she has a better input," she said.

The case in other cities

In the cities that have not seen an increase in diversity, it may be too soon to expect results, said Douglas Johnson, the president of National Demographics Corporation, a company that helps cities draw district maps.

Several local cities, including Carlsbad, El Cajon, Encinitas and Oceanside only held their first district election in 2018.

In others, there may not be enough of a minority population to draw up a council district that has a majority of non-white residents, Johnson said.

"It actually needs to be diverse, but a pocket, kind of geographically concentrated," he said.

And even if a city has districts, there needs to be a minority candidate who can win the election.

For example, when Modesto finally drew districts after a long legal battle, "No Latino ran," Johnson said.

"Well, one ran but he had a MySpace page that was half why I love Sandra Bullock movies and half why I'm running for city council," he added.

Argument against council districts

Former Escondido Councilman Ed Gallo said watching the process of drawing districts was painful.

"If I was on that committee I would have shot myself," he said.

He was on the Escondido City Council when the "districting" committee drew the maps and was placed in the majority Latino district. He kept his seat in 2014, then lost last year to Consuelo Martinez.

But he said other minority candidates, such as Councilwoman Olga Diaz, were able to win seats in city-wide votes.

"How did that happen?" he said. "I can tell you how it happened, she worked hard, because that's what it takes, and she raised some money, and that's what it takes to get elected."

He worries having council members represent individual districts means they won't be looking out for the good of the city.

"You're involved in the entire city and every decision you make doesn't just involve people in your district, it involves everybody in the city," he said.

But Consuelo Martinez said she views it her role to look out specifically for her district. She said before she was elected, no one was doing that.

"People would say you're the first person to ever knock on my door to ask for my vote," she said. "And that was really sad to me, because some of them had been living in the city for 25 years."

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Photo of Claire Trageser

Claire Trageser
Investigative Reporter

opening quote marksclosing quote marksAs a member of the KPBS investigative team, my job is to hold the powerful in San Diego County accountable. I've done in-depth investigations on political campaigns, police officer misconduct and neighborhood quality of life issues.

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