To district or not to district

The three Santa Monica City Council incumbents who were defeated in the recent election opposed district elections for the council and supported the City’s defense against the lawsuit to bring district elections to Santa Monica. According to an article in the Lookout, their replacements, who include Oscar de la Torre, one of the original plaintiffs in the lawsuit, support district elections. That raises the question whether there might now be four votes on the council to abandon the defense against the lawsuit and agree to a settlement that would include district elections.

To give a brief procedural history, the plaintiffs, who brought their suit under the California Voting Rights Act (CVRA) in early 2018, won in trial court, and the judge ordered district elections that included a Pico Neighborhood district (see map). The City appealed, and the decision was overturned. The plaintiffs have now appealed to the California Supreme Court and briefs are scheduled to be filed in December.

The Pico district ordered by the trial judge.

I hope the City Council does not settle, as I don’t believe district elections would increase the political power of Latinx residents and other historical minorities in Santa Monica.

As I wrote in 2018 not long after the litigation had begun, “usually I’m in favor of district voting, so long as there isn’t gerrymandering, not only because it can diversify who is elected, but also because it’s easier for candidates to run in smaller districts.” But what I wrote then to explain why I didn’t believe districts would be a good idea in Santa Monica still holds:

“Why [not]? Because those same council members who get elected over and over are so paranoid about not being reelected, that they try to please anyone who votes, and that includes, for all of them, residents of the Pico Neighborhood. In that sense, the neighborhood is well represented. And, if you include the school board and the college board along with the council, we have a good record of electing minorities. As a result, I don’t see the logic for the lawsuit, although if districting comes, it would make it less expensive and easier for new candidates to run, which would be a good thing in and of itself.”

Moreover, since I wrote that, in the course of the litigation, it has become apparent that because of the demographics and housing patterns of Santa Monica districting here won’t, or can’t, solve the problems that the CVRA was enacted to solve. It has also become apparent, ironically, that the current system does not prevent members of historic minorities from winning election. Not only did De la Torre win election, but Christine Parra, who is Latina, did also. Meanwhile, Kristin McCowan, who is African-American, won in the election (albeit one that was uncontested) for the balance of former Council Member Greg Morena’s term. (McCowan had been appointed this summer to replace Morena).

Using districts to remedy voting discrimination against minority populations works in jurisdictions where residential segregation is extreme and where the majority population has used at-large elections, or other means, to dilute minority voting power. Santa Monica does have a history of residential segregation. As a result of that history, few African-American and Latinx residents live north of Santa Monica Boulevard (and to a lesser extent south of Pico Boulevard). However, reflecting the relatively low percentage of historic minority residents in Santa Monica (about 16% of Santa Monica residents are Latinx, 10% Asian, and 5% Black), a lot of Anglos also live south of Santa Monica Boulevard, including in the Pico Neighborhood.

As a result, in the course of the litigation it proved impossible to create a district map by which a majority of Latinx residents could be grouped in one or more districts that were even substantially Latinx. The best district the plaintiffs came up with would be about 30% Latinx, but a majority of the city’s Latinx residents would still live outside the district.

There was a lot of discussion in the Court of Appeal ruling about whether a non-majority Latinx district could be a suitable remedy under the CVRA for discrimination against minority voters, and the plaintiffs have appealed on the grounds that it should not be necessary under the CVRA to have a majority-minority district. To me, however, that discussion skips the primary question; namely, what happens to the voting power of the majority of Latinx residents not included in the “Latinx district”?

The plaintiff’s remedy, districts, would put a lot, but not a majority, of Latinx residents in a district where they theoretically would have more power and representation in one election every four years. Meanwhile a majority of Latinx residents (along with all other voters in the city) would lose the right every two years to vote for four or three council members. How would that increase Latinx voting power? A minority of Latinx voters would trade the right to vote for all council members for a somewhat better chance of electing a Latinx candidate in one district, but the majority of Latinx voters would lose the right to vote for all council members while getting nothing in return.

Meanwhile, five or six council members would be elected from districts with very few or nearly no Latinx or African-American voters. What would that do to the political power of historic minorities in Santa Monica? On a national level it has been recognized for some time that the creation in the South of districts that enabled the election of African-Americans, while necessary given the historic realities of Jim Crow and the post-Reconstruction denial of the right to vote, has also led to gerrymandering (“packing and cracking”) that has isolated Black political power and enabled right-wing dominance.

There are arguments in favor of districts that are unconnected to the voting rights of historic minorities. I have friends who believe that they would be better represented by having a representative from their own neighborhoods. They believe district representatives would be more accessible and responsive. As I wrote in 2018, it’s easier to run for office in a small district. Certainly, at some point jurisdictions get so big that the only viable structure is to have representatives from districts.

But there are downsides. Think of the City of Los Angeles, where each council member rules his or her fiefdom (each of which has nearly three times the population of Santa Monica), and any action at the City Council level, including every major development, requires horse trading among the council members. It’s been almost impossible to have citywide planning.

If a jurisdiction has districts, the public needs an elected strong executive so that someone represents everyone, as a whole. Perhaps Santa Monica is big enough for an elected mayor, and as I wrote recently, there is an accountability problem with the city manager system, but that’s a major political issue all by itself. (I want to mention in fairness to De la Torre that he himself has recognized this issue and the need for an elected mayor if we go to districts.)

I hope that before the new council members vote to settle the lawsuit, they reflect on whether they were elected to take away the right of all Santa Monicans, including a majority of Latinx residents, to vote for all seven seats on the City Council.

Thanks for reading.

The asteroid that hit Santa Monica

During the election, I wrote two blogs, one about the national election and one about the election for Santa Monica City Council. In neither did I make predictions, but for the national election I expressed my “gut” belief that the election would be an earth-shattering, “realignment” election, based on which Democrats would set the agenda for the next 30 or 40 years. I had faith that it would be like an asteroid hitting earth. So much for faith, but at least Joe Biden won. (When all the votes have been counted, I’ll write more about the national election.)

I didn’t predict any results in Santa Monica, or even express any gut beliefs, but that was because I didn’t think I needed to. In my blog, reflecting on the dire circumstances in the city, I lamented the lack of a “principled opposition.” Nonetheless I wrote that I would vote for all of the incumbents, with enthusiasm. When I say I didn’t need to make predictions, that was because so few incumbents had lost reelection bids over the past 40 years, not since Santa Monicans for Renters Rights (SMRR) had become the dominant political force in the city. I expected the incumbents would win reelection, too.

Instead, the asteroid hit Santa Monica. Leaving aside Kristin McGowan, who was running unopposed in a special election, three of the four incumbents facing challengers—Terry O’Day, Ted Winterer, and Ana Maria Jara—lost. Only one, Gleam Davis, survived the impact of the extraterrestrial rock.

As a longtime observer of and sometimes participant in Santa Monica politics, I’ve been trying to figure out what happened.

Context is, of course everything. This election reminded me of the elections of 2002 and 1994, which, like this one, took place in fraught times—after riots and terrorist attacks, during economic slowdowns and/or housing and stock market busts. In 2002 no incumbents lost reelection, but just as unusual in Santa Monica, an education parcel tax failed. In 1994 incumbent Tony Vazquez lost, and was replaced with Ruth Ebner. Ebner is pretty much forgotten, but she is to this day my best example of unprincipled (and unbridled) opposition. I wasn’t involved in Santa Monica politics in 1983, but an “older-timer” told me this election reminded him of that of 1983, the first time SMRR lost a majority.

The context today is miserable. The virus is dispiriting, that’s a given, but no one blames the City Council for that, and the City’s response to the disease of Covid has been good. Instead, what defines the political context are the boarded-up storefronts downtown, drastically reduced city services in response to the virus’ hit on the City’s revenues, and the ongoing crisis of homelessness. The shadows cast by the terrible events of May 31 are as long as the shadows that hit the beach these days around 5:00 as the sun sinks directly across the bay.

Fourth Street this week.

I’ve been reviewing the campaign literature and ballot statements of the four challengers—winners Phil Brock, Christine Parra and Oscar de la Torre, and the fourth who didn’t win, Mario Fonda-Bonardi. The four ran as a slate. Their messaging was consistent and seized the moment. Typical phrases that they used incorporated words like “residents’ rights,” “fiscal accountability,” “public safety,” “reducing homelessness,” “zero tolerance for crime,” “stop overdevelopment,” “preserve the character of our community,” “reduce taxes,” “special interests,” and naturally, “it’s time for change.” To prove that they’re in Santa Monica, “protect renters” and “increase affordable housing,” are there, too.

Needless to say, they were fighting for the “soul of Santa Monica.”

Challengers previously have run on similar platforms, but incumbents have been able to win not only because of endorsements and the campaign financing that goes with them, but also because voters, even if they weren’t actively following local politics, recognized that they had it good living in Santa Monica, with its high level of services and progressive values. They assumed that there was competence behind those services. They didn’t realize that those services were greatly paid for with revenues generated by tourists, who disappeared with Covid, and that the competence was in the hands of managers who were rarely challenged by anyone, since they reported to a City Manager, not to elected officials or voters.

The budget and the services went down the toilet with Covid, and the aura of competence first dimmed when the City Manager was fired (or quit, I really don’t know) in the middle of the financial crisis, and then went dark entirely on May 31.

My theory is that local voters, swelled with interest in politics this year because of the national election, and alarmed at the local crises, paid more attention than usual to the local election, but not enough to become deeply informed. They read the ballot statements and accepted at face-value the claims of the challengers to be reformers who would deal with the city’s crises.

In fact, the challengers proposed bromides, not solutions.

Take homelessness, the shame and tragedy of our society. The challengers, three of whom will now be council members, campaigned that they could drastically reduce homelessness in the city, which they said was worse here than elsewhere. The situation in Santa Monica is terrible, of course, as elsewhere in the region, but have 40 years of conscientious efforts by the City to do something about made it worse? Have the challengers been over the border, to Venice, or West L.A., and seen the tent cities in L.A.? We don’t have those in Santa Monica because we have a proactive, services-oriented, housing-first approach to homelessness that incorporates services with policing.

The incumbents for the most part campaigned with cool rationality—too cool, probably. It wasn’t time for business as usual. In retrospect, their campaigns didn’t take into account the emotions of the moment.

Inevitably, since in normal times most political controversies in Santa Monica involve development, the question arises whether the victories of the challengers reflect a no-growth mandate. While the challengers tend to be from the slow growth side, if in different degrees, development was not the big issue they ran on. The challenger most identified with no-growth, Mario Fonda-Bonardi, lost. The incumbent who survived, Gleam Davis, is a favorite target of those opposed to development.

Still, from what I can tell, the anti-development groups provided a lot of the energy behind the challengers’ campaigns. That cannot be discounted. The City is now embarking on a new update to the Housing Element of its General Plan, an update that is required every five years. The City has legal obligations to plan for a level of housing development beyond what I imagine the new council members and certainly their no-growth backers would willingly agree to. I wonder how this will play out. In the 90s the City was sued over its Housing Element, which was found legally deficient.

A political asteroid hit Santa Monica. But was this a realignment election? Is the SMRR era over? SMRR has always rebounded from defeats in the past, but how could it be that thousands of renters must have defected from SMRR this year? Will the debris kicked up by the asteroid’s impact darken our skies for years?

No answers here. Just congratulations to the winners. (Good luck.)

Thanks for reading.