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Queers, People of Color Clash Over San Diego City Council Redistricting

by Mark Gabrish Conlan/Zenger's Newsmagazine Tuesday, Jul. 17, 2001 at 2:19 PM
mgconlan@earthlink.net (619) 688-1886 P.O. Box 50134, San Diego, CA 92165

The independent commission redrawing San Diego's City Council districts is considering two maps — one which keeps the city's Queer vote concentrated in one district, one which splits it in order to create a district that might elect a third person of color to the Council. The controversy highlights differences of interest between Queers and people of color, between working-class and poor people and small business owners, and between minorities that are recognized in federal civil rights law and ones that aren't.

errorQueer District Threatened in City Redistricting Process
Commission Chair Warns Voting Rights Act May Force Split

news analysis by MARK GABRISH CONLAN
Copyright 2001 by Zengers Newsmagazine Used by permission

San Diegos Redistricting Commission, whose job is to redraw district boundaries for the next decades City Council elections, is in the middle of a cycle of public hearings and is considering two different maps. One, called the preliminary map, keeps the neighborhoods with the highest concentrations of Queer people in San Diego Hillcrest, North Park, University Heights, Normal Heights, Kensington and Talmadge united in Council District 3. The other, the alternate map, peels off Normal Heights, Kensington and Talmadge into District 7 in order to make room for all of City Heights in District 3.

At a July 11 Redistricting Commission hearing in City Heights, the alternate map was denounced by a wide variety of speakers not only Queer community leaders and the current District 3 Councilmember, Toni Atkins, but also by City Heights business leaders who feel the opportunities for city help in their economic development are greater with more than one Councilmember representing the area. Nonetheless, throughout the hearing Commission chair Ralph Pesqueira repeatedly warned that the federal Voting Rights Act of 1965 may force the Commission to adopt the alternate map, whether the activists in the district like it or not.

The original purpose of the Voting Rights Act was to break down the various strategies white leaders in the South had used for almost a century to minimize African-Americans ability to vote and elect candidates to public office. It has been amended several times since, partly as a result of court rulings and partly to accommodate other communities of color particularly Latinos and Asian-Americans who also believed that their rights to vote and elect their own candidates had been denied through redistricting and other strategies outlawed by the Act.

Right now, San Diego has eight City Council districts, of which two are considered people of color districts: District 4, currently represented by African-American George Stevens; and District 8, currently represented by Latino Ralph Inzunza. Until 1988, San Diego elected its Councilmembers in a mixed system whereby primaries were held in the individual districts but the two top vote-getters faced each other in a citywide general election. Though African-Americans served on the City Council under this system, it was not until voters changed to an exclusively district-election system that the first Latino to sit on the City Council in modern times, Juan Vargas, won election in District 8.

In the 1980s the Southwest Voter Education Project, a largely Latino group, threatened to sue San Diego under the Voting Rights Act to have the citywide election system declared illegal under the Act on the ground that it prevented a Latino from ever being elected to the City Council. Though voter approval of the charter change to all-district elections mooted this suit, many people of color still think that the district layouts as they currently exist artificially hold down the numbers of people of color on the San Diego City Council and they see the independent Redistricting Commission as an opportunity to do something about it.

This is the first time San Diego has used an independent commission to design its City Council districts. Before now the City Council itself has had that responsibility, but the 1991-1992 redistricting process was so controversial many voters decided the Council could no longer be trusted with the job. The hottest issue around redistricting came when voters in District 5, angry that their communities had been moved into District 6, actually recalled their Councilmember, Linda Bernhardt, and demanded that her replacement, Tom Behr, get the map redrawn to keep them in District 5.

Another aspect of the 1990s map that helped discredit City Council redistricting was the so-called Filner finger, a long stretch of Seventh Avenue that was kept in District 8 even while all the surrounding blocks were put in District 3 so Bob Filner, the District 8 Councilmember when the process began, wouldnt have to move to run for re-election.

As a result, the citys voters passed a sweeping charter amendment that gave near-absolute authority over the district maps to the Redistricting Commission. The City Council has no role in the process not even the opportunity to vote on the Commissions map and either approve it or send it back. The only ways the Commissions map can be prevented from taking effect is through a voter referendum or a lawsuit on Constitutional or Voting Rights Act grounds.

One important change that was made by the City Council in 1991-1992 was to unite Hillcrest and North Park, the main centers for San Diegos Queer population, into a single Council district and thus make it possible for a Queer candidate to be elected. The change was masterminded by then-District 3 Councilmember John Hartley, a straight candidate elected with strong Queer support, and it served its purpose. In the three Council elections held in the existing District 3 in 1993, 1997 and 2000 openly Lesbian candidates won every time: Christine Kehoe in 1993 and 1997 and Atkins in 2000 (ironically beating Hartley in his attempt to regain the seat he had chosen not to run for re-election to in 1993).

Although Queers are not a protected class under the Voting Rights Act or any other federal civil-rights legislation, they are so protected under California state law and the San Diego Human Dignity Ordinance, which bans discrimination in employment, housing or public accommodations based on sexual orientation. Queer advocates before the Redistricting Commission have argued that San Diegos Queer community constitutes a community of interest which should be recognized as such by being included in a single Council district. However, the seven-member Commission theyre making this argument to includes five people of color but no open Queers.

The test for deciding whether a certain district boundary illegally dilutes voting strength of communities of color was created by the U.S. Supreme Court in a 1986 case, Thornburg v. Gingles (478 U.S. 30). The Gingles test requires that, for a community of color to claim Voting Rights Act protection, it must be large and compact enough to form a majority in a district; it must be politically cohesive (that is, a majority of its members must regularly vote the same way on both candidates and issues); and it must be the victim of racially polarized voting it must demonstrate that white voters have consistently outvoted it in the districts as they are now.

Councilmember Atkins presentation to the Commission July 11 was aimed at demonstrating that the preliminary maps District 3 is politically cohesive, and the alternate maps isnt. She picked three census tracts No. 4 in Hillcrest, which isnt in District 3 now but will be under either the preliminary or alternate map; No. 18 in Normal Heights, which is in District 3 now and in the preliminary map but is in District 7 in the alternate map; and No. 25.01 in City Heights, which is in District 3 now and in both proposed maps.

In these communities, in the 2000 Presidential election, 70 percent of the vote was cast for Al Gore, Atkins said. And in the mayors race, over 60 percent was cast for Ron Roberts in these three [census tracts]. In the highly racially charged Proposition 187, voters in these three geographically different census tracts each voted against its approval by over 50 percent. Interestingly, though, enough to note, in City Heights census tract 27.10 [which is in District 7 now and in the preliminary map, but is in District 3 in the alternate map], only 39 percent of the voters voted against [187].

Other speakers stressed the economic benefits to City Heights redevelopment projects from being in three different Council districts now (which the preliminary map would reduce to two, and the alternate map to one). Myrna Zumbrano, aide to former City Councilmember and current state Assemblymember Christine Kehoe, read a letter from Kehoe stating that the City Heights police station the Commission was meeting in was financed by a deal she had cut when she was the District 3 Councilmember and Judy McCarty represented District 7. Would this have happened if only one member of the Council represented this district? I dont think so, Kehoes letter said.

We do very well independently and with three Council districts, said City Heights resident Susan Ringo. We have worked very hard to overcome 30 years of neglect. Ive watched this go from three to two and the possibility of one, which makes it much more difficult to get the work done.

Another City Heights activist, J. W. Stump, couldnt have disagreed more. There should be some explanation of why everywhere else in the city you unite, and where you have the greatest concentration of protected classes, you divide, he said. If Hillcrest should be united, why not City Heights?

Im here to support the alternate map, said African-American community leader Maxine Sherrard. My intent is not to alienate any group, but theres a higher purpose: to unite and empower communities. I would like to see City Heights united. In the 1980s it was united. In the 1990s it was separated into three different parts. It has been disenfranchised and it needs to be united. You dont need three votes to get something done at the City Council; you need five.

Three gets you a lot closer to five than one does, replied Craig Roberts, former president of the San Diego Democratic Club and the North Park Planning Committee. Roberts said he felt the Queer community had been sandbagged by the appearance of the alternate map towards the end of the process.

I really question the motives of the Commission, Roberts said. If your motive is really to address what you think is a Voting Rights [Act] problem, then the way youre doing it with your alternative map is all wrong. And I support the City Heights community when they say they want to be in three City Council districts. Its worked.

Commission member Leland Saito said he wasnt convinced the City Heights business and community leaders who want the area kept split really represent the neighborhood as a whole. What about the people who may be undocumented and not English-speaking? he said. A lot of you have talked about the redevelopment, but what about the people who have been displaced? What about the people whose homes have been bulldozed? What about the people who cant afford to live here anymore?

Saitos comments highlighted the class issues lurking under the surface of the redistricting controversy. In general, the advocates of keeping the Queer community united into a single Council district and keeping City Heights split into two or three different ones are members of the petit bourgeoisie: both Queer business owners in Hillcrest, North Park and Normal Heights, and non-Queer business owners in City Heights who are pushing the neighborhood revitalization because they see it benefiting them. The supporters of unifying City Heights into a single Council district at the cost of splitting the Queer community tend to be civil-rights activists who see their constituencies as more economically marginal working-class people as well as poor and homeless people.

Its not at all clear that a Voting Rights Act challenge to the preliminary map would succeed. Despite Saitos demand that his fellow Commission members take into account undocumented immigrants in drawing their maps, and despite the statement in the citys handout on Gingles that courts are split on whether non-citizens count for the purpose of measuring whether a district complies with the Act, the late Justice William Brennans majority opinion in Gingles clearly states that to pass the test, the minority voters must be sufficiently concentrated and politically cohesive that a putative districting plan would result in districts in which members of a racial minority would constitute a majority of the voters.

The phrase a majority of the voters indicates that, even though the boundary lines of the districts themselves are based on the total population including foreign nationals, children and everyone else the U.S. Census counts the Gingles test is limited to those eligible to vote. Non-citizen immigrants, documented or otherwise, dont count. The alternate maps District 3 has an unusually high concentration of immigrants not only Latinos but also Ethiopians, Somalians and others recently arrived from Africa, racially Black but not African-Americans in the usual sense of the term.

The alternate maps District 3 would have another problem: no one racial or ethnic group would be a majority in it. The status of the alternate maps District 3 as a people of color district only comes from lumping its African, Latino and Asian populations together and its not clear what sort of ethnic background would make the strongest candidate for the alternate maps District 3. Even the citys memo on Voting Rights Act implementation warns that courts are split on allowing claims by coalitions of more than one racial group, but most of these claims have failed due to small size or lack of cohesiveness.

Indeed, the question of whether you can lump various minorities together to create a majority-minority district has led to a semantic dispute between the two sides. Councilmember Atkins and other advocates of the preliminary may say District 3 is a majority-minority district already, while their opponents say it isnt and wont be unless the alternate map is adopted. The reason is the preliminary maps supporters consider the Queer community a legitimate minority and the alternate maps supporters dont.

The [Redistricting] Commission is under the impression that Gay and white are the same, Queer activist Doug Case warned in the action alert he wrote to get Queer people to attend the July 11 hearing. They do not understand that our community represents all races and ethnic groups. One strategy behind Cases alert was to get Queers of color to the hearing but only two of the 28 people who spoke, San Diego Lesbian/Gay Pride board members Csar Portillo and Andrea Villa, so identified themselves.

What seemed to have upset the Queer community representatives most at the July 11 hearing was the sense of being, as Roberts put it, sandbagged by the raising of Voting Rights Act considerations at the last minute, as the Commission is wrapping up its second and last set of in-district hearings. As it stands, the Commission is expected to receive an expert opinion from Berkeley-based consultant Bruce Cain on whether the preliminary maps District 3 violates the Act on July 21 two days after the Commission concludes its last field hearing.

Anyone who wants to comment on Cains report wont have a chance to until the regular Commission meeting Wednesday, July 25, 4 p.m. in the City Council chambers, 202 C Street, 12th floor. Thats just a little over a month before the Commissions September 3 deadline to pass the final map and put it into effect.

A shorter version of this article will appear in the August 2001 issue of Zengers Newsmagazine.
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