In late February, a group of local gay and lesbian leaders gathered in Hillcrest, political power on their minds.
They were strategizing about how to lobby the city’s Redistricting Commission to maximize their political influence as the commission reconfigures San Diego’s City Council boundaries.
But before the leaders could propose a map, they had to answer a basic question: Which neighborhoods were most likely to vote for gay candidates?
One thing quickly became clear. The gay community could afford to lose City Heights. A majority of voters there supported Proposition 8, the 2008 ballot initiative that outlawed gay marriage. So they drew up a map that cast City Heights into another district and instead included gay-friendlier neighborhoods west and south of uptown.
That proposal sat just fine with a group of Latinos who had started meeting at the Centro Cultural de la Raza in Balboa Park to draw their own map. They’d been eyeing City Heights, and in their map made it the center of a district that would be majority Latino, opening the possibility of electing a second Latino to the City Council.
But the two communities’ idea of splitting the existing district would mean a difficult choice for one local figure: Its councilman, who represents both City Heights and uptown.
Todd Gloria lives in City Heights. But he enjoys support from the large gay community just to the west, in uptown. If the commission adopts the proposal to split those communities, Gloria would face a choice: Run for re-election in City Heights or move west so he could continue to represent the gay community.
Gloria declined to comment, but at a recent public hearing, he hinted he’d rather not face that choice, telling the commission that population figures suggest his district “should only anticipate slight adjustments to its boundaries.”
“Of course, others may argue for more significant alterations,” he said, “and I’ll be here tonight interested in hearing the testimony.”
Local redistricting, which happens every 10 years, can have serious consequences for city politics. The ongoing scramble to define the new boundaries in the city’s core neighborhoods illustrates the stakes, which are especially high now because the Redistricting Commission will carve a new ninth district out of the existing eight.
Latinos and gays and lesbians have offered proposals that would favor candidates from their respective interest groups. So have Asians, African-Americans, Republicans and labor groups.
Little is certain about what the Redistricting Commission’s seven members will decide, except this: there will be winners and losers.
Many of the proposals are incompatible, some would potentially force councilmembers like Gloria from their existing homes, and all will depend on their proponents’ ability to convince the commission that their ideas are best for San Diego as a whole.
“This is the future of the city,” said Linda Perine, who is leading the LGBT effort. “This is the next 10 years. This is big.”
The competing efforts to influence the city’s council boundaries have been simmering since late last year. But they’ve accelerated since Census data released in March gave the interest groups a firmer idea of exactly how much each district would have to shrink, since the addition of a ninth district will require each of the existing eight to lose population, with a goal of 144,000 people in each.
In an effort to sway the seven residents who sit on the Redistricting Commission, the interest groups have become increasingly vocal about their demands, each culling and pulling facts and figures to support their proposals. The new ninth district will require a dramatic shift to boundaries in at least one part of the city, making this redistricting effort more of a free-for-all than a decade ago.
The LGBT community wants to tighten its grip over the council seat currently held by Gloria, while Latinos argue that the council’s sole Latino seat in the eighth district does not do justice to their community, which is close to a third of the city’s population. They want a majority Latino district in City Heights to remedy that.
“The fact that the district would be almost 60 percent Latino doesn’t mean it’s going to automatically elect a Latino,” said Mateo Camarillo, who has led the Latino push and who served on the city’s last redistricting commission. “All it is doing is creating the opportunity.”
But Asians want that dramatic shift in northern San Diego, arguing that the City Council has not had an Asian member for half a century, despite their population growth in that part of town.
Mitz Lee, a former San Diego Unified school board member who has led the Asian community’s efforts, said their proposal would achieve an Asian-friendly district while “respecting the current districts of the Latino, LGBT, and African-American communities to the south. That’s all intact.”
But that is not enough for the Latino group, which contends its proposed district in City Heights should be a priority because it’d achieve a majority Latino population. Lee’s proposed northern district could not achieve a majority Asian population. Census figures show it would have, at maximum, 40 percent.
The Latino interest group has joined efforts with the gay community, African-American representatives, and labor to create a map that would significantly alter existing district boundaries across the city in the interest of empowering ethnic minorities.
But that liberal coalition’s proposal has drawn criticism from Republicans, who have proposed a map they say minimizes gerrymandering while giving Republicans a better chance at competing against Democrats, who currently control five of the City Council’s eight seats.
Republican and Democratic groups are angling to control as many seats on the Council as possible because a six-vote majority would allow the controlling party to override the mayor’s veto.
“We are comfortable battling Democrats in fair and honest districts,” said Barrett Tetlow, executive director of the Republican Party of San Diego County. “If we have a fair shot, we can win.”
“Just look at their map,” he said of the liberal coalition’s proposal. “They have a district that looks like a medieval dragon.”
But Republicans’ proposal has been a nonstarter for both the Latino and LGBT groups, because it would split uptown’s gay community down the center and not achieve the majority Latino district in City Heights that Latinos are pushing for.
The Latino and LGBT groups have held up federal and state voting laws, designed to ensure minority representation, as justification for creating districts that help them elect candidates of their choice. That’s been critical to the Asian group’s efforts, too.
“What we want is respect to the current communities of interest citywide, including Asians,” Lee said. “The commissioners were appointed to give balance and perspective to the community, not to have a sway or pull in partisan directions. I hope they will review the maps very closely.”
The commission must file a new redistricting plan by Sept. 15.