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Cities are poised to redraw their political boundaries next year, and early indications suggest Latino residents could be underrepresented in that process.
The application deadline to serve on San Diego’s nonpartisan redistricting commission just passed, and the deadlines in San Diego County and Chula Vista are coming up at the end of the month. Once those commissions are seated, they’ll help hire a staff to redraw political districts based on the new Census.
Latinos represent 13 percent of the 102 applications to serve on San Diego’s redistricting commission, as of Monday evening, compared with 31 percent of the city’s population. District 8, which is 74 percent Latino, only had four applicants – the lowest number of any City Council district by far.
Chula Vista, as of June 30, had received only six applications, not enough to seat the commission, though it has another month to collect more. Anne Steinberg, a spokeswoman for the city, said the majority of applications come in just before the deadline, and the city clerk can extend the deadline there aren’t more than 10 applications by then.
In San Diego County, where 67 applications have already come in as of July 2, Latinos represent just 9 percent of those who could be selected, compared with 35 percent of the region. The county’s applicant pool has also skew male. Only 31 percent of applicants identified as female.
“We want people who are qualified and know their communities, but we also want people who reflect the community that the commission serves,” said Kiyana Asemanfar, policy manager for California Common Cause, a nonprofit group that assists cities with redistricting outreach. “That’s why we put such a heavy emphasis on the recruitment period. It’s difficult to achieve a representative commission if you don’t begin with a representative applicant pool.”
Redistricting decisions made next year will be in place for 10 years. And during those 10 years, population forecasts show the proportion of Latinos in both the county and the city will continue to grow. Latinos are expected to make up 35.5 percent of the city of San Diego’s population and nearly 40 percent of the county’s population by 2030.
“Obviously I’m disappointed that the number of applicants is so low,” said Christian Ramirez, a former City Council candidate and Sherman Heights resident. “This seems to be a perennial problem for our communities. There is something to be said about the growing gap between city hall and the communities in the southern part of our city, particularly in District 8.”
Ramirez said he considered applying for the commission, but didn’t want to compete with someone he knew who had also applied. But hearing the low numbers of Latino and District 8 applicants makes him regret that decision.
“Despite the fact that San Diego has become much more progressive and inclusive, the system is still broken,” he said. “The rhetoric may be there, but in practice this tells you everything. This tells you a story of a city that continues to turn its back on working class communities, on communities of color.”
Christopher Rice-Wilson, associate director at Alliance San Diego, said the outreach and application, which was complicated in itself, have become a sort of poll tax to groups like Latinos who are already not insiders and participants in local government.
“This is disappointing,” Rice-Wilson said. “We are deeply concerned about underrepresentation. Someone should’ve seen this coming and done something to mitigate it.”
Rice-Wilson said that he doesn’t believe the city’s messaging about the commission was culturally sensitive or culturally relevant to many groups, including Latinos. Organizations like his try to do outreach and help convert messaging into something that resonates with underrepresented communities, but they are stretched thin, especially with the coronavirus pandemic and recent racial justice movement.
“The problem is that the importance of this commission hasn’t been translated to underrepresented communities – not just Latinos, but even Black and [Asian American and Pacific Islander communities].”
Griselda Ramirez, director of civic engagement at Mid-City CAN, said the outreach process wasn’t what it should have been in Latino communities. It should have been more extensive and targeted communities of color that are traditionally underrepresented, she said.
“By not having proper representation on the commission, we will potentially not have a voice at the table to talk about the needs of that community,” she said. “When we redistrict, we could lose some districts.”
There are glaring differences in need within District 9, Ramirez said, between areas like City Heights and areas like Kensington, which are whiter and wealthier. Redistricting will play an important role in how well places like City Heights have their needs met by the City Council.
COVID-19 complicated outreach efforts for redistricting applications this cycle, like it did everything else. In that context, Elizabeth Maland, San Diego’s city clerk, said the city’s outreach was a success; it set a recent high for applications, despite a once-a-century pandemic that foreclosed in-person outreach efforts. In 2000, the city received 40 applications. It received 59 in 2010 and 106 this year.
“We tend to look at our own process since each municipality and entity handles redistricting differently with different application requirements, selection processes and general guidelines,” Maland wrote in an email. “As you know, my office is a proponent of continuous improvement, so after each process, we review our methods for areas of improvement, and different ways to achieve successful outreach.”
Maland said she could not comment on potential underrepresentation on the redistricting commission. The city charter puts the selection process in the hands of a panel of three randomly selected judges, though their selections are intended to give the commission “geographic, social and ethnic diversity,” while ensuring representatives can do the job and demonstrate impartiality.
Former Councilman David Alvarez, who represented heavily Latino District 8, said just 13 percent of applications coming from Latinos should disappoint anyone who cares about San Diego, and reflects the lack of diversity in the region’s civic institutions. But the issue was baked in before the city began its outreach efforts, he said.
“You don’t just wake up one day and all of a sudden have a bunch of people who feel confident in participating in a process like redistricting,” he wrote in a text message. “You can only have real representation in decision-making bodies when you invest in people with diversity participating in boards and commissions. We have a long ways to go in San Diego. When people don’t see people like them in positions of influence either volunteering on a board or employed at executive levels, they do not see themselves participating at that level.”
Institutions shouldn’t just invite people to participate, but train and support them to take advantage of opportunities, Alvarez wrote, “but the system doesn’t or hasn’t because it is afraid of giving a voice and power to them.”
“Given the moment we are in, I can only hope our institutions really understand what this failure of representation means to our city,” he said.
The commission includes one representative from each Council district. The city received only four applications in District 8, however – a district that is 74 percent Latino, which Alvarez used to represent.
Lisa Schmidt, a spokeswoman for District 8’s Councilwoman Vivian Moreno, said the office did community outreach for applications on social media, and directly to individuals they thought would be interested.
“As you know, District 8 is a working-class community and it is challenging to encourage individuals to participate in a process that involves a significant time commitment,” she said.
Rice-Wilson said District 8’s low application total is a stark reminder of how the current political process leaves people out.
“A district that has the least amount of investment, least distribution of resources and high need will not get its fair voice in a process that will determine its political participation for 10 years,” he said.
District 8, Rice-Wilson said, is one of the city’s most impoverished districts, has lower voter turnout than other districts and “generally is the district that has the least amount of voice when it comes to politics in San Diego.”
Part of the district, which includes San Ysidro and Otay Mesa, is even geographically separated from the rest of the city.
Gentrification has also forced many residents of District 8 out of the district and the city of San Diego, he said. Many former residents have moved to places like El Cajon to find more affordable housing, and that might have an impact on how the district’s lines are drawn.
Ramirez is also concerned that gentrification may impact the northern part of District 8, which includes areas like Sherman Heights and Barrio Logan. In the last round of redistricting ten years ago, he said, the district lost Golden Hill and other areas and it may be poised to lose ground again.
“There was a reason why we needed to connect the historic Barrio district of the north to the communities of the south – a shared culture, history and language,” Ramirez said. “It was a hard-fought battle to ensure District 8 and District 4 were created decades ago and to see that despite that hard work, we haven’t been able to engage those communities with city leaders and fold them into civic decision-making is very unfortunate and we in these communities will pay the consequences for that.”
It’s possible – maybe even likely – that San Diego will see fewer significant shifts, like moving Golden Hill from District 8 into District 3, than it did in 2011. Then, the city was adding a ninth Council district, a disruption that forced bigger changes to surrounding areas, and led two incumbent Council members to have their homes redistricted out of the areas they represented. But prioritizing boundaries to ensure representation for LGBTQ, Asian American and Pacific Islander, Black and Latino residents will persist.
In Chula Vista, where there’s still a month to go but applications are too low to seat the commission if it needed to happen today. Bernardo Vasquez, a former commissioner, said there was more outreach the last go-round, because it was the first time Chula Vista had specific Council districts, instead of at-large Council seats. That’s been an important change, he said, in giving residents in western Chula Vista a sense that they were represented.
“The city really needs to get out in front of it and really do a push in the last month,” he said.
Jerome O. Torres, former chair of Chula Vista’s redistricting commission, said Chula Vista lacks the advocacy groups of larger cities that tend to drive interest and awareness in applying.
“It paints a bad picture on Chula Vista,” he said. “It’s embarrassing. Even when I was head of the commission, it was hard to get people to come to meetings.”
Redistricting commissions as a whole have their biggest impact at the start of the process, when they decide to hire the people who will do the complex demographic work to draw new political lines that, by law, can’t be driven by partisan intent, or cater to incumbent politicians’ wishes.
“These are the people who will be in charge of the process going forward – choosing a demographer, setting up the process for public testimony and giving direction on boundaries,” said Evan McLaughlin, vice president at Redistricting Partners, a firm that works with redistricting commissions to ensure their maps pass legal muster.