La Jolla
La Jolla / Photo by Megan Wood

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The 2020 Census captured a San Diego that is more diverse than ever. The city is now 53 percent non-White.   

But this year’s redistricting process showed how little some systems in San Diego are changing. 

In an unprecedented way, a coalition of organizations serving some of the city’s most diverse neighborhoods proposed a new political map that increased the number of districts with enough non-White voters for them to have significant political sway.

“In the wake of a national reckoning on racial and social justice issues, my strong hope for this overall effort was that this commission would embrace the opportunity to make these really meaningful changes for our democratic institutions and particularly to empower those marginalized voices,” said Commissioner Justine Nielsen from District 7, who was one of two commissioners who voted against the final map the commission chose. “So again, I’ll just reiterate my disappointment.”  

Nielsen had previously motioned for the community coalition map to be the commission’s preliminary map, before the commission voted it down.

The coalition’s map created a District 2 centered around the communities of Linda Vista, Serra Mesa and Clairemont Mesa that would have been a fifth majority non-White district in the city. The district would have been 51 percent non-White in total population. It would have had an 18.69 percent Latino voting age population, in addition to 13.64 and 4.51 percent Asian and Black voting age populations, respectively. 

The coalition’s map also moved UC San Diego and some of its neighboring areas, like north University City and Sorrento Valley into District 6 – something many UCSD students and other Asian American and Pacific Islander residents had been asking the commission to do. It created a District 6 where the Asian American and Pacific Islander population reached roughly 41 percent of the total district. But it combined La Jolla with other coastal areas with many single-family homeowners, like Pacific Beach and Point Loma, creating a single coastal district, which drew backlash from coastal residents and was a non-starter for several commissioners. 

“I understand that compromises need to be made,” Trinh Le, organizing director with Mid-City CAN – one of the organizations in the coalition – told commissioners during their final meeting on Dec. 15. “The biggest crux though is the fact that the commission had an opportunity to create five majority minority districts by putting Clairemont Mesa, Linda Vista, and Serra Mesa together into one district, which would have made it 51 percent BIPOC in total population. In the end, the commission chose not to do this, which is in direct opposition of what the changing demographics and the new Census data tells us about San Diego. This is not a compromise. This is a great loss for BIPOC communities in San Diego, who are already under-resourced and under-served. This is disenfranchisement.” 

Redistricting Commissioner Monica Hernandez, who represents District 8, also voted against the commission’s final map, citing solidarity with communities of color. 

At the final meeting, Nielsen explained why she wouldn’t be supporting the map the commission ultimately voted to approve.  

At the outset of the redistricting process, she, Hernandez and Commissioner Ken Marlborough from District 4, were tasked with community outreach, to ensure that residents – in particular BIPOC communities, historically marginalized communities and communities with low participation in prior rounds of redistricting – were engaged in the process. 

“We saw, as a commission, unprecedented participation from communities, but I was particularly encouraged by the mass turnout we saw from historically marginalized communities and the BIPOC communities,” Nielsen said. “I was even more encouraged … when those communities worked together to draft the collaborative map, which I believe address many of – if not all of – the commission’s stated goals, while also creating and enhancing empowerment districts for those BIPOC communities and historically marginalized communities.” 

But at the end of October, most of the commissioners opted for a different map. Many commissioners cited the single coastal district as a primary reason. Commission Chair Tom Hebrank said at the time that the collaborative map contained too many large shifts from the city’s previous map.  

“I’m disappointed that this commission voted to give deference to the coastal communities – and Districts 1 and 2, in particular,” Nielsen said. “That initial action, that initial vote, and the subsequent unwillingness to consider really significant changes to those districts really had significant ramifications on the rest of our commission’s deliberations.” 

Choosing to go with a map that preserved two coastal districts forced the commissioners “to nibble around the edges of other communities,” Nielsen said, to increase the voting age population of marginalized groups like the AAPI and Latino communities in their own empowerment districts. 

“As a result, we were forced into making tough decisions and pitting those communities against each other rather than making those tough decisions in those historically advantaged coastal communities,” Nielsen said. 

Indeed, the commission faced some unavoidable realities, like that the populations in districts south of Interstate 8, which have tended to include some of the city’s most historically marginalized communities, hadn’t grown as fast as other districts. Even the collaborative map had to settle for a lower Latino voting age population in its District 9 than in the current District 9. 

“I’m not trying to disenfranchise,” Hebrank said at an early December meeting.  

He went on to explain that because Districts 4, 8 and 9 all had lower populations, Districts 4 and 8 had no choice but to take areas from District 9 and District 9 had no choice but to grow north and west, into neighborhoods with different demographics. 

“It’s not a gerrymandering,” Hebrank said at the Dec. 7 meeting. “It’s purely what the numbers are reflecting.” 

But the discussion often made clear that some commissioners still had an old, redlined version of San Diego in their heads. One that perpetuated the idea that communities of color primarily existed in great numbers in Districts 4, 8 and 9. That assumption resulted in neighborhoods with growing numbers of people of color, like Linda Vista, Serra Mesa and Clairemont Mesa being placed into districts where they would be surrounded by White voters. Clairemont Mesa, for example, was put into District 2 with communities like Mission Beach, Ocean Beach and Point Loma that have vastly different demographics and socioeconomics. 

As the map started to head in this direction, many individuals who had supported the collaborative map began to change their tone with the commission, reminding them of parts of San Diego’s racist history and explaining to them how the map would uphold a White supremacist governance structure in San Diego. Some commissioners pushed back. 

“I’m not suggesting that one can’t feel passionate about one map and even be passionately opposed to another,” said Commissioner Val Hoy from District 1 in a November meeting. “But to suggest that this decision somehow turns on racist motivation of either members of the commission or members of the public who spoke, I think does a disservice to us all.” 

Hoy went one to say that the map that was adopted 10 years ago, which created the city’s Asian empowerment district and second Latino empowerment district, has led to San Diego’s City Council being more diverse than ever – and that should be celebrated. 

He said it was unreasonable to suggest anyone not supporting the collaborative map had racist motivations, because the differences in voting age populations of color in certain districts between maps was so small – in one case only about 2 percent.

“It’s getting a little overhyped,” Hoy said. “And some of the speakers, frankly, I think they ought to be ashamed of the way they’re speaking. They’re not persuading me. Maybe they think I’m a lost cause because I’m White. Well, that’s racist.” 

The commission eventually raised the voting age populations in District 6 – the AAPI empowerment district – and District 9 – the city’s second Latino empowerment district, in part by splitting other communities, like Scripps Ranch, and pulling census tracts and neighborhoods from Districts 4 and 8, which are also districts with large non-White populations.  

But the map left some people who had worked to get some of those improvements in representation for communities of color feeling like the commission had moved them backwards instead of forwards, especially for the Latino population in District 9. 

“The undoing of the hard work of a lot of communities in 2011 to create the second Latinx empower district – that’s over, that’s done. Thank you for that. That’s sarcasm,” said Barry Pollard, a District 4 resident who also worked on redistricting with a community coalition on the creation of a Latino-empowerment District 9 in 2011, told commissioners in a meeting in early December. 

And it left many people wondering why it was okay to split those communities and districts in the way the commission did, while the prospect of putting all coastal communities – that share many characteristics, values and issues – into one district was shut down so swiftly. 

In the final meeting, Debbie Discar-Espe, who had been speaking at commission meeting for months as part of Neighborhood Voices San Diego and the Asian Business Association and advocating for an AAPI population of at least 40 percent in District 6, expressed her disappointment for the double standard she saw play out from many of the commissioners. 

“The narrative of your work is clear to us: some voices are more important than others,” Discar-Espe said. “This process started and ended with the wishes of a small handful of coastal homeowners, and specifically, community planning group members.” 

Discar-Espe said there have been multiple reports showing community planning groups aren’t representative of their communities and there are ongoing efforts to reform them. 

“To those of us watching from the outside, the process of modifying the preliminary map proved what was clear to us from the start: the wrong preliminary map was chosen,” she said. “As a result, you are now voting on a map that is rather bizarre to any average resident who looks at them, carving through planning areas and with bits and pieces protruding in all directions.” 

The outcome of this round of redistricting has left some people calling for a reform to the whole process.  

Aidan Lin, a UCSD student who advocated for the university to be moved into District 6, wrote in a recent op-ed for Voice of San Diego that the commissioners clearly don’t reflect the diversity of the city.  

UCSD students, who had advocated for this change primarily because they wanted a councilmember who would help address their housing affordability issues – something they felt the representative they’ve long shared with La Jolla hasn’t done. In the final map, the UC San Diego campus and areas where students live were divided between Districts 1 and 6. The campus west of Interstate 5, where thousands of undergraduate students live, remained in District 1, while graduate student housing and other student population centers to the east were put into District 6. 

In his op-ed, Lin announced students would partner with other communities to reform the process prior to the next redistricting cycle. His reform ideas included detaching commissioner appointments from specific City Council districts, changing who appoints commissioners and creating requirements for commissioners to include voices like renters, students, and BIPOC residents. 

“These commissioners simply do not reflect the diversity of San Diego, nor the experiences of most residents, and repeatedly proved themselves incapable of putting aside their own biases for the good of the city,” Lin wrote. “No wonder the Commission has been incapable of handling the complex racial dynamics at the center of redistricting.” 

Maya Srikrishnan

Maya was Voice of San Diego’s Associate Editor of Civic Education. She reported on marginalized communities in San Diego and oversees Voice’s explanatory...

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