National City City Hall / File photo by Adriana Heldiz

Last Tuesday, National City held its first ever district elections. These elections occurred on the one-year anniversary date of when Filipino-American residents, Ditas Yamane and Florfina Arce, demanded the city switch its election system from “at-large” (or city-wide) to district voting. The Filipino-American community and other groups joined their efforts to bring change.

Under the California Voting Rights Action, a city may be required to abandon an electoral system that has unlawful discriminatory effects. National City was the perfect case in point. It had had one of the highest concentrations of Filipino-Americans in the country for many years — approximately 20 percent.  In one section of the city, the Filipino-American population is 35 percent. These percentages were high enough in other California cities that transitioned to district voting.

Yet, the city had elected just one person of Filipino descent in the prior 20 years. In the prior 55 years, it elected two persons of Filipino descent. These statistics worsen when considering there are numerous elected seats available, including five council member seats, a city clerk, and a treasurer. In a letter to the city clerk, the residents cited these statistics as evidence of racially polarized voting. However, Mayor Alejandra Sotelo-Solis and the City Council (except Jose Rodriguez) dismissed the complaints in Resolution 2021 as “unsubstantiated allegations.” And without citing any evidence themselves, the Council claimed that National City had a “history of inclusionary voting.”

Nonetheless, the mayor and City Council agreed to the residents’ demands to adopt district elections on Dec. 21, 2021.  But rather than acknowledging the community’s grievances, they cited the high cost of litigation as the primary reason to adopt district elections.  While that was a positive result for the Filipino-American community, it certainly fell short of validating the history of political disempowerment.

But the recent elections provided the validation. Yamane, a long-time Filipino-American resident who had run several unsuccessful city-wide campaigns, won her election in District 3.  That district has the highest percentage of Filipinos in the city. Luz Molina, running for a Council seat for the first time, was elected to represent District 1, the west side constituents. Their respective districts now have a separate, distinct and powerful voice. 

Yamane replaces a seat currently occupied by Mona Rios, who resides in District 3.  Rios is a close ally of Mayor Sotelo-Solis.  And with Mayor Sotelo-Soli losing her bid for re-election as Mayor, the composition of the City Council will change very dramatically. 

With this change, the political landscape of National City is likely to have changed forever. It will see new and more diverse candidates running for office, hopefully bringing fresh ideas. That is a true democracy.

Audie de Castro is the attorney that represented Ms. Yamane and Arce in their demands to the city.

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