Where power is shifting as Bay Area cities move to district elections

Spurred by advocates seeking to diversify politics, several cities across the Bay Area switched to district elections for the first time this past Election Day, setting the stage for a shift in the balance of power in local government.

“It’s a quiet revolution and it’s going to get louder,” said Robert Rubin, an attorney who has forced a number of cities to shed their at-large election systems for district elections in recent years by arguing they have prevented minority voices from having a fair say.

As a result, local councils from Santa Clara and Fremont to Menlo Park and Martinez could soon look more like the residents they represent.

“It’s not just about recruiting good candidates that represent the interests of minority members or underserved members of the community, but also looking at the rules of the game,” said Garrick Percival, a politics professor at San Jose State University. For years, people of color ran in at-large elections but didn’t win seats despite receiving support from residents in their neighborhoods.

Rubin recently won a case against Santa Clara, which has had an all-white council for generations despite being about 40 percent Asian. Numerous Asians ran for council seats, but always lost. The city switched to six districts for the November election and unofficial results show Indian immigrant and Sikh community member Raj Chahal claiming the District 2 seat.

Chahal was able to knock on most of the doors in his district, he said, and was often met with perplexed faces, particularly from people of color.

“They were surprised a candidate was knocking on their door,” Chahal said, adding that people often told him they felt like nobody was listening to their concerns before. “They sort of lost confidence in the democratic process.”

That doesn’t surprise Percival.

“There are a lot of issues — housing, crime, criminal justice, law enforcement — where there really are differences between whites and racial and ethnic minority groups,” he said. “That’s very clear.”

Most of the Santa Clara City Council members have owned their homes for years, for instance, but many people in Chahal’s district rent and told him they have concerns about the quality of life for apartment dwellers in the city.

“That’s kind of the real democracy, right?” said Richard Konda, the executive director of the Asian Law Alliance, who helped bring the case against Santa Clara. “Getting face to face with people and learning about their concerns.”

Menlo Park, where the same five members have served on the council since 2012, divided into five districts this year to avoid a lawsuit. Critics of the city’s at-large system argued the largely Latino and African American Belle Haven neighborhood, which hadn’t had a resident on the council for decades, has not been adequately represented.

This week, unofficial results show Belle Haven resident Cecilia Taylor, who would be the first African-American woman to serve on the council, ahead in District 1 with about three-quarters of the vote tallied so far. Taylor received significant support from minority residents during a bid for a council seat in 2016, but …read more

Source:: The Mercury News – Politics


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