How diverse is your government? These two laws changed who holds power in California

by Kim Bojorquez, Sacramento Bee 

Deborah Ortiz felt like an underdog when she ran for a seat on the Sacramento City Council in 1993. She was the only Latina in a field of six vying for the seat opened by Joe Serna Jr., who’d just won a race for mayor.

Ortiz didn’t get support from prominent Democratic leaders or influential developers in the city, who helped fund most local races. Most were convinced city council candidate Jean Shaw-Conelly, the wife of former Assemblyman Lloyd Connelly, would win the race, she said.

“There was always a candidate they endorsed other than me,” Ortiz said.

But Ortiz came out ahead anyway, becoming the first Latina and woman of color to be elected to the city council.

Nearly three decades later, the landscape for Latino candidates is very different. Latino lawmakers represent 27 seats in the Legislature, making up about a fifth of its 120 officeholders. That’s up from six in 1990.

They’ve made gains in local offices, too, especially on school boards. A Sacramento Bee analysis shows the county’s elected school boards are increasingly diverse, with Latino trustees accounting for 22% of seats and Blacks holding 11% of seats. Those numbers are proportional to the county’s population.

Those achievements were no accident.

They followed two major changes to California law that opened opportunities to less experienced candidates from diverse backgrounds.

First, voters in 1990 set term limits for the California Legislature, forcing turnover among elected leaders and creating open races for Assembly and Senate districts.

Later, Gov. Gray Davis in 2002 signed the California Voting Rights Act, which allowed minorities to press for changes in election formats to give them a better shot at winning office. The law’s remedy called for local governments to adopt district elections instead of at-large races, a change that effectively means candidates have to persuade fewer voters to cast ballots for them.

Neither law guarantees representation for minority candidates.

Term limits shorten careers for politicians today just as they did 30 years ago. Some of the first leaders to leave the Legislature because of term limits were influential Black lawmakers like former Assembly Speaker Willie Brown, for instance.

And, although studies show a shift in district elections has increased minority representation in local government, the gains are not uniform.

Modesto, for instance, in 2008 became the test case for the California Voting Rights Act when its city council fought and lost a lawsuit from Latino residents demanding district elections. The city adopted district elections and paid $3 million to settle the case.

Today, its seven-member council has the same number of Latino leaders as it had when it was sued: One.

About 40% of Modesto’s residents identify as Hispanic. In Stanislaus County, where Modesto is the largest city, about 47% of residents identify as Hispanic, according to Census estimates. The county has never elected a Latino leader to its board of supervisors.

Those numbers show that changes to election format alone won’t lead to greater diversity among representatives. Parties still must cultivate candidates if they want diverse officeholders.

Ortiz, now a member of the Los Rios Community College District Board of Trustees, said it’s far from certain that parties have the structure to continue diversifying local elected offices.

“I hope there’s a pipeline, but I don’t see it in any of the Latino organizations in town,” she said.

THE NUMBERS

According to 2019 Census data, white people in Sacramento County represent 44% of the population; Latinos make up 24% of the county’s population; 17% are Asian Americans and 11% African Americans.

Among the city council seats that comprise seven incorporated cities in Sacramento County, the majority, 69%, are held by white city council members. About 5% of seats are held by Latino members, and African Americans and Asian Americans each make up about 13% of city council seats.

The numbers are better, although not completely representative at the school board level. Fifty-one of the county’s 86 elected school board trustees are white, representing 59% of the seats. Latinos represent 22% of the seats, African Americans hold 12% of them and Asian Americans hold 7% of the county’s school board seats.

Mindy Romero, founder and director of the Center for Inclusive Democracy at the University of Southern California., said it makes sense that public school boards are more diverse than other elected bodies.

More than half of public school students in California are Hispanic or Latino, according to the California Department of Education, and having a child in school can motivate a parent to run for office. About 22% of students are white, 9% are Asian and 5% are African American.

“Often for Latinos, the gateway to getting involved with politics is a school board,” she said. “A school board is much more local and much more accessible.”

At the Legislature, more than half of California lawmakers are white, according to data from the California Research Bureau. About 12% identify as Asian or Pacific Islander, 8% identify as African American and less than 1 percent each identify as Native American or more than once race.

The state’s Latino Legislative Caucus is comprised of seven senators, 20 Assembly members and five constitutional officers, including the state’s attorney general and secretary of state.

Many Latino lawmakers serving today say they felt mobilized to become civically engaged or run for office after former Gov. Pete Wilson endorsed Proposition 187, called the “Save Our State Initiative,” in 1994.

The ballot initiative sought to prohibit undocumented immigrants from qualifying to use public benefits. Wilson described it as an effort to ration taxpayer dollars for citizens. “We cannot educate every child from here to Tierra del Fuego,” WIlson said at the time.

Last year, members of the Latino caucus released a video on the initiative’s 25th anniversary directed at the former Republican governor.

“Gov. Wilson, 25 years ago this month, you spread fear about Latinos and immigrants in an attempt to secure a future for yourself and your party,” Assembly Speaker Anthony Rendon, a member of the Legislative Latino Caucus, says in the video. “Instead, you ignited a movement.”

WHY REPRESENTATION MATTERS

After Ortiz completed her city council term in 1996 to serve on the California Legislature, Sacramentans did not see another Latino city council member until 2015, when Eric Guerra was sworn into office.

Guerra, who was born in Michoacán, Mexico and is the son of farmworkers, said many working-class Latinos don’t have deep pockets or political connections to fund expensive local campaigns.

Those working-class Latino families have been especially vulnerable to the coronavirus pandemic.

Since the start of the outbreak, state and national officials have struggled to cease the disproportionate spread of the virus among Latinos, who have also faced the brunt of the economic crisis fueled by the pandemic.

For Guerra, the situation is a reminder of how easily Latino communities can be ignored during a time of crisis and proves how vital it is to have Latino decision makers in public office.

“COVID-19 showed how we weren’t being seen,” he said. “No one recognized what was happening. It’s some responsibility on us, also, to grow and have people prepared and ready to be competitive in these races.”

The life experiences of lawmakers from under-represented communities is commonly reflected in the legislation they propose.

In 2020, lawmakers of color passed legislation that funds a COVID-19 outreach campaign for farmworkers, a nine-member task force to research reparations for African Americans and placed an initiative that would reinstate affirmative action on the November ballot. Notably, the California Legislature approved a historic tax break to expand the state’s Earned Income Tax Credit to low-income undocumented Californians.

DID DISTRICT ELECTIONS WORK?

About 130 of California’s roughly 450 cities adopted district elections after Gov. Davis signed the 2002 law allowing minorities to sue for election format changes if they believe they are disenfranchised, according to the National Demographics Corporation. Many school districts also adopted district elections because of the law, the California Voting Rights Act.

The changes are still underway.

Last year, the Elk Grove City Council voted to move to by-district elections after it faced a lawsuit from a Malibu civil rights attorney who argued the city’s election system diluted the voting power of Latino voters. This year will be the city’s first by-district election. Citrus Heights also made the switch in 2019.

Two recent academic studies suggest that districts can lead to more diverse boards and councils.

A 2016 study by the Rose Institute of State and Local Government at Claremont McKenna College noted “it is likely, but far from guaranteed” that changing a city’s election system will increase the number of Latinos in public offices.

“The move to by-district elections has increased the number of Latinos elected to city councils, but that change has been driven by significant gains in a few cities, such as Sanger and Chula Vista, that offset a lack of any increase in others, such as Escondido and Wildomar,” according to the study.

Another 2019 study by researchers from UC Riverside found under-represented groups gain seats after their communities adopted district elections. Cities that switch to by-district elections see racial representation increase by an average 10% over the next election cycle, the study says.

The shift to district elections predated the California Voting Rights Act. Latino activists fought for that format in the late 1980s and early 1990s on the Central Coast, where district elections helped Latinos win elections in Salinas and Watsonville.

In 1988, Salinas voters approved by-district races which resulted in the city electing its first Latino councilman a year later. In 1991, Anna Caballero was elected as Salinas’ first Latina council member. By 1993, the city had four Latino council members, she said, resulting in a majority Latino council.

Caballero, now a state senator, said the California Voting Rights Act empowered minority candidates.

“A lot of communities have moved to district elections, very reluctantly, really unhappy about it,” she said. “In the end it gives people of color an opportunity to at least level the playing field a little bit and to feel like there’s there’s a role for them in politics as well.”

WHAT’S NEXT

Guerra believes it took nearly two decades for another Latino to become elected in Sacramento’s city council because the previous generation, ”came in at the same time, and retired at the same time.”

Preparing the next generation of Latino leaders to run for office is something he thinks about often through his involvement with the Chicano Latino Youth Leadership Project, a statewide leadership program for Latino youth.

He also wants to see Latino leaders run for bigger offices, like mayors, county supervisors and state offices.

“The bigger the seat gets, the bigger the influence gets, and I think that’s where we have fallen short because you have to have a more tactical strategy to go to win those seats,” he said.

Some offices have remained out of reach for Latinos despite their gains in the Legislature and in many local offices.

The state is home to an estimated 14 million Latinos who make up the largest demographic in the state. But they have yet to reach the California governor’s office or the state’s U.S. Senate seats.

Soon after Sen. Kamala Harris was announced as Democratic vice presidential nominee Joe Biden’s vice-presidential pick, a progressive political action committee, Latino Victory, announced a five-figure campaign to pressure Gov. Gavin Newsom to appoint Secretary of State Alex Padilla as the state’s first Latino senator.

“If we can’t elect a Latino U.S. senator from California … that’s not a good sign for our community, and so on our end we’re doing everything we can to make sure that there are opportunities to have and support and elect Latino progressive candidates that reflect the community,” said Mayra Macías, executive director of Latino Victory.

HOW WE REPORTED THIS STORY

The Sacramento Bee compiled this data by analyzing public official’s biographies featured on school board, county and city websites.

We also referred to the California Research Bureau, the NALEO Education Fund 2019 directory of California Latino elected officials and previous news coverage. Public offices and public officials were contacted by email or phone to disclose their board or council’s racial representation.

While not all offices responded to our requests, some public officials self-disclosed their race or ethnicity and the race or ethnicity of others who identified similarly in their region.

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This story has been supported by the Solutions Journalism Network, a nonprofit organization dedicated to rigorous and compelling reporting about responses to social problems.

Help cover the issues most important to you through The Sacramento Bee’s partnership with Report for America. Contribute now to support Kim Bojórquez’s coverage of Latino issues in California for the Capitol Bureau — and to fund new reporters.

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