When the Anaheim City Council last month adopted “The People’s Map” in its switch from electing council members at-large to a districts-based system, the room erupted in cheers and applause for a districts map that almost everyone agreed was the best choice.
But all that goodwill turned to frustration Tuesday night when the council decided in a split 3-2 vote to exclude the only Latino majority district on the map from electing a council member in the 2016 general election. Instead, the district’s voters will have to wait until 2018 to choose their representative under the new system.
The vote was the culmination of a years-long battle over how the city is governed, and specifically whether its at-large council elections have prevented the city’s Latino residents, who makeup 54 percent of the city, from having adequate representation on the council.
The ACLU and Latino activists sued the city in 2012, alleging that the at-large voting system barred Latino voters from electing their preferred candidates. City leaders in 2014 decided to settle the suit and agreed to switch to district elections. With majority or plurality Latino districts, the Latino community would be guaranteed representation.
Under the chosen districts map, two districts are known as Latino plurality — meaning Latinos have the largest citizen voting age population but aren’t over 50 percent of the district. One is a Latino majority district, which has a Latino citizen voting age population of over 50 percent.
Until Tuesday, the transition seemed to be going smoothly. A panel of judges recommended the districts map, which was vetted at community meetings and had broad support. And the council also signaled its support of the map last month.
But things got complicated at Tuesday night’s meeting when it came time for council members to decide which four of the six council districts would elect representatives in 2016. The other two districts would have to wait until 2018.
The ten public speakers who addressed the issue supported putting the Latino majority district up for election in 2016, along with the two Latino plurality districts and a district on the far west end of the city.
Members of the council majority – specifically council members Jordan Brandman, Kris Murray and Lucille Kring — argued that the Latino majority district already has representation because Councilman James Vanderbilt, who is half Latino, lives in the district. They also argued the district has been historically well represented because several council members in the past have resided there. Brandman also lives in the district, he noted.
“We have a sitting Latino representative in three,” said Kring in a reference to the Latino majority district in the center of the city. “Mr. Vanderbilt has served there, and served there honorably.”
They argued that switching to district elections was about giving fair representation to all neighborhoods. They pointed out that two districts on the west end of the city have had little to no representation in decades and said both should go up for election first. That would give full representation to all the districts in 2016, they argued.
“It actually keeps the promise to voters,” Murray said.
The logic bewildered some in the crowd. Several had no idea Vanderbilt was Latino until that night, and whispers about personal political agendas driving the decision – such as Brandman’s U.S. congressional campaign or a rumor that Murray would be running for mayor in 2018 – could be heard.
Vanderbilt himself brought up a point that undermines the council majority’s argument. He pointed out that he actually won second place in the citywide election. While under an at-large system that means he still won a seat, under a district election there is no seat for second place.
It’s also largely assumed that incumbents might be moving around the city in order to run in a district where they think they will win. So if Vanderbilt moves, he’s no longer representing the district under the council majority’s logic.
Kring openly doubted that Vanderbilt would be moving anywhere, but when Tait asked Vanderbilt whether he would be moving before 2018, Vanderbilt was clearly uncomfortable and avoided the question.
“I would answer if you wanted to ask the entire council that question,” Vanderbilt said.
Also, Vanderbilt appeared to be irked by indications from the council majority that they were assigning him that district’s representation when in reality he’s an at-large elected council member. “Even though I was elected at large, I’m being told I’m representing district three,” he said.
As it became clear how the council majority was going to vote, Latino activists who had attended the meeting to support putting the Latino majority district up for election walked out of the council chambers. They could be heard rallying in the lobby as the council debate was wrapping up.
Ultimately, council members voted to place two Latino plurality districts up for election in 2016, as well as the two districts on the west end. Brandman, Murray and Kring voted for the motion, and Tait and Vanderbilt voted against it.
Tait said that to exclude the only Latino majority district from the next election after almost two years in court and over $2 million spent in taxpayer money seemed like the wrong decision.
“To now not include district three, the most Latino district in the city, to put that off to 2018… it just doesn’t seem right,” Tait said.
Please contact Adam Elmahrek directly at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter: @adamelmahrek