Voting Rights Act Suit Filed Against San Juan Capistrano

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Advocates for Latino voters are suing the city of San Juan Capistrano under the California Voting Rights Act, alleging that the city has an at-large city council election system that prevents Latinos from electing their candidates of choice.

If the suit is successful, the city would have to change its council election system to guarantee more representation for Latinos. The 2010 U.S. Census showed almost 40 percent of the city’s residents are Latino, yet there are no Latinos currently serving on council, according to the suit – which was filed by the Southwest Voter Registration Education Project, as well as residents Tina Auclair and Louie Camacho.

The city’s political culture is infected with anti-Latino racism to a degree rarely seen in the 21st century, said Kevin Shenkman, partner with the firm Shenkman & Hughes PC and the attorney who filed the suit.

Shenkman specifically called out a political group behind the small newspaper known as Community Common Sense for using anti-Latino rhetoric as a cudgel to win elections.

“Immigration is solely the province of the federal government. And yet by this sort of race bating -- sanctuary cities, illegal aliens, and all this other nonsense -- they’re able to drum up enough support to win elections,” Shenkman said.

Latinos have consistently voted for candidates who fail to win seats, and the Latino voter registration level is at 16 percent, Shenkman said. He added that the Southwest Voter Registration Education Project’s efforts to register Latinos has been frustrated by an election system rigged on behalf of white residents, leaving Latinos with little motivation to engage in the political process.

Shenkman is demanding the city change to a district election system whereby council candidates are only elected by the residents of their district. He said he believes the city could carve at least one majority Latino district.

If the city doesn’t comply, Shenkman said he’ll be seeking a judicial order to change the system and redo the elections for all five council members.

Shenkman expects to touch a “raw nerve” in the city -- "which is exactly why I think it’s needed,” he said.

This suit is the latest in a series of Voting Rights Act suits filed in recent years against cities in Orange County. In every other case, including those filed against Anaheim, Fullerton and Garden Grove, the cities have settled the suit and agreed to hold district elections.

Kim McCarthy, a vocal member of Community for Common Sense, dismissed the suit as the angry reaction by Auclair and a political group she's aligned with that is marginalized at City Hall and looking to win council seats in the next election. McCarthy denied that the newspaper’s rhetoric against “illegal aliens” has enabled the group to win a majority of the council for candidates it supports.

McCarthy also pointed out that Londres Uso, a Latino, had served on the council in recent years.

Uso was mayor in 2010 but lost his bid for reelection. Another former mayor who was also Latino, Joe Soto, lost his bid for reelection in 2008.

“I didn’t get elected either. I ran,” McCarthy said. “Maybe we can cordon off an area that’s just Irish Italians, and I could get elected.”

A phone call to Mayor Pam Patterson’s office was returned by Cristina Talley, an attorney with Best, Best, & Krieger, a law firm that provides the city with municipal law services. Talley said city officials were withholding comment because the city hadn’t yet been served with notice of the suit.

Correction: A previous version of this article inaccurately described Kim McCarthy's criticism of one of the plaintiffs in the state Voting Rights Act lawsuit. We regret the error.

Please contact Adam Elmahrek directly at aelmahrek@voiceofoc.org and follow him on Twitter: @adamelmahrek

  • Bob Brock

    There is no question in anyone’s mind who lives in or near San Juan Capistrano that “Community Common Sense” is nothing but a political publication just as “Irvine Community News and Views” was a Larry Agran political publication designed to look like a newspaper. CCS was a successful political advocacy group designed to pack the San Juan City Council with four right wing extremists who are xenophobic and isolationists.
    I’m somewhat amused that Ms. Ward believes the Latinos in San Juan Capistrano should just “get engaged” in the political process and if they don’t win, try again. She did the exact opposite in Anaheim when her candidate, Jose Moreno, lost, she advocated for districts so that he could win a seat on the council because the city at large would not vote him in. What is different in San Juan Capistrano? There is a 40% Latino population, yet right wing extremists consistently win the elections because the votes occur on a city wide basis and candidates can all come from the same neighborhood. It’s time for SJC to take its City Hall back!

  • LFOldTimer

    What section of town do Americans of Italian descent live in SJC? Protestants? Obese w/ body fat > 30%? Those who pay more than the per-capita average in State and local taxes? Dog owners? People who have filed bankrupcy? Truck owners? The question is – are they being discriminated against? If so, let’s divide SJC into 50 different districts so everyone is equally represented. Equal justice for all!

  • Philmore

    A few mouse clicks to ocvoter.com and Wikipedia show that of the 71% of SJC that is over 18 (x 35,000 = 24,850) all voter registration is 18,165, so roughly 73%, among the top among OC cities. If the 16% Latino registration figure is correct, that context highlights a problem easily solved IRRESPECTIVE of, and without districting.

  • Cynthia Ward

    I have openly advocated for District Elections, where I believe they are warranted. In my own Anaheim, we could see clearly that voters in specific areas of the City were voting for candidates who did not win overall in the At Large system. Carving out districts made sense because it followed the neighborhood identity already in place, and simply made those dividing lines an official voting block, giving those voters the chance to be heard over the larger voices of the greater City. So I don’t doubt there may be some version of this in Capistrano, I have no idea. But I would love for the advocates of Districts in this report to please provide the following info so we can better understand the reasoning here, because there are some leaps of logic that don’t make sense to me, but by no means am I opposing the overall concept.

    “Shenkman specifically called out a political group behind the small newspaper known as Community Common Sense for using anti-Latino rhetoric as a cudgel to win elections.” Shenkman then assigns the connection, saying; “The city’s political culture is infected with anti-Latino racism to a degree rarely seen in the 21st century.” Yet we skipped the part in which Shenkman shows “Community Common Sense” is a driving force behind, or acting as an agent of, “the city’s political culture.”

    It is quite possible that this “small newspaper” has as much influence on the political culture of the City at large as Donald Trump has on the average American voter who has NOT been polled by liberal media talking heads. Or as the establishment likes to claim, “the loud angry minority,” may be shouting louder than those of more reasonable views. Please offer us a connection, so we can see how this CCS political machine disguised as a “news source” is the voice of the political winning force.

    And the next assertion makes me furious, every time I read it, so no surprise it happens again in this report;

    “Latinos have consistently voted for candidates who fail to win seats, and the Latino voter registration level is at 16 percent, Shenkman said. He added that the Southwest Voter Registration Education Project’s efforts to register Latinos has been frustrated by an election system rigged on behalf of white residents, leaving Latinos with little motivation to engage in the political process.”

    Sorry, being told you don’t count and being shoved into the political corner is the ULTIMATE motivation to engage in the political process. Our guy didn’t win this time? Next time we show up with our neighbors, who we have been registering to vote since the last election. And we do it again and again until we win a seat or show disenfranchisement.

    I get it, as a Republican in California’s winner-take-all electoral college, I DO understand how discouraging it is to see your candidate NEVER win. But I would remind us all that America was not built by those who complained that King George never listens. Our great nation was birthed from the labors of those who were tired of being ignored, and demanded that the ruling elite either listen or face the consequences of what was then legally permissible rebellion built into British Common Law as the agreed result of The Crown failing to answer when their subjects exercised their right to petition government for the redress of grievances. Had we given up and gone home with blunderbusses over our shoulders, to keep farming and silversmithing and weaving and spinning under the tyrannical thumb of King George, we would have no “beacon on a hill” today. Our ancestors hid behind rocks and trees to take on the greatest military force in the known world at the time. Generations of women were beaten in the streets and jailed for the rights of today’s women to cast a ballot. How much worse must it have been for women of color to fight to be heard? HOW DARE WE not exercise that right? And worse, HOW DARE WE file lawsuits on behalf of those who have failed (for whatever reason, discouragement not being a genuine impediment to the voting booth) to exercise the rights others sacrificed everything to give us?

    COME ON PEOPLE. I don’t doubt that MANY, if not all, of OC’s cities have at least some element of elitist control issues, and that tends to suck money and power into the hands of those who already hold it, and that is usually us white folk. If voters are following the claims of the CCS news source, and overwhelming the reasonable turnout of population centers not aligned with the news source, you have a case connected to this news story. So far I don’t see the connection, perhaps the lawyers failed to present it.

    But I can get behind the common citizen trying to be heard a lot easier if I see they are voting in reasonable numbers and not gaining office. It is THIS disparity in the arguments that loses public opinion for the voters rights groups. FIX THIS ONE THING, light a fire within those who claim disenfranchisement and get them to the polls, and the rest of us will show up with torches and pitchforks and blunderbusses and demand our fellow citizens of any ethnicity or political bent be heard. But it starts with showing someone cares enough to show up to vote. Nobody is obligated to pave the way and escort them through the non-impediment of “discouragement.”

    Again, I fought hard for Districts in Anaheim, I understand the issues, but this report fails to tie them together, and I suspect that is the report from the lawyers and not Voice of OC. But can we please have more info to fill in the blanks?

  • Steve W.

    “The 2010 U.S. Census showed almost 40 percent of the city’s residents are Latino…”

    “and the Latino voter registration level is at 16 percent,”

    At the risk of stating the obvious, wouldn’t the solution be for more Latinos to 1) register to vote and 2) vote? You can’t win if you stand on the sidelines.

    • Mstully00

      You would think that would be the logical resolution. But, as in the case throughout U.S., that 40% isn’t representative of eligible voters. They don’t register or are not entitled to register due to their illegal alien status. Instead, advocates advance the agenda by emotionally charged allegations e.g. anti-hispanic, racism, human rights violations, etc.