Nearly 100 Latino activists and their supporters gathered on the steps of Anaheim City Hall last week to celebrate a victory with the settlement of a 2012 civil rights lawsuit, which alleged that the city’s at large election system discriminates against Latinos.
Latino activists argued that the current system allows elite business interests to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars on its preferred Anaheim City Council candidates — who hail from the more affluent parts of town — and effectively drown out candidates from working-class Latino neighborhoods.
The only way to level the playing field, according to the activists, is to adopt a council districts system that requires voters to cast ballots only for those candidates who live in their geographic area. With some largely Latino districts, this community would be guaranteed representation on the council.
The settlement requires a citywide vote on the council districts system on the November ballot, along with the option of expanding the City Council from five members to seven. If the measure passes, the districts will be in place for the 2016 general election, hence the celebration last week at City Hall.
Yet amid the cheers, a puzzling irony was lost: The election that will decide whether the council districts system becomes a reality will be held under the current at large system, which the activists say is tilted against the Latino community.
“It’s like trying to change the soul of the devil. So they better light a lot of candles,” said Arturo Montez, a longtime leader with the League of United Latin American Citizens.
The even greater irony is the fact that attorneys for the activists argued this very point when they filed the suit.
In a 2012 letter from attorney Morris J. Baller and the American Civil Liberties Union on behalf of the lawsuit’s plaintiffs, the attorneys assert that putting the question to a citywide vote would be a “prescription for rendering the Latino minority of the electorate powerless” and a way for the non-Latinos to “perpetuate its monopoly on political control.”
Jose Moreno, president of the Latino grass-roots group Los Amigos of Orange County and a plaintiff in the suit, acknowledged the disconnection.
“Yeah, it does raise the question of what you said, not just the irony but the inherent contradiction in the case,” Moreno said. “When you put civil rights up for a vote, it doesn’t tend to go well.”
But he explained that as the case proceeded, it became clear to him that Orange County Superior Court Judge Franz E. Miller would likely order a citywide vote on the issue as part of his ruling. Moreno said that judges don’t like to force such changes on charter cities like Anaheim.
Moreno also said that as he talked with residents across the city, he realized that people saw the wisdom in having district elections and were ready to vote in favor of change.
“In Anaheim, we’re far enough along where people understand we need districts,” he said.
Perhaps, said critics of the settlement. But they pointed out that under the settlement, the earliest the system will change is the end of 2016, giving business interests nearly three more years to implement policies that favor wealthy areas over working-class neighborhoods.
"[Councilwoman Kris Murray] got what she wanted,” said Brian Chuchua, a past council candidate, of the acknowledged leader of the current council majority. “They got two years to rob our grandchildren’s children.”
Moreno said he understands such sentiments but argued that voters have caught on and are unhappy with the current majority.
“I completely agree that this council majority led by Kris Murray has given a whole new word to corporate welfare and giveaways and everything that’s not representing this city,” Moreno said. “I think those issues will resonate with voters in the fall, irrespective of the voting rights act.”
Then there’s the question of the political battlefield. Will Disneyland and other big business interests choose to spend large sums of money in a political effort to defeat a district elections ballot measure?
Disney in a 2012 letter stated that it supported district elections. The resort then clarified its position, saying that that it also favored a citizens advisory committee to study the issue and determine the best proposal.
The committee was viewed by activists as a delaying tactic meant to postpone district elections. And the committee was set up by the council majority, so activists contended, that it would likely be against district elections.
But to the surprise of many, the committee actually recommended that the question be put to a citywide vote.
Disney spokeswoman Suzi Brown affirmed in an email last Friday that Disney still supports district elections. “Disneyland Resort supports districting, and our position has not changed since we sent the attached letter in August 2012,” Brown wrote.
Meanwhile, the Anaheim Chamber of Commerce, another political powerhouse representing elite business interests in the city, hasn’t taken a position yet on the ballot measure, said chamber President Todd Ament.
Claudio Gallegos, a voting trends analyst and Anaheim elections observer, said that a big factor preventing Latinos from electing candidates is that several Latino candidates usually run, splitting the considerable Latino vote.
“The at large system is easy to game,” Gallegos said.
However, that won’t be an issue on a single-issue ballot measure, Gallegos noted. So it will be more difficult to disenfranchise voters in the working-class flatlands of the city, he said.
Meanwhile Moreno is betting that Disney keeps its word on supporting district elections and that other business interests also don’t oppose the measure.
“I would certainly expect and hope that the interests that control elections in the past will not block the civil rights opportunity here,” said Moreno, adding that many of those disenfranchised are employees of those big companies. “I sure hope that Disney and the chamber and other companies wouldn’t work actively to suppress the civil rights of their workers at the ballot box.”