Compton City Councilwoman Janna Zurita owes her Hispanic last name to a grandmother from Spain, whom she never met. Zurita considers her mother black and said her father “wants to be black” even though he “looks Latino.”
Zurita, the mayor pro tem of Compton, sometimes jokes with her sister about their racial roots.
“She always tells me I look just like a Mexican: flat booty, straight hair. You know, just all kind of – how Mexicans used to look. You know, now they have big booties,” Zurita said in a legal deposition in November. “You know, little jokes about it.”
While Zurita takes a sometimes-playful approach to her racial identity, it became the serious subject of a recent lawsuit under the California Voting Rights Act. In January, a judge ruled that a trial would be necessary to figure out whether Zurita could be considered Latina and whether that means Latinos have a voice on the council. The city settled the suit late last month.
The legal gymnastics in Compton illustrate California’s far-reaching law, which bars local governments from diluting the voting strength of minorities. The law has become the foundation of a burgeoning onslaught of legal threats that could upend the racial makeup of elected bodies throughout the state.
Armed with 2010 census data, a network of attorneys is increasingly targeting local governments – from cities and school boards to hospital and community college districts – for not reflecting the demographics of their constituents.
While the dispute in Compton, where Zurita’s race was under question, pitted Latino residents against the city’s traditionally black leadership, other cases seek to increase minority representation on elected boards that are dominated by whites. ...
Particularly striking against this backdrop are the 14 cities in California where all-white councils preside over communities where either Latinos or Asians make up the majority of residents. Several are clustered in the Los Angeles area, like Whittier and Arcadia, but they range from Tulelake, on the Oregon border, to Holtville, near the Mexican border.
The joke here is that Whittier and Arcadia are traditionally white-run municipalities that affluent Mexicans and Chinese, respectively, crave to move to. Whittier is the place that wealthy Mexican-Americans in Southern California are congregating, while Arcadia, where my aunt has lived my whole life, has filled up with rich Chinese who tear down the modest ranch houses and build huge houses out to the property lines. Arcadia H.S., a public school, has about 30 National Merit semifinalists per year. In other words, Mexicans with money seem to like how Whittier has been run and Chinese with money like how Arcadia has been run. But, all that's irrelevant because the 2010 Census shows lots of Mexicans in Whittier and Chinese in Arcadia. Of course, the 2010 Census didn't bother asking if they were citizens or not.
Another 20 cities have Latino majorities and only one minority on city council.
Such cities can make especially attractive targets for civil rights lawyers, who see the stark disparities as evidence of a systemic problem.
“These are the cities that should recognize that they are low-hanging fruit for groups who might want to bring lawsuits,” said Paul Mitchell of Redistricting Partners, a Sacramento-based consulting firm that works with local governments to determine their vulnerability under the law.
California Watch was able to identify the 34 cities with data from Redistricting Partners and another consulting group, GrassrootsLab. But the cities represent one end of a spectrum. Numerous other communities, with smaller minority populations or more diversity on the city council, also could be subject to a suit under the California Voting Rights Act, which was passed in 2002 and signed by Gov. Gray Davis.
The law prohibits local governments from holding at-large elections – in which the entire community votes for a slate of candidates – if that system weakens the ability of minorities to elect candidates of their choice.
An elected board can be found in violation if voting statistics show the community polarized along racial lines. That happens, for example, when Latinos vote more than their white neighbors for Latino candidates.
A law so rooted in race inevitably leads to thorny questions about racial politics and the murky, subjective cauldron of ethnic identity. Should the race of a city councilmember even matter? And, in a state where the lines are increasingly blurred, who can determine a councilmember’s race other than the council member?
In Compton, lawyers representing two Latina residents argued that Zurita is not Latina. Zurita, on the other hand, pointed to her election as evidence that Latinos are represented.
But even she seemed conflicted during her deposition, at one point saying that she is Latina, at another point that she isn’t.
Asked point-blank by an opposing lawyer, Zurita replied, “I don’t think there is any pure races.”
The brouhaha over Zurita’s race “raises an issue that I believe is silent in the legislation, which is, how are you calculating ethnicity?” said Compton City Attorney Craig J. Cornwell. “Is it people who have Latino ancestry? Is it how a person self-identifies themselves?"
The U.S. Census doesn’t provide clear answers, because it considers being Hispanic or Latino separate from race. On government forms, Zurita sometimes marks black, sometimes “other” and couldn’t remember if she ever marked Latino.
Adding to the confusion, Zurita later referred to her Spanish grandmother as Mexican. The attorney sought to clarify: “So she was from Spain, but her heritage was Mexican?”
“Well,” Zurita replied, “you know, I don't know. All this Mexican, third generation, fourth generation, Latina, Latino – I just kind of refer to the group as Mexican.”
Regardless, Zurita maintained that she represents all residents of Compton, where 65 percent of the population is Hispanic.
“I don't even think race, you know,” she said. “I don't look at race.”
In a settlement last month, Compton agreed to let voters decide whether to change to district elections. If voters shoot it down on the June ballot, the city will put it to another vote in November. Compton also agreed to pay the opposing attorneys’ fees.
California’s law is grounded in the idea that minorities sometimes vote differently from the rest of the population and that at-large elections, where the majority rules, can unfairly dilute their influence. The U.S. Supreme Court has upheld that underlying notion in cases interpreting the federal Voting Rights Act.
Indeed, in many parts of the state, including throughout Los Angeles County, Californians do tend to vote for candidates of their same race, according to research by Matt Barreto, who served as an independent expert to the state redistricting commission. Barreto also consults for lawyers suing under the law.
The California law makes it much easier to challenge at-large elections than under the federal Voting Rights Act. Plus, the state law puts local governments at a disadvantage: If they lose a lawsuit, they have to pay the other side’s attorney’s fees, but not the other way around.
The act was drafted by Joaquin Avila, a Seattle-based voting rights attorney, and Robert Rubin, who until recently was legal director of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights of the San Francisco Bay Area. The duo has gone on to sue school districts and cities, racking up millions of dollars and sparking accusations that they are in it for the money.
Rubin, now in private practice, said the money from his share of legal settlements went to the nonprofit civil rights organization where he worked. He said governments saddled with huge legal costs have only themselves to blame for not following the law.
“We’re going to continue to be aggressive,” Rubin said. “We intend to enforce this until it doesn’t need enforcement anymore.”
In 2010, law co-authors Rubin and Avila sued the Central Valley city of Tulare.
The suit argued that even though Tulare then had a Latino councilman, he wasn’t the “candidate of choice of Latino voters.” Another councilman, David Macedo, said in an interview that he identifies as Hispanic because of his Portuguese ancestry, but doesn’t consider himself Latino.
Tulare settled for $225,000, which went to the plaintiff’s lawyers, and will hold a vote this year on switching to district elections. Macedo said he would encourage residents to approve the switch because, given the law, “one way or another, that’s the way it’s headed.”
Rubin, Avila and affiliated attorneys have directed the legal offensive so far. But labor unions and other groups also could use the law as a weapon in disputes with cities and school boards.
The first such case came in December, when the State Building & Construction Trades Council of California sued the city of Escondido, in San Diego County, alleging that at-large elections leave Latinos without fair representation. The union targeted Escondido because officials there have been trying to lower wages on public construction projects.
The last bit about unions is a KausFiles theme. But, boy, does the rest of the article sound like I just made it up by riffing on my old reliable themes. By the end, I was wondering why the article lacked any references to cousin marriage or gold chains.