SAN FRANCISCO—Few ordinary Californians have been more intensely interested in the state’s new Citizens Redistricting Commission than Berkeley-based Tea Party activist David Salaverry.
Back in March, he realized that the fledgling panel, with its 14 citizen members drawing political districts instead of politicians and its commitment to openness and transparency instead of behind-the-scenes deal-making, offered a golden opportunity for conservative Californians to influence the redistricting process at a time when their political clout was waning in other ways.
The cabinet-maker and building contractor sent email blasts to “patriot” groups around the Bay Area, encouraging them to attend meetings and to write and call the commissioners. He ran small training sessions for local Tea Partiers explaining the redistricting process and outlining main talking points—especially the idea that the commission should be “colorblind” in drawing political maps.
Salaverry, dubbed the “redistricting Paul Revere,” by right-wing blogger Dell Hill, received an enthusiastic response and has helped Tea Partiers dominate public input at commission meetings far beyond the Bay Area. “It all happened very quickly,” Salaverry said by phone while waiting for his two-minute time slot to testify before the commissioners at a Culver City meeting last week.
Commission Is Overwhelmed
Indeed, the activists have been such an overwhelming presence that the commission recently moved to limit the number of hearings for the rest of the summer, one commissioner said. Instead of continuing through July, the meetings will now end next Tuesday—to the dismay of civil rights advocates. "We have concerns that opportunities for input are going to be limited by not having additional hearings," says Eugene Lee of the Asian Pacific American Legal Center (APALC).
Given their successes in the 2010 elections, it should come as no shock that Tea Party activists across the country have seized on the redistricting process—the redrawing of political districts for Congress, state legislature, and local office, using the latest census data—as a way to consolidate their political gains for the next 10 years.
What is proving more surprising (and to some, alarming) is how astutely Tea Partiers in California have taken advantage of redistricting reforms that were intended to make the process less partisan and—groups like Common Cause had hoped—fairer to long-disenfranchised minorities.
Yet the goal of many of these conservatives seems to be to block Democratic-leaning Latinos, in particular, from making electoral gains at the expense of the state’s declining white population. “It’s simplistic to say we are colorblind and that race should never be taken into account,” Lee says. “There is still racially polarized voting, and sometimes it’s necessary to consider race to make sure everyone has a voice.”
New Process Favors the Vocal
The California Citizens Redistricting Commission is the result of ballot measures approved by voters in 2008 and 2010. Supporters argued that the first step to fixing the state’s dysfunctional government was to take the power to draw political districts away from self-interested politicians and put it in the hands of ordinary citizens.
But many civil rights groups opposed the ballot measures, worrying that low-income communities of color—especially immigrants—wouldn’t participate in such an abstract, complicated, time-consuming process. Those fears are turning out to be well founded.
Some of the basic elements of the new redistricting process have proved helpful to well-organized and vocal groups on the right, civil rights activists say. Even though California is a deep blue state, by law the commission must include the same number of Republicans and Democrats (five), as well as four minor-party members or Independents, who often lean Republican. As redistricting amateurs, few of these commissioners know the ins and outs of the 1965 Voting Rights Act (VRA), which is supposed to protect the rights of minorities as political maps are drawn.
The commission’s openness and accessibility—it’s already held dozens of public meetings across the state and has several more planned through Tuesday, June 28—has also been a boon for activists trying to sway the commissioners about where boundaries should be drawn.
Civil rights groups have tried to get ethnic minorities to come to the meetings to advocate for their “communities of interest”— factors such as race and ethnicity, socio-economic status, public schools and parks, transportation, and local industries that bind people into communities that transcend neighborhood, city, and county boundaries. Keeping those “communities of interest” intact on political maps would give them a better chance of electing officials who are responsive to their concerns.
But Tea Party activists have turned out in far greater numbers. Indeed, the crowds have been so large—as many as 100 to 150 at some hearings—that commissioners have had to bring additional security and limit the number and length of testimonies.
The commission’s first proposed maps, released June 10, reflect many of the Tea Partiers’ demands, civil rights advocates complain. The first draft of the congressional map, for example, doesn’t include any new Latino majority districts, even though Latinos accounted for 90 percent of California’s population growth in the last decade, according to the 2010 Census, reports New American Media.
“It is a worst-case scenario for the Latino community and would severely diminish political opportunities,” says Rosalind Gold, senior director of policy, research and advocacy at the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials (NALEO) Educational Fund in Los Angeles.
Arguing That Race Shouldn’t Matter
One of the key Tea Party talking points is that race and ethnicity shouldn’t be taken into consideration at all by the commission when it comes to drawing political maps.
“A lot of conservatives feel we’ve made remarkable progress on race in America through the civil rights movement,” says Salaverry, whose father’s side is Latino. “It’s time to move on and become a post-racial society, but unfortunately because of the Voting Rights Act and well-funded ultra-left wing activist groups, we won’t.”
Similar complaints have been made by Tea Party groups at redistricting hearings in the South, Texas, and other states, says Anita Earls, executive director of the Southern Coalition for Social Justice, a civil rights group based in Durham, N.C. “They are very strident,” she says. “They’ve been pretty strongly anti–Voting Rights Act.”
Along similar lines, Tea Partiers in California and elsewhere insist that map-drawers put a priority on keeping cities and counties intact instead of splitting them up to increase the number of districts where minorities are the majority.
But political maps must comply with the Voting Rights Act, whether Tea Party activists like it or not, counters Steven Ochoa, national redistricting coordinator for the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund (MALDEF). “Often you have to [carve up] cities” to make that happen.
Indeed, city boundaries have often been drawn specifically to limit the voting power of minorities, Earls notes, so keeping them intact can perpetuate racial injustice. Modesto’s boundaries, for example, “look like Swiss cheese, with almost all the areas that aren’t counted [being] Hispanic,” she says.
Hostility and Intimidation
It’s not just what the Tea Party activists have been saying at the redistricting hearings, but how they’ve been saying it, that angers civil rights groups. There are reports from around California that people of color, particularly Latinos, have been so upset and intimidated by Tea Partiers’ comments that they have been leaving meetings before they’ve had a chance to speak.
“You go to a meeting, of course, you will have pros and cons, but this was very hostile,” says South Bay resident Drina Collins, who attended a May 23 hearing in San Jose to advocate for keeping Latino communities in the South Bay intact. “It was disastrous and made me angry that they made so many people intimidated.”
Crowds cheered when citizens asked commissioners not to take race into account. When a Spanish speaker using an interpreter urged the commission not to split up the Latino community, one Tea Partier shouted, “Speak in English. This is America.” Commissioners had to take a recess and call in security after the Tea Partiers got “a little too loud and unruly,” according to Commissioner Angelo Ancheta, a law professor at Santa Clara University who specializes in racial discrimination and immigrants’ rights.
“I came to America because I wanted to be an American, not a hyphenated American,” said a Ghana-born immigrant Tea Partier to applause at the San Jose meeting. “The federal Voting Act says you cannot discriminate based on ethnic grounds but it does not say you should choose boundaries based on ethnic grounds.”
Similar scenes have played out in other cities. At one hearing in San Diego County, a woman made a gun gesture with her finger and pointed at a speaker of color who mentioned race, and shook her head and mouthed obscenities when other speakers of color mentioned race, according to a representative of a San Diego-based nonprofit organization who was present at the hearing.
“There are a lot of inarticulate and unsophisticated comments from conservatives about race issues,” admits Salaverry. “We are being very cognizant and don’t want allegations of racism. We tell people, ‘Don’t do anything that will embarrass us,’ but we can’t succeed 100 percent. People are passionate and can step on the other side’s toes.”
Still, Salaverry says, the testimony of “alphabet groups”—as conservatives are calling groups such as MALDEF and the NAACP—shouldn’t carry the same weight because they “aren’t citizens. They are lawyers financed by institutions and they have agendas.”
Since the release of the first set of proposed maps, Tea Partiers have been increasing their attendance at commission meetings, in hopes of persuading the members not to add more Latino-majority districts. They are arriving early to sign up for as many of the first-come-first-served two-minute speaking slots as possible. Salaverry himself is following the commissioners around the state to testify at public input meetings.
In response, civil rights groups are urging people of color to set aside their fears and show up at the remaining meetings—including in San Jose on June 25 and San Francisco on June 27—in order to influence the next round of maps, due July 7. “We don’t need to convince the commission why they need to follow the VRA, we just need to giving them the political will to do so,” Lee says. “It’s a natural tendency for people to be afraid of criticism.”
The commissioners say they won’t let Tea Party input unduly pressure them. But Commissioner Ancheta also admits some of his fellow commissioners seem to agree with the Tea Partiers about the VRA.
“In most of California we don’t take race into consideration, at least not in a big way,” says Ancheta, “There may be disagreement amongst commissioners as to whether [considering race] is the best way to approach the problem. But everyone is committed to following the law, whether they disagree about the assumptions and necessity. I’m not concerned about rogue commissioners.”
Meanwhile, Ancheta says, there will “most likely be big changes in the final map,” due on August 14, particularly in Los Angeles. “It won’t be exactly what the Latino groups want. I suspect they are pushing it as far as they can go, but there is no doubt there will be some shifting.”