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Plaintiffs in Santa Monica Voting Rights Lawsuit Paint Picture of Disenfranchised Minority


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By Jorge Casuso

August 6, 2018 -- Despite its liberal credentials, Santa Monica remains a deeply segregated city where voters in the largest minority neighborhood have failed to elect a City Council member from their area.

That was the message delivered by plaintiffs in the voting rights lawsuit filed against the City by Latino activists from the Pico Neighborhood that began last week.

There may no longer be racial covenants to keep Latinos and Blacks from buying homes on the north side, and there is no longer a spot on the beach called "The Inkwell" for them to swim, the plaintiffs attorneys said in their opening arguments.

But Latinos and blacks from the Pico Neighborhood still have no voice in Santa Monica, said renown Civil Rights attorney Milton Grimes.

The answer: to switch from an at-large election system in which all residents elect the seven Council members to district elections in which each area has its own representative, the plaintiffs said.

"Some time ago it was determined that at-large election system was a way of keeping and diluting minority votes, African-Americans, Hispanics and any other group of minority," said Grimes, according to a transcript of the hearing Wednesday.

While Latinos account for 13.6 percent of Santa Monica's voting age population and Blacks for 3.9 percent, they make up the majority in the Pico Neighborhood, where 39 percent of the residents are Latino and 13 percent Black.

Yet no Hispanic or Black resident of the area has ever been elected to the council, which has been composed mostly of white council members who have used the Pico neighborhood as a dumping ground, Grimes said.

"The Pico neighborhood shows you a different part of Santa Monica," he said. "It shows you the homeless. It shows you the liquor stores, the motels, the auto shops.

"The (City) services that Santa Monica needs are all in the Pico Neighborhood."

"And every time that the Pico Neighborhood people, the Latinos or the
Blacks, would go to the City Council to protest, they were met with rejection and dismissal," he said.

Santa Monica, Grimes argued, has maintained its at-large election system with "discriminatory intent" and violated the California Voting Rights Act by intentionally diluting the Latino vote.

Grimes quoted former Mayor Bob Holbrook who said he "had always understood" from history that at-large elections were selected in 1946 in order to prevent ethnic minorities from electing Council candidates.

Holbrook, who retired in 2014 after serving six four-year terms, was on the losing side in a 1992 vote to change the City Charter.

The City's at-large election system, he continues to believe, "is inappropriate as it makes campaigning for city council expensive and difficult, thus denying certain neighborhoods and minority groups fair and effective representation in Santa Monica."

At-large elections, plaintiff attorney Kevin Shenkman said in the opening arguments, violate the Voting Rights Act, which is "much simpler than we give it credit for."

There is a violation of California Voting Rights Act "if it is shown that racially polarized voting occurs in elections for members of the governing board."

Polarized voting, Shenkman said, clearly took place when support for candidates Tony Vazquez, Josefina Aranda and Maria Loya (a plaintiff in the case) was much higher among Hispanic voters than among whites.

Vazquez, the only Latino elected to the council under the current system, is only one of two council members to lose a reelection bid in the past 24 years, Shankmen said.

And Vazquez, who lost his seat in 1994, would not have been elected again in 2012 if two council members had not died in office, Shenkman added.

Instead of three seats up for grabs that year, there were four, and Vazquez took the final spot, he said.

Except for Vazquez, who lives in Sunset Park, all the other Latinos who have run for City Council in Santa Monica have lost, despite being the top vote getters in the Pico Neighborhood.

Although district elections would not guarantee that a candidate preferred by Latinos would win, they would at least increase their chances, Shenkman said.

"What we can guarantee is that Latinos have a fair opportunity," he said. "That's all that the law requires and that's all the law allows."


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