Mangy Dog or Dog in the Manger?
The ABCs of District Elections and Other Corruptions That Might Be Good For You
Thursday, July 24, 2014
WHINEY FRIENDS AND INFLUENCING PEOPLE: It’s happening again. It always does. The second someone starts spouting off how we ought to have district elections, someone else starts effluviating about the evil twins of “horse trading” and “logrolling.”
I like to think I have a healthy appreciation of contemporary vices, but these two somehow flew under my radar. By implication and insinuation, logrolling and horse trading are incestuous cousins of “featherbedding,” which, by the sound of it, breeds bed bugs, lice, and other vermin that would chase the cruise ships out of Santa Barbara’s harbor so fast we could surf the wake. Merely to mention such practices (what is logrolling anyway?) is to win the argument that district elections are inherently venal, corrupt, and parochial. These practices are part and parcel of the ward system, which, we are told — and is sometimes the case — is dominated by good old boys in smoke-filled rooms seeking new ways to swap tit for tat and quid for quo, always at the expense of broader community interests.
I bring this up because Santa Barbara is about to undergo one of those seismic shifts in how we elect our city councilmembers. We do this every 20-30 years, kind of like rearranging the furniture in hopes of making new friends and getting a life. District elections, we are told, is all but inevitable. That’s because attorney A. Barry Cappello has announced he will be suing the City of Santa Barbara in the next week or so on the grounds that our current “at-large” system of elections is marred by “racial polarization,” and violates the state’s Voting Rights Act of 2001. A state expert on the subject hired by City Hall — Doug Johnson — told the council this Tuesday that just about anything violates the Voting Rights Act. If I heard Johnson right, even a city council with a majority of minority candidates could be found in violation of the Voting Rights Act. It’s one of those laws, he noted, that got passed late at night 40 minutes before the expiration of the legislative session by a governor under duress when no one was looking as part of some unseemly complicated political deal.
The idea behind the bill was to make it easier for Latino and African American candidates to get elected to city councils that have historically been dominated by those of pale pigmentation despite the large numbers of registered minority voters. In order to successfully sue, an attorney need only demonstrate that minority and Anglo residents vote differently. That’s it. It doesn’t matter what drives that difference — overt racism or the happenstance of party affiliation — only that one exists. At times, Johnson noted, this can get a little weird. For example, when Abel Maldonado, a Republican Latino, ran for Lt. Governor against honky Democrat Gavin Newsom, it turned out Latino voters — loyal Democrats — voted overwhelmingly for Newsom. And white Republicans voted similarly for Maldonado. That’s racial polarization? Yes. And that may explain why not one city has prevailed in fighting such lawsuits. It may explain also why 90 school districts and 20 community college districts have opted to switch election systems.
Whether this bill actually delivers the ethnic diversity it promises I have my doubts. But undeniably, the results are — and will continue to be — interesting. In Modesto, Johnson noted, Latino voters wound up electing a grouchy white republican long active with the NRA, proving, I guess, maybe we can all get along after all. The punchline here is attorneys’ fees. Under the state law, the loser of such lawsuits has to pay the winner. Such cases — even with low-rent lawyers — are notoriously expensive. To date, losers have shelled out in excess of $8 million. But Cappello — who I suspect makes more in an hour than I make in a week — is anything but low-rent. Given that most of California’s 482 cities still have at-large election systems, I’d say he’s carving out a very sweet spot in what’s clearly a growth industry.
Nor does it hurt that Cappello has the facts on his side. Latinos make up 38 percent of the city’s population and about 19 percent of its registered voting-age citizens. Since 1968 — when the current at-large system went into effect — five Latinos have been elected, two since 1997. In that time, one Asian-Pacific Islander also got elected; one African American was appointed to fill a vacancy. If the issue isn’t “all black-and-white” — as several councilmembers noted many times Tuesday — that’s because city councils over the past 40 years have been almost exclusively white. If it’s preordained that City Hall is going to lose this one, then it would behoove the council to minimize the amount of money it will piss away in legal fees. Last I checked, Cappello does not qualify as a worthy charity. To that end, the council should beat Cappello to the punch and put the matter to city voters this November. Not surprisingly, the council — which has no district-election supporters — may have screwed itself. August 8 is, in fact, the real deadline for the council to get the county supervisors to put district election on the November ballot. But at a meeting in late May, Mayor Helene Schneider stated the deadline was June 24, which at that time could not possibly be met. The reasoning behind that mistake was that the county supervisors are taking a six-week summer vacation and won’t be available in August. But imagine explaining to voters — as one councilmember laughingly did — “Sorry, guys, we can’t have an election on how democracy works here because the supervisors are taking six weeks off.”
As for the dreaded specter of “logrolling,” the actual practice dates back about 200 years to the time when neighbors used to help each other “roll” the trees they felled on their respective properties into the river — flowing conveniently nearby — and presumably off to market. In other words, it’s as corrupt, venal, and parochial as, well, a barn raising. In the meantime, see you at the hoedown. Be sure to wear underpants under your chaps.