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Open Letter On the California Voting Rights Case Against the City of Santa Monica

By Oscar de la Torre

Like many Santa Monicans and Californians who care about fair elections, I watched the California Supreme Court’s June 27 arguments in Pico Neighborhood Association & Maria Loya v. City of Santa Monica – a case filed more than 7 years ago to vindicate the voting rights of people of color in Santa Monica.  Within the first few minutes of his presentation, the City’s high-priced attorney, Theodore Boutrous, argued that the Santa Monica City Council now has two Latino/a members from the Pico Neighborhood, only one of whom could serve on a council chosen through district-based elections.  According to Mr. Boutrous, this was a reason to leave the at-large election system in place.

What Mr. Boutrous failed to mention is that from 1946 through 2019, Santa Monica’s at-large election system had resulted in the election of only one Latino councilmember – one out of 72 elected councilmembers in that span – and the Pico Neighborhood never had a person of color elected to represent our voice on the City Council. That is why I support a switch to more inclusive district-based elections, just as the Los Angeles Superior Court ordered in 2019. The fact is that the at-large election system in Santa Monica was deliberately implemented to keep people of color from the Pico Neighborhood off the City Council. This is a clear example of systemic racism. District-based elections strengthen our democracy by reducing the cost of running for a seat on the City Council. Elections by district ensure that every neighborhood in Santa Monica gets represented. 

I am unconcerned about my own political future; it is the future of the Pico Neighborhood, where I was raised by two immigrant parents with my 7 siblings, that I care deeply about.  I want the Pico Neighborhood to be guaranteed representation for the future, long after I am gone, so that my children who are being raised in the Pico Neighborhood can say one day that Santa Monica is fair to all of its residents. I also want minority communities throughout California to never go unrepresented and ignored, as the Pico Neighborhood has for many decades.  As a Democrat, I agree with what US Senator Alex Padilla wrote the day of the Supreme Court argument: “If the city of Santa Monica prevails, the CVRA’s protections against discriminatory at-large elections would be drastically weakened.  In other words, if the city has its way, California would be set back 20 years.” (https://tinyurl.com/yd49h22b)

The Pico Neighborhood has endured the neglect of an apathetic city government for over 75 years due to its lack of representation. Any personal political sacrifice I may have to endure to prevent another 75 years of suffocating ambivalence to the Pico Neighborhood pales in comparison.

My city council colleagues tell us that the City – among the richest in the world – cannot afford to keep our libraries open, offer after-school programs at our public schools, and keep our parks clean and safe.  Yet, they have no hesitation in spending many millions of dollars on attorneys to fight against the voting rights of Santa Monica’s residents of color in order to maintain their own political power.  Had the City simply adopted district elections in 2016, it could have avoided all the legal fees associated with the Pico Neighborhood Association’s case.  That’s the sensible action that dozens of other California cities have taken when faced with California Voting Rights Act (CVRA) claims.

This issue is not just about Santa Monica.  Racial and ethnic minorities throughout California are denied the representation they deserve by at-large election systems.  The CVRA has been instrumental in combating that inequity, yet some of my otherwise progressive colleagues would seek to cripple the CVRA in court so they might maintain their own political power and privilege.   My colleagues on the Santa Monica City Council cannot fight against voting rights and simultaneously call themselves “progressive.”  

We will all be remembered for where we stood on the voting rights of minorities – probably more than any other issue we address as city council members. Santa Monica’s “liberal” facade will be exposed once the California Supreme Court renders its decision. Some of my colleagues will, unfortunately, be remembered for standing in the schoolhouse door, obstructing the rights of minorities like so many of history’s “conservative” villains.  I choose instead to stand on the right side of history. 

-Oscar de la Torre, Santa Monica City Councilmember

in Opinion
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