Monday Morning Thoughts: Dunning is Not Being Helpful on District Elections

“We should fight” – that’s the implication of Bob Dunning’s column this week.  I get the impulse, as no one wants to be forced to do something, especially in a process that seems questionable at best – but there is a reason why we decided not to fight, and the reason is that it is unlikely that we will win, it is costly, and at the core it is probably not the right thing to do anyway.

But let’s explore the implications of Bob Dunning’s latest column, quoting “a citizen named Elisabeth.”

She writes: “I have been informed that, so far, no other local governments in California have been successful fighting against this redistricting decision. Why don’t we become the first to win such a suit?”

Writes Bob Dunning: “What a novel idea. Davis has always prided itself on being a leader, not a follower, and yet we’re definitely playing follow the leader on this one.”

“It is not realistic to divide our people,” Elisabeth goes on. “We all live together. There are presently no assigned areas for anyone. The current system is more democratic, as it encourages unity. Davis is a well-integrated city at present. So where is the discrimination? I say, let’s fight this lawsuit.”

The last point is subjective.  But within that integration are some rather stark variations.  On racial issues the proposed districts range from 49 percent white on the low end, to 73 percent white on the high end.  Economically it is more diverse than that, with districts holding as little as 36 percent renters to as high as 83 percent renters.

As I have argued in the past, there are some racial concerns in Davis – racial profiling and of course the achievement gap.

But all of that is subjective.  Before we fight, I think we should realize that we are not the leader here.  Santa Monica is.  And their experience should be a cautionary tale.

Santa Monica is like Davis, except probably more so – more wealthy, and yes, more white.  Unlike Davis, they have challenged the move for district elections in court and they have not been successful in their efforts to date.

In March, the LA Times reported, that a Superior Court judge ruled that the city must act to “eliminate the taint of the illegal at-large election system.”

We think of Davis as a very white and upper-middle class community.  But that has changed rather rapidly, moving from 70 percent white in 2000 downwards to about 55 percent today.

Santa Monica, on the other hand, is about 65 percent white.  If Santa Monica isn’t prevailing on the challenge to the CVRA (California Voting Rights Act), why would we expect Davis to?

Moreover, there is a cost here.  The city council during one of the earlier meetings pointed out that Santa Monica has paid $4 million for its litigation so far.  Maybe Santa Monica has that kind of money, but the city of Davis does not.

So we have a situation where a community that is actually less diverse than Davis (shudder to think) is still unable to prevail and it has been a very costly fight.  Given that set of facts, one has to ask Bob Dunning and “Elisabeth,” … What does the community have to gain by fighting this?

But I think it is actually a good deal worse than that when we look at the political implications of fighting it.

As UC Irvine Professor Richard L. Hasen, an election law expert. points out, “Everyone thinks of Santa Monica as a liberal bastion of very open-minded people, and yet the court’s findings describe a history that’s much more sullied than people are aware.”

The same could be applied in Davis as well.  Davis has the same history – a reputation for being a liberal bastion of open-minded people, and yet, as we have shown time and again, it is otherwise underneath that veneer.

It bothers me that, in trying to make the argument that Davis doesn’t need district elections, we gloss over problems of race and inequity in Davis.

Even two weeks ago when we focused on the need for renter or student representation on council, the issue of people of color being represented got lost.

But, at the end of the day, the council looked at the law, they looked at cases like Santa Monica, they looked at the cost of fighting, and decided that we probably can’t win.

Neither Bob Dunning nor “Elisabeth” looked at the case of Santa Monica – if they had, they probably wouldn’t be so cavalier about risking $4 million and counting on a legal fight that we likely cannot win.

—David M. Greenwald reporting


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About The Author

David Greenwald is the founder, editor, and executive director of the Davis Vanguard. He founded the Vanguard in 2006. David Greenwald moved to Davis in 1996 to attend Graduate School at UC Davis in Political Science. He lives in South Davis with his wife Cecilia Escamilla Greenwald and three children.

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12 Comments

  1. Matt Williams

    I read the Dunning column yesterday and I had no problem categorizing it as one of his dark humor pieces.  Do you really think anyone took that article seriously?

    BTW, the “We should fight!” message in the column wasn’t an implication … it was a clear declaration.

  2. Alan Miller

    I get the impulse, as no one wants to be forced to do something, especially in a process that seems questionable at best – but there is a reason why we decided not to fight, and the reason is that it is unlikely that we will win, it is costly, and at the core it is probably not the right thing to do anyway.

    Said by a man who agrees with the district concept to further personal agenda.  Were the tables turned, you would never say ‘don’t fight because we are unlikely to win’ or ‘it’s costly’.  For example, let’s not fight the Yolo County DA, because we’re unlikely to win, or let’s not fight to fire a cop who shot a person of color, because we’re unlikely to win.  Have you considered changing the name of your blog to the Davis Vanhypocrite?

    1. Richard McCann

      There’s a difference “unlikely” and “have never won before and no reason to believe otherwise”. County DAs have been forced to change policy; cops have been fired for dereliction of duty; not a single city or county has won a suit yet to fight off districts, and the one that continues is bleeding money. You have to decide what’s important to fight for and focus your limited resources on those actions. I see the pros and cons of districts. I dislike status quo bias–usually it just means protecting the already powerful, so saying “we’ve always done it that way” carries no weight. Show us clearly why at large is preferable to districts across all considerations and then I’ll agree to fight the change.

  3. Alan Miller

    As I have argued in the past, there are some racial concerns in Davis – racial profiling and of course the achievement gap.

    There are racial concerns in ‘mer’ca.

    In the Vanguard, it’s all ’bout D’vis.

  4. Alan Miller

    We think of Davis as a very white and upper-middle class community.  But that has changed rather rapidly, moving from 70 percent white in 2000 downwards to about 55 percent today.

    Less white!

    More filling!

  5. Alan Miller

    – a reputation for being a liberal bastion of open-minded people, and yet, as we have shown time and again, it is otherwise underneath that veneer.

    I would argue ‘attempted to show’ rather than ‘shown’.  And I’d argue, yes there are selfish people, racists and jerks here . . . like anywhere.  And many hypocrites on all sides.   And seriously, stating Davis has a reputation as being ‘a liberal bastion of open-minded people’ only to tear it down is ridiculous.  Who the h*ll ever calls Davis that?  Nice see-through rhetorical trick.

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