“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