My View: District Elections and Dillan Horton

Dillan Horton

By David M. Greenwald
Executive Editor

Davis, CA – On the local front, there was an interesting column this week from Bob Dunning regarding the candidacy of Dillan Horton.

Dunning references a reader who thinks Horton “is an excellent candidate with a number of attributes” but believes that Horton has little chance of winning “because of our new and disastrous district election scheme.”

Instead, the reader argues, “In a citywide election he would gain a seat and come in second or third.”

The problem in the current configuration is that he lives in District 2 which is currently held by Mayor Will Arnold.

Dunning quips, “I’d say Will would be hard to go against when only the top vote-getter is elected, as opposed to two or three being elected in an at-large election.”

She (the reader) adds, “Tell me how district elections make it easier for minorities to win a seat.”

Dunning says, “Indeed, minorities and other traditionally underrepresented groups have a much better chance of being elected in a citywide election, at least in Davis.

“However, our gutless council bowed down to an unreasonable demand from an out-of-town lawyer, even though every single councilmember knew districts were not good for Davis.  Bottom line: It’s always the right time to do the right thing.”

Valid points all around here, but I have a slightly different take.

First of all, it is by no means certain that Will Arnold will run again.  If you recall, four years ago most people believed that Arnold would not run for a second term.  I think if you asked him—which I did a number of times—he was leaning against it.

Among other things, he was thought to have to run head-to-head against his colleague Brett Lee.  But Brett Lee issued a late and surprise announcement that he would not seek a third term and Will Arnold jumped back in.

With that in mind, it seems reasonable to wonder if he would run for a third term.  I will leave it at—we shall see rather than speculate further.

Someone was asking me why Horton would have a kickoff event almost a year and a half before the November 2024 election.  That seems wise on his part.  I agree with the assessment that Will Arnold would be tough to beat.

Tough but not impossible.  In 2020, in a three-way race, Arnold was held just under 50 percent.  That was 2020 where a lot of students were not around to vote, which might have helped Horton.  Of the 50.42 percent of the vote that did not support Arnold, Horton got 28.6 of that while Colin Walsh got 21.8 percent.

It’s not clear that Horton and Walsh split the anti-Arnold vote, however, as Horton’s issues are probably a good deal closer to Will Arnold than they were to Colin Walsh.

However, I’ve always been taught that any time the incumbent is held under 50 percent, they are at least nominally vulnerable.

In the meantime, Horton should be doing all he can to solidify himself as a strong candidate should Arnold not run—that’s still Horton’s best chance to actually getting a seat on council.

As for the district elections, while I have turned against districts, I don’t really agree with Dunning here that they were gutless.  Rather they made a calculated decision, even though many expressed qualms about the decision and probably even more frustration about being forced into it.

Should the council have declined to implement districts, they would be where Santa Monica is today—in the middle of litigation.  Litigation that would have been lengthy and expensive, and at the time not only uncertain but looking like an almost certain loser.

Could the city of Davis have afforded about $6 million or so (based on the estimates at the time) to litigate the matter?  Probably not.  Given the city’s fiscal predicament, I don’t think that would have been a prudent decision.

However, those calculations could change if Santa Monica prevails in their litigation.  It would give the city a path to victory.  Moreover, I’m not even certain there would be litigation at this point—the people who appeared to have filed the original petition are long since gone and there might not be a lot of motivation to continue after watching the results of the last few years.

In short, the day may well come when the city revisits their decision, but until then, I don’t think the risk-averse approach they took in 2019 was wrong.

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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1 Comment

  1. Matt Williams

    When Donna Neville was elected to City Council I sent her a congratulatory e-mail that included the following.  I sent the same e-mail to Bapu Vaitla and Gloria Partida when they were elected.  I will now send it to them again with a copy to Bob Dunning.

    I strongly hope you will put into discussions with your fellow council members a plan for going back to at large elections.  Our brief history with District elections has clearly shown that they actually make it harder for communities of interest to be represented due to the homogeneity of our demographic dispersal in Davis. This is coupled with the requirement that a candidate can only come in first in order to be elected, while in at large elections they can come in first, second, and even third and still earn a seat at the table.

    There is nothing to prevent the Council from taking the necessary first steps in consideration of and charting the path for a Council Ordinance rescinding the prior Council Ordinance that put District elections in place.  The lawyers will no doubt counsel with an abundance of caution, fearing a lawsuit, but I am of the opinion that we have nothing to fear but fear itself.
    The major difference between now and the time of the Rexroad threat is that Rexroad had a good chance not only of winning his suit, but also winning a judgment for court costs and legal fees.  With the Santa Monica case on the books, the chances of a judgment for court costs and legal fees is severely reduced, and that means any lawsuit would be costly to the plaintiff.  Given Santa Monica, the plaintiff might even find themselves (if they lose the case) facing a judgment to pay the City’s court costs and legal fees.  That makes the decision to sue much much less attractive.

    In addition, it is likely the original plaintiff has moved on, so any lawyer contemplating a suit would have to find a party with standing willing to put their name on the line.

    All in all, it is time for our City Council to show leadership and proactively stand up for democracy

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