Minorities Attack Pomona’s At-Large Voting
Openly segregated churches and restaurants are decades in the past here, but some local blacks and Latinos have gone to court to fight what they say is a form of racism hidden but firmly entrenched in city politics.
The issue is the city’s at-large election system, which some say was designed to keep minority candidates out of office. The system, which one community activist said has created an “apartheid city,” became the target of a lawsuit filed last month in U.S. District Court in Los Angeles.
“There are some very militant Mexican-Americans in the community,” said Pomona Mayor G. Stanton Selby. “There are some very militant blacks. These are the ones behind this. It is a quest for political power.”
The suit may bode ill for at-large systems throughout the state. The Texas-based Southwest Voter Registration and Education Project, a voting rights group representing the city’s minorities in court, has pressed 65 similar cases in Texas, New Mexico and Arizona. The New Mexico Legislature, bowing to pressures from Southwest and other groups, passed a bill in April that makes at-large elections illegal in cities with populations greater than 10,000.
A spokesman for Southwest said the Pomona suit is intended to signal the beginning of a statewide campaign aimed at abolishing at-large elections in California.
Leaders in Pomona’s large black and Latino communities, who sought help from Southwest in dealing with the alleged discrimination, say the system hurts minority voters, and that the problem is especially acute here. Minorities make up nearly 50% of the estimated 104,000 residents, but the elected city leadership is solidly white and has been since Pomona was incorporated in 1888. Only two members of racial or ethnic minorities have ever been elected to the council and none are serving there now.
In Pomona’s at-large system, all of the voters can vote for a candidate in each of the four council districts. But in a district system, the voters are allowed to cast ballots only on the candidates in their district.
Southwest says minority votes are unfairly diluted in the at-large system, crippling the ability of candidates who represent minority interests to be elected. The suit claims that Pomona’s at-large system violates the 1982 Voting Rights Act, which says that elections that have a discriminatory effect on minorities are illegal. A similar suit was filed simultaneously against Watsonville in Northern California.
If successful, the suit against Pomona would most likely result in the court ordering district elections. Minority leaders say they would also push for reapportionment of the city, carving out new districts that would give more cohesion and voting power to minority areas.
A suit filed in 1979 by the American Civil Liberties Union and other civil rights groups against Pasadena led to a referendum in which voters chose a district elction system.
Attorneys for Southwest said they are willing to settle their Pomona suit out of court, but that city officials have shown no willingness to negotiate.
City Atty. Patrick Sampson adamantly denies Southwest’s charges. He has filed an answer to the suit, but no trial date has been set.
The plaintiffs are Joseph Lee Duncan, Tomas Ursua and Willie White, all unsuccessful City Council candidates, and Gloria Romero and Harold Webb, who managed unsuccessful campaigns.
“This system lends itself to discrimination,” said Webb, a black community activist who managed Duncan’s campaign this year. He added, “This is an apartheid city.”
“The at-large system is a barrier to political participation,” said Romero, who is Ursua’s wife and managed his recent campaign. “It may be that once the districts are changed minorities will not get elected. But what we are saying is we want that barrier removed.”
City records show that in the last 20 years, 14 candidates from racial and ethnic minorities have sought election to the City Council and lost.
But city officials say the suit’s allegations lack factual support and are based on erroneous assumptions about the city’s black and Latino voters. They also say that because minority populations are scattered throughout the city, redrawing district boundaries could result in gerrymandering.
“Are you going to disrupt the entire political fabric of the city for tenuous claims of racial vote dilution?” Sampson asked in an interview.
Sampson said he also doubts that a district system would ensure the election of minority candidates.
One of Sampson’s first steps in preparing his answer to the suit was to re-tabulate the results of city elections since 1965. He said his figures showed that neither minority candidate who ran in the last election would have won if the election had been by district instead of citywide.
Minority leaders, however, disagree with Sampson’s preliminary conclusions.
“Mr. Sampson is looking at numbers that have nothing to do with what would happen if you had a district system,” said Ursua, a Chicano who lost to Donna Smith in an April runoff election.
Although city officials blame apathy among minority voters, and not the election system, for the failure of minority candidates to succeed, Ursua said the problem goes much deeper.
“The at-large system has been shown to create a psychology of disenfranchisement,” he said. “It produces alienation so people don’t come out.
“We’re saying that if you cut up the districts, that would make a big difference. The difference is people feel there is a benefit to vote. Then you’re talking about a whole different ballgame.”
The plaintiffs say Pomona’s deeply rooted racial problems are compounded by the lack of minority representation on the council. They contend that the council fails to address problems like unemployment and blighted neighborhoods that afflict a disproportionate number of blacks and Latinos.
“You have to remember these (city officials) are people that are basically ignorant of the social history with regard to voting rights,” said Romero. “Pomona is really just a microcosm of what is occurring throughout the Southwest.”
Romero, who holds a doctorate in social psychology and whose economic research is funded by UCLA’s Chicano Studies Department, said turn-of-the-century court records and other documents show that at-large elections were instituted by business leaders as a way of preventing blacks and Latinos, who then formed much of the laboring class, from gaining power. She said that although individual city officials today may not be prejudiced against minorities, the net effect of the system, which became part of the City Charter in 1911, is still the same.
A spokesman for the League of California Cities, based in Sacramento, said 14 of the state’s 441 incorporated cities have district elections. Of the remaining 417, 356 are general law cities, whose election laws are decreed by the state, and 61 have city charters requiring at-large elections. Of those, 10, like Pomona, require candidates to live in and be nominated from districts.
City officials deny that the at-large system has a discriminatory effect. Council members maintain that they are doing a good job of representing the entire city, including minorities. Some say they fear that a district system, in which council members would represent specific areas and constituencies, would lead to squabbling and petty rivalry.
“If we were to go to a district election it would lead into deals and trade-offs,” said Councilwoman Smith. “We want city elections to be by all the people.”
Smith and other council members say that Pomona is too small and its minority populations are distributed too evenly to make a district system worthwhile. Some warn that “ward” politics would eventually create a Chicago-style political machine.
But leaders in the black and Latino communities say repeated election failures are proof enough that minorities must take drastic steps if they wish to gain better representation on the council. And they point to district systems in Los Angeles and other large cities that appear to work well.
Southwest researchers say voting trends show that large numbers of Pomona residents, like citizens of other cities the group has sued, vote along racial lines, casting ballots for candidates of their own ethnic group regardless of issues. Proving that allegation will be a key to the outcome of the suit.
But Sampson said results of previous elections negate Southwest’s claim. Voters in the 3rd District, for example, showed an overwhelming preference in the last election for Smith over Ursua, despite the large Latino population in the area.
Smith said, “They (voters) felt I was the best candidate. Color never entered their minds.”
Sampson also pointed to the 1973 election of Benjamin Ochoa Sr., who served two terms on the council until 1981, when he did not seek reelection. Sampson said Ochoa, a Latino, would not have been elected without broad support among white voters. The only other minority member ever elected to the council, also a Latino, was William G. Herrera, who served one term, from 1967 to 1971 and did not seek reelection.
Southwest researchers, however, say that voting records alone do not give a clear picture of voting trends. They say preliminary results of exit polls they conducted during the last election in April show that a large number of Pomona residents do vote on the basis of race.
“Our analysis shows a severe degree of polarized voting along ethnic lines,” said Robert Brischetto, director of Southwest’s research division. In the Ursua-Smith race, for example, Brischetto said 13.5% of the white voters cast ballots for Ursua, compared to 57.6% of Latino voters.
“Anglos are not voting for Mexican-Americans and blacks,” he said. “Mexican-Americans are supporting Mexican-American candidates. Blacks are supporting blacks.”
City officials scoff at Southwest’s conclusions, attributing them to what they call a biased organization’s overzealous attempts to prove itself right. And some said they suspect that those behind the suit are guilty of reverse discrimination.
“I think it’s discriminatory and I think it’s racist,” Selby said of the suit. “I believe in integration and this is segregation. It defeats everything we as Americans are trying to achieve.”
Plaintiff White, a long-time Pomona resident and community leader who lost a bid for City Council in 1983, said the issue behind the suit is not one of race but one of representation.
“The color of the candidate isn’t important,” he said. “It’s who elected him.”
White and other members of the Council for a Greater Pomona, a political action group, also said the suit is not simply an attempt by defeated candidates to gain political power they could not get through the election system.
Instead, members of the group said the suit, which was filed on behalf of Pomona’s minorities, is a symptom of a growing tide of frustration among blacks and Latinos in Pomona with a city government that they feel is unresponsive to their needs.
“If these people (City Council members) represented their constituency, we wouldn’t have the unemployment problems in Pomona that we do,” Webb said.
The suit is the latest in a series of clashes between minorities and the city’s government in recent years.
After the April election, City Clerk Joyce Herr asked the district attorney’s office to investigate possible absentee ballot fraud. Her action was criticized by black and Latino activists, whose intense voter-registration drive included the collection of large numbers of absentee ballot applications and the delivery of completed ballots to City Hall.
Herr had questioned the validity of signatures on the applications and refused to count several ballots because she said she suspected they were forged. Investigators for the district attorney’s office have not completed their inquiry.
A similar situation led to the invalidation of hundreds of absentee ballots in a Pomona School Board election in 1983.
The ballots were hand-delivered by a member of a Latino voter registration group, and after an investigation the county registrar voided them.
A minority candidate who lost the school board election filed suit with the help of the Mexican American Legal Defense Fund against the winner, Nancy McCracken, contending that he had lost because of what he called the unjustified voiding of ballots.
The state Court of Appeal ruled in McCracken’s favor last month, reaffirming a lower court’s decision, and the case is now in the hands of the state Supreme Court.