Watsonville Loss on Election Issue Could Be Victory for State Latinos

Times Staff Writer

A recent federal court decision requiring this central California city of 28,000 to change from at-large to district-by-district voting for City Council seats has set a precedent for California and has the potential to greatly enhance Latino political power.

In Texas, where about 100 cities in the last few years have either been ordered or agreed to make such a transition as a result of lawsuits brought under the U.S. Voting Rights Act, the result has been much greater representation in municipal governing bodies for minorities, particularly Latinos.

Now, with the Watsonville case implanting the Texas rules in the territory of the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals, encompassing California and eight other Western states, such change is apt to come soon to California, where outside the big cities, at-large voting--and low numbers of Latino elected officials--have been the rule.


“This means a great deal,” said Joaquin Avila, former president of the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund (MALDEF) and attorney for the plaintiffs in the Watsonville litigation.

“It provides clearly a message to the political establishment that the Latino community cannot wait to be politically integrated, and that we now have an effective tool to accelerate that political integration.”

Watsonville, Avila said, has had “a history of political exclusion.” Latino candidates ran for City Council or mayor nine times from 1971 to 1985 without winning, he said.

“The Latino citizen population was close to 36% in the 1980 Census,” he said. “One would think two or three members (of the council) would be Latino, but because of the existence of polarized voting, that didn’t happen.”

Finally, in 1987, Watsonville--an agricultural and food processing center where Latinos are likely to be in the majority in the 1990 Census--elected a Latino to public office. But only two Anglos were running for three open seats, and the Latino elected, Tony Campos, was a real estate dealer who many feel is not very representative of Latino community concerns.

When the new district-by-district voting plan is implemented, possibly this fall, Anglo and Latino leaders agree, two more Latinos are likely to be elected to the seven-member City Council.


And already, under pressure by lawyers for MALDEF and the Southwest Voter Registration/Education Project, nearby cities with historical patterns similar to Watsonville’s are beginning to submit to the new method of council elections.

Salinas, rather than face a lawsuit, agreed to implement district-by-district voting in elections to be held June 6. Gilroy is considering a similar plan.

A survey conducted for the plaintiffs in the Watsonville case by the San Francisco law firm of Rosen & Phillips found more than 130 California cities that may be required to change their voting method. Each of these cities has an at-large election system, a Latino population of at least 10% and no Latinos holding City Council seats.

These are mostly small or medium-sized cities. Most of the state’s largest cities, including Los Angeles, San Francisco and San Diego, vote by district, although at present all but 20 of California’s 444 cities with City Councils vote at large.

Now, where it can be shown under the federal Voting Rights Act that there has been racially polarized voting, where minority candidates have fared much worse in Anglo than in Latino areas, and where Anglos have traditionally voted solidly against Latino candidates, the Watsonville precedent will mandate a shift to district-by-district elections.

Avila said target cities for legal action are being identified in Los Angeles, Kern and Santa Clara counties. In Pomona, a Southwest Voter Registration lawsuit is now under appeal.


Salinas City Manager Roy J. Herte said his city’s decision to implement voting by districts was a “pragmatic” one. “We watched what was happening in Watsonville. . . . We had no insurance policy to cover the costs of a suit, and no estimate of what it would cost, and we knew that once the precedent had been set over there, our chances of winning would have been remote.”

Beyond that, Herte said, “we don’t really see any ominous result in district elections.” He questioned whether the number of Latino members on the City Council, only one now, would rise all that rapidly.

Watsonville, where a policy with Republic Insurance Group has defrayed all but $2,400 of the legal charges of about $500,000 thus far defending against the lawsuit, has a leadership that is not so accepting of the impending change.

For one thing, there is a much more active, even militant, Latino leadership in Watsonville, partly as a result of a large cannery strike four years ago. On the other side, the present City Council is dominated by real estate interests that recently pushed through a redevelopment plan that depopulated several heavily Latino blocks downtown.

Despite first-ever direct talks recently between the city’s conservative mayor, Betty Murphy, and Latino community worker Dolores Cruz Gomez, a plaintiff in the lawsuit and would-be council candidate, it appears likely that there will be further litigation on how to lay out the districts. A status conference has been set by U.S. District Judge William A. Ingram for May 8.

Delight at Low Turnout

For a time, the reaction of some Watsonville officials to the drive for more Latino representation was one of disdain. Even after the lawsuit was filed, City Atty. Donald R. Haile wrote memos to the city’s special attorney in the matter, Vince Fontana of New York, noting happily that in some elections Latino turnout was very low. In one city election, he said, only 239 of 6,700 voting-age Latinos had voted.


But under new district voting, the turnout may well be higher. Last week, the plaintiffs’ attorney, Avila, declared, “It’s been proven time and time again that when you are given an opportunity to have an impact, people start running for office, they mobilize and they vote.”

In Watsonville, divergent class interests are apparent that may well crop up in other cities as the new election plans bring about more Latino representation.

The concern about this was evident last week at a meeting of the Watsonville Board of Realtors at which Campos, the lone Latino member of the City Council, warned of what he called “a bad element” in the Latino community. This group, he said, could become “the tail wagging the dog” in the city unless solid citizens start voting in municipal elections in much greater numbers.

Gomez, interviewed the following day, said she suspected that Campos was talking about her, and she suggested he has been a “Tio Taco,” the Latino equivalent of an Uncle Tom.

“I’m a bad element for real estate interests,” she said. “Those interests do not work for the community.”

Campos and other real estate dealers who dominate municipal government have been practicing “a kind of segregation” in pushing redevelopment in Watsonville, said Gomez, whose work consists of providing information, referrals and advocacy for low-income residents.


‘Critical Period’

“In the past, they literally took Japanese and Chinese churches and moved them to the edges of town,” she said. “Now, a new middle-class, upper-class is moving back into downtown. It’s a real critical period now of whether we Latinos can even afford to live here. They are destroying our neighborhoods right across from City Hall as a way to push us out.”

Gomez vowed that if she and one or two other new Latinos are elected to the City Council in the district elections, they will make a new development policy and low-cost housing their priorities.

The divisiveness of the issue was evident last Tuesday when the Watsonville City Council met. The sole councilman at all sympathetic to the Latinos’ efforts to implement district elections, Dennis Osmer, an Anglo, suggested that adoption of a new general plan for the city be put off until the new district-by-district elections are held.

Rex Clark, a councilman who even more than the mayor leads the Anglo establishment, took vehement exception. He accused Osmer of “insulting” the present council by suggesting that it should hold up action. Osmer was unable to command a single other vote for his proposal.

“The only way we’ll have change in this town is to change the voting system,” said tax accountant Waldo Rodriguez, another plaintiff in the Latino suit.

Latinos May Be Majority

He predicted that when district voting is instituted, two Latinos “will be elected for sure, and things are changing. Two today might be four tomorrow, or six. . . . I personally would put the Hispanic population here at 68% or above.” Even if just the Latinos who are citizens are counted, he said, “we might be a majority.”


If a Latino majority does exist and comes to prevail politically in Watsonville and other California cities, attorney Avila makes the point that district-by-district voting may ultimately protect the interests of Anglos even more than Latinos.

“The voting rights cases that we’re doing are not just to the benefit of the Latino community,” he remarked. “At some point, you may have situations where you have racially polarized voting the other way. Anglos may want some protection from that. . . . But that’s still a long way off, you’re not going to see that happen for many years.”