Vista Is Examined for Bias

Special to The Times

The U.S. Justice Department is investigating whether the northern San Diego County city of Vista has prevented Latinos from holding public office.

Latinos make up 40% of Vista’s 90,000 residents. But in a city that elects a mayor and four council members at large -- each representing the entire city -- no Spanish-surnamed candidates have been elected in the community’s 40-year history.

Last fall, Elvin Vega, a tow-truck company manager, ran a low-budget campaign for mayor. He had no political experience, but figured his efforts to reach Latino business owners and place signs in their neighborhoods would win over many voters. He finished fourth in a field of six candidates. “I don’t know what happened,” he said. “All I know is that I tried.”


Frank Lopez, a city planning commissioner, suffered the same fate in his two attempts at a City Council seat. Still, neither candidate said he had found flaws in the city’s electoral system. And an advocacy group for a predominantly Latino neighborhood in Vista said it had never heard a complaint.

“I don’t think there’s a problem here, and that’s all I want to tell you,” Lopez said.

Some cities in southeast Los Angeles County did not elect a majority of Latinos to their city councils until the group was by far the predominant ethnic group. Three Latinos held the majority on the South Gate City Council after a 1992 election, when the city’s population was 83% Latino.

Political observers said Latinos needed a super-majority of the population before making political gains in southeast Los Angeles County because so few were registered voters. Many were not legal residents, others were too young to vote and others had a general distrust of government.

Justice Department investigators want to determine whether a pattern emerges in Vista. They plan to check whether members of minorities and whites vote differently; whether whites in Vista vote as a block against minority candidates; and whether whites are able to beat minority candidates, even when minority voters are unified at the polls, said Justice Department spokesman Jorge Martinez.

Lopez is one of several Vista residents the Justice Department has interviewed since it began its investigation earlier this month. Officials also are combing through maps, census data and voting records of the last 10 years. Vista’s Latino population jumped more than 10% from 1990 to 2000.

Mayor Morris Vance speculated that Latinos have not been elected, as in other burgeoning ethnic communities, because of extremely low voter registration rates. “There’s a definite problem in the sense of lack of participation,” he said. “But in terms of something the community is doing to stop the participation, I really don’t think there is anything.”


If the Justice Department finds a violation of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, it could order the city to be divided into council districts, rather than conducting citywide votes for elected officials. The idea is that at least one district might be drawn to encompass a concentration of the city’s Latino population, increasing the likelihood of the group’s electing one of its own, Martinez said.

But some fear carving out districts would segregate the city and infuse more politics into what has been a fairly apolitical government. “I don’t like that idea because I want to represent the whole city; I don’t want to just represent one area. I want to represent all races, all religions -- it doesn’t matter,” said Vega, adding that he plans to run for office again next year.

Most smaller California cities still hold at-large elections. If the Justice Department finds fault with Vista’s voting system, it could be the first of many cities forced to change the way elections are run, said City Atty. Wayne Dernetz.

Neighboring Escondido and San Marcos have no minority representation on their city councils, even though they have nearly the same percentage of Latinos as Vista, he said.

However, Vista is the only California city under federal investigation, Martinez said. He would not say what had prompted the investigation or when it would be completed. Dernetz said news reports on the dearth of Latinos in politics may have drawn federal officials’ attention.

He said the Justice Department needs to determine only that white voters in Vista tend to favor white candidates and dilute Latino voters’ preferences to find a violation of the Voting Rights Act. Intent and cause are irrelevant, he said.


It has been more than three years since the Justice Department has conducted a similar investigation in California, Martinez said. Other Justice Department investigations around the country have resulted in federal lawsuits that ultimately forced local governments to change their voting systems.

Vista officials have said they want to avoid a federal lawsuit. They plan to hire a demographer and an attorney who specializes in elections issues. And Dernetz and Vance said they would be open to the Justice Department’s recommendations, which, in addition to the separate districts, may include a call for more poll workers who can assist Latino voters and printing more ballots and voter’s guides in Spanish, Martinez said.

Catherine Manis, executive director of the Vista Townsite Community Partnership, a neighborhood advocacy group where the largest number of Latino residents live, said she had never heard complaints before the Justice Department’s probe.

Now that she has been asking Latinos in English-language classes about the subject, though, several people have said they could use more information on where and when to vote, she said.

Manis said she believes the problem lies not within the system, but with Latino candidates who have done a poor job campaigning. Not enough Latino voters in Vista know they’re out there, she said.