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Making sure minorities’ votes count

You would never mistake Jesse Lopez Jr. for a revolutionary. Soft-spoken, with a shy smile beneath his gray mustache, the retired school custodian and amateur mariachi singer hardly seems like an instigator.

Yet if Latinos come to dominate California politics someday, Lopez will have helped make it happen.

Lopez was one of three plaintiffs in a lawsuit earlier this year against the Madera Unified School District aimed at greater Latino participation on the school board in the San Joaquin Valley town.

An injunction in the case is forcing Madera Unified, which is 82% Latino, to change the way it elects its board.

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The decision has already begun to reshape school boards, city councils and special districts throughout California. Dozens of jurisdictions have Latino majorities with few, if any, Latino elected officials -- the very conditions that led to the ruling that the Madera district’s electoral system had fostered “racially polarized voting” in violation of the California Voting Rights Act.

“I think what we’re looking at is a quiet revolution,” said Robert Rubin, an attorney with the San Francisco-based Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights, which brought the Madera case. “I think this will sort of usher in the transfer of power from the Anglo community to the Latino community . . . with fair and equitable voting procedures.”

The latest step along that road was a ruling in September by Madera County Superior Court Judge James E. Oakley, who invalidated, in advance, the results of the November school board election. Oakley said Madera’s at-large voting system, in which all voters in the district cast ballots for all board members rather than for a candidate representing their section of town, violated the Voting Rights Act.

Relying on the remedy suggested by the law, he called for the district to be divided into seven trustee areas, with candidates to run in each.

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Roughly 90% of California school boards use at-large voting, as do many city councils and other local boards. The state’s Voting Rights Act, enacted in 2002, bans at-large voting if there is evidence that it “impairs the ability” of a minority group “to elect candidates of its choice or its ability to influence the outcome of an election.”

Other jurisdictions are paying heed. In the wake of Oakley’s order, the Madera City Council decided to switch to district elections, City Councilman Robert Poythress said. And in neighboring Fresno County, where 28 of 32 school boards use at-large elections, all 28 decided to follow Madera’s lead and switch to district elections, county schools Supt. Larry Powell said.

“I’ve had no chafing on the part of anybody,” he said. “They said, ‘It’s the right thing to do. Let’s do it.’ ”

Similar discussions are taking place in other counties. Ultimately, Rubin said, the electoral change will transform “the literal face of California politics.”

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That is a lot to lay at the feet of Lopez, who was surprised to hear that his case had implications outside Madera. The son of a former county supervisor, Lopez said he volunteered to join the case out of concern that at-large voting made it too difficult for Latinos to win.

Madera, about 20 miles northwest of Fresno, has had Latino residents as long as anyone can remember -- probably since it was founded in the 19th century. Today’s Latino population is a mix of long-established families, many of them securely middle class, and a large influx of newcomers, many of them poor, Spanish-speaking immigrants from Mexico.

The city of 55,000 is more than two-thirds Latino. Yet just one Latino sits on its seven-member school board. Why can’t a Latino majority elect more Latinos?

The easy answer is that many of the newly arrived immigrants are not U.S. citizens and can’t vote. But Latinos hold a slight majority even among U.S. citizens of voting age.

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In interviews, several incumbent board members and a member of Madera’s City Council argued that Latinos had effectively marginalized themselves, with too few involved in civic affairs.

“To be honest with you, over the 17 years that I have been on the board . . . there haven’t been that many Hispanics or Latinos who have taken out papers to run,” said Robert Garibay, the lone Latino trustee. It frustrates him, especially when he hears people in the Latino community complain about a lack of representation.

“Where were they?” he asked.

Garibay argued that Latinos were, perhaps, discouraged from running because “they don’t feel that they have a chance.” As a result, he said, “they don’t get involved, for the most part, in community events.” That is the argument made in interviews by the three plaintiffs.

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“What are the chances of one of us being able to run citywide?” asked Carlos Uranga, who ran twice unsuccessfully for school board. “And what are the chances of us motivating our voters to vote when they don’t think we stand a chance?”

Uranga got involved in the case when his friend, Lopez, came knocking on his door. Lopez also recruited another friend, Maria Esther Rey.

Rey, a homemaker and former home care provider, said some people have called her a racist for taking part in the lawsuit. “I’m not,” she said. “My family is composed of different races. . . . I don’t hate anybody.” But, she said, “We needed a change. . . . It was a great tool to use this voting rights law.”

Deciding not to fight the ruling, the school board drew up a map in which three of the seven voting districts have Latino majorities. In a delicate exercise in gerrymandering, each of the incumbents was given a separate district.

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The map also was drawn to create districts that cross Highway 99, which divides the town both geographically and economically, with the west side considerably wealthier than the east.

The map was approved by Madera County and is expected to receive final approval from the state Board of Education, leading to district elections in June.

The idea behind district-based elections, which most large urban school systems use, is that a minority candidate has a better chance of being elected in a specific area than citywide.

The argument against them is that they encourage territorial disputes and pork-barrel fights for resources.

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“Our concern is that it could lead to some Balkanization, where you have one candidate who really just represents one race of people, and we think they should represent everyone,” said Ralph Kasarda, a staff attorney with the Pacific Legal Foundation, a leading legal voice against affirmative action in California. Kasarda said he wasn’t familiar with the Madera case and stressed that he had no problem with a legal remedy that prevents votes “from being diluted.”

Madera isn’t the first proving ground for the California Voting Rights Act, which gives civil rights lawyers tools not covered by the U.S. Voting Rights Act. In the most prominent case, the Modesto City Council agreed last year to abandon at-large voting after a $3-million fight with the Lawyers’ Committee.

Madera was one of 25 districts that received threatening letters from the Lawyers’ Committee in March. Rubin would not identify the others, but said the group is negotiating with some and considering more litigation. The group’s focus has been on the Central Valley, but districts throughout the state, including some in Southern California, have the same lopsided power balance that could lead to a challenge under the state Voting Rights Act.

A 2006 report by the Latino Issues Forum, a public policy and advocacy group, identified dozens of California districts that had Latino student majorities, used at-large voting and had few, if any, Latino school board members. Among them were the Anaheim City School District, the Compton Unified School District and the Inglewood Unified School District.

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Ultimately, it was the threat of a costly legal battle like the one in Modesto that persuaded Madera Unified to give in.

“It’s too expensive,” Supt. John Stafford said. “We can’t afford to take money away from our students to fight this, even though we don’t feel we’ve done anything wrong.”

Some school board members said they also believed the switch to district elections was appropriate.

“I can see the advantages of it,” said Michael Westley, while adding that he resented the way the districting was forced on Madera by outsiders.

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“This is a community,” he said. “I think to the lawyers’ group, it’s just a chess game.”

Board President Ray Seibert went further, saying he believes the at-large system ensures that the best candidates are elected. Seibert said the board’s educational initiatives are aimed at educating all of Madera’s children.

“My wife is Hispanic,” said Seibert, a farmer and businessman. “My employees are all Hispanic. I know what they need. They talk to me. . . . They want their kids to learn English and get a good education.”

The plaintiffs in the case against Madera acknowledged that the school board has done some good things for Latino children, including building several new schools on the heavily Latino east side. But they argued that the board has sometimes been slow to meet their needs and that Latinos believe they are less than fully represented.

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Uranga, a communications technician with AT&T;, shares Lopez’s passion and has none of his quiet reserve.

To him the issue is simple: Latinos, whether treated well or poorly, had been disenfranchised.

“What we did with this process,” he said, “was get rid of the modern poll tax.”

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mitchell.landsberg@latimes.com


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