When Costa Mesa moved to voting districts this year for its City Council elections, one of the stated goals was to expand the electoral power of local Latino residents who, by all accounts, had never had one of their own elected to the council.
The Nov. 6 election was the first held under the new balloting system and, if the results are any indication, it seems the mission was accomplished with the victory of Manuel Chavez.
The 23-year-old doesn’t shy away from the challenges and opportunities of his new position as the representative of District 4, a densely populated, predominantly Latino slice of the Westside ranging from Harbor Boulevard west to Monrovia Avenue and south to West 17th Street. It’s the area he’s lived in throughout his life.
“That inspires me and humbles me at the same time,” he said. “It makes me want to do my best and work my hardest, because I know I can make a big impact immediately.”
He and fellow council newcomers Andrea Marr and Arlis Reynolds are expected to be sworn into office Tuesday.
Though Chavez is one of the youngest people ever elected to the City Council, he views his age as an advantage.
“People my age who have not been involved in politics and don’t know how to approach the council now can, because they can approach me,” he said.
Though it’s hard to definitively determine the backgrounds of the nearly 50 different council members since Costa Mesa’s incorporation in 1953, the election of Chavez — as well as Marr and Reynolds, both of whom have Latino heritage — appears to be groundbreaking.
“As far as I know, this is historic,” said city spokesman Tony Dodero.
That’s not to say Latino residents haven’t sought council seats. Community activist Mirna Burciaga mounted unsuccessful bids in 2004 and 2006, and Eastside resident Lee Ramos, who has served on several city committees, came up short in 2014 and 2016.
However, when they ran, Costa Mesa council members were elected at large, meaning residents citywide could vote for any candidate.
With the new district-based system, voters in each of six designated areas elect a candidate to represent them.
In this year’s election, seats were available in Districts 3, 4 and 5.
Chavez said he “felt very comfortable” running in District 4 because “I knew the area very well and … I knew the issues we faced.”
Costa Mesa’s move to voting districts began in 2016, when Kevin Shenkman — an attorney with Malibu-based law firm Shenkman & Hughes — threatened to sue the city, alleging that its at-large voting method violated the California Voting Rights Act of 2001 by diluting the ability of Latino residents to elect candidates of their choice.
As of the 2010 Census, Latinos made up about 36% of Costa Mesa’s population. In District 4, the proportion is about 79%.
“We are very happy to see Mr. Chavez’s success, just as with the many other candidates who won in their respective cities’ first-ever district-based elections,” Shenkman said. “Mr. Chavez’s victory is especially gratifying because it is clear he felt he could speak his mind in a district election system.”
Growing up, Chavez said, his Westside neighborhood was close-knit — the type of community where people have one another’s back.
He attended local schools, including Estancia High, where he became involved with Save Our Youth, a nonprofit that works to provide area teenagers with resources and mentorship to help them succeed in middle school, high school and beyond.
After graduating from Estancia, he went to UC Irvine, where he majored in political science and religious studies and obtained a bachelor’s degree in the former.
He now works as an auto dealer funding coordinator.
Though he had the support of his community and classmates, Chavez’s high school experience revealed a sort of disconnect, he said — a feeling that his neighborhood was looked down on or somehow viewed as separate from the rest of the city.
He recalled a visit to Mesa Verde, one of Costa Mesa’s most affluent neighborhoods.
“It kind of opened my eyes up a little bit, just how different it was,” he said. “It’s the same city, but there’s a big gap, a big disparity. It was nicer there than in my part of town.”
To Chavez, it seemed some people were more interested in finding ways to change the Westside rather than improve the quality of life for its existing residents.
“Certain people feel like we’re not worth investing in until they put nice condos in,” he said.
That’s not to say he doesn’t want his home community uplifted and improved. But those efforts can’t come at the expense of those who already live there, he said.
Chavez said he came to realize that someone needed to step up and ensure his community’s voice was heard. Otherwise, he said, “they would keep ignoring us.”
Future of the Westside
The Westside historically has been home to some of Costa Mesa’s densest, lowest-income neighborhoods and been peppered with properties that have deteriorated or sat dormant as former industrial businesses moved out.
In 2006, the city approved plans aimed at revitalizing the area and attracting new residential and mixed-use developments.
Chavez, though, said flashy new apartment complexes aren’t necessarily what his constituents need the most. Rather, they need the city to consistently devote time and resources to tackling issues that residents encounter every day, he said.
“My big vision is really just the nitty-gritty business stuff — ‘Who needs a speed bump? Who needs a light fixed?’” he said. “The minutiae … that’s what my area needs the most.
“I think part of my role will be finding that balance for everyone to prosper together.”
Editor’s note: Profiles of Andrea Marr and Arlis Reynolds will be published next week.