By Maria Loya

As a Latina mother raising two boys in Santa Monica’s Pico Neighborhood, I filed a lawsuit against the City of Santa Monica for violating the California Voting Rights Act (CVRA) and the California Equal Protection Clause. The reason for this is because Santa Monica maintains an at-large election system that works to dilute the vote of minorities with the intent to prevent candidates of color from winning a seat on the City Council. Our country has seen people fight and sacrifice to secure protections under the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Our lawsuit is a continuation of that struggle in Santa Monica. The Mayor and the City Council of Santa Monica would like the public to believe that the City is a homogenous community where no marginalization exists. The truth is that there is a long history of racial injustice against Mexican and Black residents in Santa Monica.

The Pico Neighborhood was created out of restrictive covenants and red lining that corralled people of color into a neighborhood that was neglected and marginalized. Part of the Pico Neighborhood was zoned industrial which facilitated the dumping of hazardous and undesirable development such as the I-10 Freeway, landfill and waste facilities. Pico Neighborhood residents suffered the effects of Council neglect and the trauma of gun and gang violence. City’s own well-being reports show that PN residents “feel most disconnected from their government” and consistently score lowest on key quality of life indicators. Santa Monican’s know that there has been a North/South divide for decades.  This divide was exacerbated by the adoption of the at-large election system in 1946. According to a case study of the Pico Neighborhood in Santa Monica by Deirdre Pfeiffer in 2007, Wilshire Blvd. was known to many in Santa Monica as “the Mason-Dixie line”. Long-term residents recall that if people of color were found north of Wilshire they would be stopped by police and had to provide a letter from their employer justifying a reason to be in that part of town. Since the adoption of an at-large election system in Santa Monica, the majority of the people elected to the City Council have lived north of Wilshire. This is no coincidence; this outcome was by design, to make it difficult for people of color to attain fair representation.

Many people think Santa Monica is a liberal city that passed rent control in the 80’s earning the nickname “The People’s Republic of Santa Monica”. You would then think that Santa Monica would support a law that is heralded as a victory of the Civil Rights Movement. How is it possible that “liberals” and “progressives” would vote to spend millions of the public’s funds to fight against a voting rights act challenge by people of color representing a neighborhood that historically suffered from the City’s rigged election system? The quick and honest answer is the preservation of power and privilege. Historically people in power have fought to preserve their position at the cost of the public good. They try to find a way to either circumvent the people’s right to vote or suppress their vote all together by creating rules such as Jim Crow Laws or by establishing election systems such as at-large elections that work to dilute the votes of minorities. This is exactly what happened in 1947 when the current at-large election system was adopted in Santa Monica and this is what is happening now in 2018 as a majority white City Council spends millions of public dollars to continue a legacy of exclusion and institutionalized racism. Mayor Ted Winterer recently wrote an op-ed in the LA Times that these matters were best dealt with by the voters and not the courts. Absent these court decisions, we would probably still have Jim Crow Laws and segregated schools.

As a person who has dedicated her life to pursuing social and economic justice, I have witnessed and experienced the marginalization that exists in Santa Monica. In an effort to secure a voice for Pico Neighborhood residents, I ran for City Council in 2004 and although I won every precinct in the Pico Neighborhood, I was unable to garner the necessary votes to win a seat on the City Council. I wasn’t alone in my defeat. In fact, since the City started holding elections only two men of color have been elected to serve on the SM City Council. Neither lived in the Pico Neighborhood. Let me now address the “new” Latina on the City Council, Gleam Davis.  Who really believes Councilwoman Gleam Davis’s recent claim that she is Latina? Definitely not any of the Latino elected officials in Santa Monica and surely not the voters.  I can respect one discovering their roots and celebrating their new found identity.  However, it’s reprehensible for one to claim an identity of a historically marginalized group in order to undermine that group’s ability to change an unjust election system.

On August 1, 2018 we are set to begin our historic CVRA trial and we are confident that the law and historical facts will prove what the City’s own paid consultant Dr. Kousser recommended: that the at-large election system in Santa Monica should be abolished in exchange for district elections because it is unconstitutional and it dilutes the votes of minorities. Our lawsuit presents us with the opportunity to right a historic wrong in Santa Monica’s election system and with this change we will have a chance to advance policies that will strengthen our democracy and voting rights.