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Democracy on TrialThe woman suing the City to change to district elections after losing her bids for the City Council and College Board took the stand Thursday in a trial that will determine the future of Santa Monica’s democracy. Attorneys from both sides grilled her for two-and-a-half hours before the court took a break for lunch. When they returned, Maria Loya returned to the witness stand, closed her eyes and took a deep breath.

Loya’s 2004 campaign for the City Council is one of seven elections her team of lawyers say were racially polarized. In that election, Bobby Shriver swept the city-wide race, winning the most votes in every single neighborhood except for hers, the Pico Neighborhood.

“I’m proud to say I won every precinct in the Pico Neighborhood,” Loya said. “It felt gratifying. It felt good but at the time it was sad because (my voters) were really excited about the possibility of having a strong voice on the Council and, although I won every precinct, it wasn’t enough.”

Loya’s lawyers say her case gives important context to Judge Yvette Palazuelos, who has the ultimate say in whether Santa Monica’s current system should be upended. In current races, candidates must campaign throughout the entire city. The 2001 California Voting Rights Act allows minorities to argue for district elections if they can show racially-polarized voting.

In 2004, Loya faced a difficult election season, with more than a dozen candidates, some who had lived in the city for decades. To make competition even tougher, Shriver proved to be a juggernaut, as his uncle, US Senator Ted Kennedy, made phone calls to residents and mother Eunice Kennedy Shriver knocked on doors. Shriver swept the election, earning 16 percent of the vote.

Still a political newcomer, Loya earned an endorsement from Santa Monicans for Renter Rights and came in seventh overall. Loya had only moved to Santa Monica four years earlier but immediately became active in civic life. It’s how she met her husband, Oscar de la Torre, who currently serves on the School Board. They brought the suit on behalf of the Pico Neighborhood Association to improve an area of the city they say has a history of neglect.

“One thing I learned…is that raising issues of discrimination and neglect…was not welcome,” Loya said. “To be accepted by city leaders, even by the majority of the residents that I talked to, I had to keep quiet on that. I had to keep a low profile on raising concerns and issues.”

Loya’s lawyers, including famous civil rights attorney Milton Grimes, paint a bleak picture of the Pico Neighborhood, arguing minority residents have historically been ignored, showing photos of a burned-out home near Loya’s apartment. Loya says she worries about Methane gas from Gandara Park, the site of a former landfill. Grimes points to the construction of Interstate 10 in the 1950’s, which divided the neighborhood and displaced thousands of minority families.

Attorneys for the City from Gibson, Dunn and Crutcher, LLP, counter with different pictures, mostly of the recently revitalized Virginia Avenue Park. Loya and de la Torre both attended a ribbon cutting for the park in 2014. The construction of the Pico library branch there cost more than $10 million.

“There are a lot of vibrant things about your community, are there not?” Gibson, Dunn attorney Michele Maryott asked Loya.

“I love my community,” Loya confirmed.

The City is defending the at-large election system instituted in 1947. Ballot measures to go to districts have been rejected twice by Santa Monica voters. The City Council has also rejected a proposal to change to districts. Because the majority of Latinos live outside the Pico neighborhood, the city argues a change to district elections would actually hurt their chance of electing their preferred candidates. Latinos make up 13.6 percent of Santa Monica.

Both sides agree this case will come down to the testimony of demographers and statisticians like David Ely, the founder of Compass Demographics, who has drawn districts in other CVRA cases brought by the same team of lawyers. Ely also took the stand Thursday to review data on voter preference in past elections.

Ely said his research shows the median household income for Latinos in Santa Monica is about $49,000 a year, where white families make about $88,000 a year.

“I think the data about the income is relevant to this case because what I’m evaluating here is the different communities and how they are able to participate in the political process,” Ely said. Loya’s lawyers argue at-large elections in Santa Monica are too expensive for Latino candidates.

Judge Palazuelos leaned toward her computer screen during Ely’s testimony, actively taking notes and asking questions about his data. His maps showed Pico Neighborhood residents earn less money, are less likely to have college degrees and are mostly minority.

“Are whites the majority in the Pico neighborhood?” Grimes asked.

“No,” Ely replied.

“Why do you say that?” asked Grimes.

“My calculations show it’s roughly 40 percent or less throughout the Pico neighborhood,” Ely said. “They may be a plurality, but they are certainly not a majority.”

Ely testified candidates who live north of Montana Avenue have a fifty percent success rate in at-large elections for City Council. For those who live between Wilshire and Pico Boulevard, the success rate is only 4.8 percent.

“The area of Pico to Wilshire is dramatically underrepresented,” Ely said.

In response, Ely recommends creating a Pico district roughly bordered by Pico Boulevard to the South, Lincoln Boulevard to the west, Broadway to the north and the city limits to the East. That district would be 34 percent Latino, 40 percent white, 12 percent black and 12 percent Asian.

Kate Cagle

Senior reporter for the Santa Monica Daily Press