Voters cast their ballots at City Hall during an election. (File photo)

Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School District Board member Oscar de la Torre will take the stand this week in the voting rights trial challenging Santa Monica’s election system. Lawyers for the City of Santa Monica plan to accuse de la Torre of throwing his 2016 campaign for City Council to win the case and force the city to move to district-based elections, according to court documents filed by Gibson, Dunn and Crutcher, LLP, the law firm representing the City.

In an email to the Daily Press, City of Santa Monica Chief Communications Officer said, “The City has had a long and engaging relationship with at-large school board member Oscar de la Torre, which it hopes will continue after trial.”

De la Torre’s wife, Maria Loya, and the Pico Neighborhood Association, have sued the city over its at-large election system, saying it discriminates against Latino voters. Loya ran for City Council in 2004, losing the at-large election but won the most votes in the Pico Neighborhood.

De la Torre, who has served four terms on the School Board, ran for City Council after his wife filed the lawsuit in 2015. De la Torre lost his at-large election while narrowly winning the Pico Neighborhood over Councilmember Terry O’Day.

“He focused all of his campaigning efforts on the Pico Neighborhood – the centerpiece of plaintiff’s case – and ignored the rest of the City. Many in Santa Monica reasonably interpreted his conduct as indicative of an intent not just to lose, but to lose in a particular way – with most of his support appearing to be concentrated in the Pico Neighborhood,” said the trial brief submitted to Judge Yvette Palazuelos.

De la Torre did not seek any endorsements or respond to candidate questionnaires that year, according to the documents. Despite raising $24,000 two years earlier to run for school board, he didn’t make the $2,000 fundraising threshold for a campaign disclosure form in his bid in 2016.

Attorneys for the City ask Judge Palazuelos to disregard the 2016 election when considering voter behavior over the years. The bench trial revolves around racially-polarized voting, where members of a minority group vote differently than the rest of the city. Dozens of cities across California have switched to district elections because of similar lawsuits brought by the same group of attorneys representing de la Torre’s wife.

The lawsuit is not the first high-profile battle between de la Torre and the City. In 2011, the Santa Monica Police Department investigated de la Torre for child endangerment after a fist-fight erupted between two teenagers outside the Pico Youth and Family Center. The District Attorney declined to bring charges and a civilian oversight committee found the police investigation contained “an unusual mixture of facts and advocacy.”

De la Torre said the investigation was a malicious attempt to ruin his career and defame his character.

On Friday, his lawyer, Kevin Shenkman, said the allegations in the documents are ridiculous.

“You know what, he got over 11,000 votes,” Shenkman said. “I don’t know how that’s throwing an election. Oscar has never lost an election until 2016…he does not like to lose and this is the first one he ever lost.”

Shenkman said de la Torre’s focus on the Pico Neighborhood was a strategic attempt to turn out his base.

“So, if everyone else in Santa Monica campaigns north of Montana, because they think that’s where you’ve got to campaign to get the votes, and Oscar recognizes that’s not the way he can win an election, so he tries to turn out his base. That is not throwing an election,” Shenkman said.

On Thursday, Loya testified she had campaign volunteers canvas the Pico Neighborhood when she lost her bid for City Council in 2004. She testified she personally focused her time on neighborhoods with high voter turnout. Loya said she did not work on de la Torre’s 2016 campaign, after serving as a consultant for his husband in previous elections.

“I did not,” Loya said. “I had at that time a full-time job and I just started a legislative campaign I was working on. I did not have the time to dedicate to his campaign.”

Loya has been ordered back to court on Monday to answer allegations she either deleted or refused to provide emails and access to social media accounts containing information privy to the case. Gibson, Dunn alleges Loya deleted her Facebook account, which contained her opinions on the case.

Shenkman offered to reactivate the account over the weekend to give opposing counsel a chance to take screen grabs of her statements. He said her social media posts and emails have nothing to do with the case, which involves the 2001 California Voting Rights Act.

“Maria Loya deactivated her Facebook account when the Cambridge Analytica stuff came out,” Shenkman told the Daily Press. “Just like three million other Americans and the City of Santa Monica’s attorneys apparently think that means they should be allowed to discriminate against 15,000 Latinos in Santa Monica. The two are completely unrelated.”

With a witness list of nearly 60 people, including the current City Council and department heads, the trial could run through August. Should the judge mandate a change to districts, it’s unclear how it would impact the November election.

Shenkman, who has won similar lawsuits in other cities, said the election could be enjoined or invalidated because of the limited timeframe to draw districts and administer an election. He argues the City created the situation by going to trial rather than settle.

“It’s a position that they put themselves in,” Shenkman said.

The City says they are defending an at-large election system affirmed by voters who twice voted against district elections. The City maintains Latinos already elect their preferred candidates, such as Councilmember Tony Vazquez, who does not live in the Pico Neighborhood.

Kate Cagle

Senior reporter for the Santa Monica Daily Press