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Democracy on TrialQuestions of race, ethnicity and politics collided Tuesday as Mayor Pro-Tempore Gleam Davis took the stand as the City defense team’s last witness in the voting rights trial challenging Santa Monica’s election system.

An attorney for the Pico Neighborhood Association, which has sued the city using the California Voting Rights Act, tried to bar any testimony by Davis concerning her Latino heritage, citing what she has been told by her adopted parents about her biological parents is hearsay.

“The reality is, it’s hearsay on hearsay,” said Lancaster Mayor Rex Parris, jumping up from his seat in front of Judge Yvette Palazuelos and widely gesticulating to interrupt the questioning. Davis has never met her birth parents, testifying that her adopted mother met her biological mother several times when she was pregnant, was present for her birth, and kept contact long enough for Davis to know she has siblings she never met.

Davis said her biological mother is white and her father is from Mexico.

“Did you ever try to confirm with data as to whether or not you were Latina,” asked Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher attorney Marcellus McRae, which is representing the City.

“Yes,” Davis said.

“And were you able to do that?” McRae asked.

“Yes,” Davis said, citing two online ancestry testing companies, including 23andMe, that verified her genetic heritage. After a heated argument between both sides over whether those results were also hearsay, the actual results were not entered into evidence.

“I quite frankly find it offensive that somebody would be asked (to verify her DNA testing),” McRae said.

The PNA lawsuit alleges Santa Monica’s at-large election system, where all voters select up to three or four candidates for City Council, is too difficult for Latinos to get representation on the dais. The CVRA makes it easier for protected minorities to sue to change city elections to districts, where each neighborhood would elect a representative. While Latinos make up about 13 percent of Santa Monica’s population, plaintiffs have shown the judge a hypothetical Pico neighborhood district that would be 34 percent Latino (whites would still be a plurality).

No one in the case disputes that fellow City Council member and former mayor Tony Vazquez is Latino, but Gleam’s heritage has sparked intrigue surrounding the trial. Gleam has never campaigned as a Latina, does not belong to any groups for those of Latino heritage and testified she has marked “white” when responding to questions regarding her race.

Davis was raised by a lower-middle-class white family in the San Gabriel Valley, where her adopted father owned a barbershop. He died when she was ten, and Davis said her mother worked three jobs to keep a roof over their head. Davis credits an excellent public school system for a full-ride scholarship to the University of Southern California. Davis later graduated from Harvard Law School and returned to Southern California after a brief stint as a civil rights attorney to be closer to her aging adopted mother. Her mother passed away five years ago. Davis is now in-house counsel for AT&T.

However, Davis said she has known her birth father is Mexican since she was a young child and would openly talk about it if it came up in conversation.

“It’s not something I would wear on a t-shirt,” Davis said.

During the testimony, McRae attempted to parse the distinction between race and ethnicity, explaining Latinos can also be white or black. Judge Palazuelos, who will ultimately decide the case, has offered few hints as to whether she sees Davis’ genetic makeup as relevant.

“Culture is an experience,” Palazuelos simply said.

On cross-examination, attorney Kevin Shenkman, who has won and settled dozens of similar lawsuits based on the CVRA, questioned Davis about an op-ed she co-authored in the Los Angeles Times defending the litigation. Many cities have settled with Shenkman, paying him $30,000 in attorneys’ fees, rather than pay for a costly trial they may lose.

In her op-ed, Davis argued making electoral changes based on lawsuits diminishes the will of the voters. A consulting firm that specializes in local government politics found seven out of 22 cities that switched to district elections saw an increase in the number of Latino officials.

“You’re not a fan of the CVRA are you?” Shenkman asked.

“I don’t have an opinion as to whether or not I’m a fan. I think that this lawsuit and the way…” Davis began to respond.

“That’s not my question,” Shenkman said.

“I don’t have an opinion about it,” Davis said. “It depends on how it’s applied and in this case, it’s being applied in a ridiculous manner.”

During a break from the tense line of questioning, Shenkman’s co-council, Lancaster Mayor Rex Parris, told the Daily Press he’s “deeply ashamed” his city does not have district elections. Parris became involved in the litigation when Shenkman sued his neighboring (and rival) city of Palmdale, eventually forcing that city to change its at-large election system to districts.

“The legislature made a mistake in not making it mandatory,” Parris said of District-based elections. Parris said cities like Santa Monica and Lancaster are reluctant to change because incumbents may have to run against each other.

During cross-examination, Davis said she is confident she would win in a district-based election system, but later lamented it could lead to the “Balkanization” of the city. Davis argued it would create a system where districts would compete for limited city resources.

Before resting, Parris asked Davis if she declined to incorporate her Latino heritage into her campaigns because she thought it would result in fewer votes.

“That’s absolutely false,” Davis said.

With Davis’ testimony, the six-weeks of arguments ended.

“We’d like to thank the court for its tolerance of all of our antics,” Shenkman said.

kate@smdp.com

Kate Cagle

Senior reporter for the Santa Monica Daily Press

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