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Voting Rights Attorney: New Tulare County boundaries must increase Hispanic power

“Equity Map”

Tulare County is poised for a 2020 Census-based redrawing of political lines that should result in a much different makeup for the Board of Supervisors in the very near future, and a lawyer with the Dolores Huerta Foundations says if that redistribution of power is thwarted then the county will be forced to defend itself in court.

 

Tulare County is Two-Thirds Hispanic

At a late-September meeting of the 2021 Advisory Commission on Supervisorial Redistricting — which will eventually recommend a set of draft maps for county supervisors to consider when it draws new district boundaries to reflect 2020 Census data and meet state legal requirements — the commissioners were presented with data showing Tulare County’s population is now about two-thirds Hispanic.

According to the US Census Bureau, ethnic Hispanics may be of any race. Numbers from the Bureau’s American Community Survey subdivides Tulare County’s Hispanic population in 2019 into White and non-White subgroups, with White Hispanics numbering around 186,000, making it the majority group. Non-Hispanic Whites are the county’s second largest population, numbering around 128,000 people. Non-White Hispanics rank third in number at around 98,900 individuals.

Current census numbers show a solid 65.5 percent of the county’s residents report as Hispanic, up from 38.8 percent in the 1990 Census. The 2000 Census showed an Hispanic population of 50.8 percent, which increased to 60.6 percent in the 2010 Census count.

The remainder of the county’s population in 2020 is 1.1 percent Black, 3.5 percent Asian and Pacific Islanders and 3.5 percent other ethnicities.

 

Move or Be Moved

The commissioners, while highly supportive of new district lines that will increase the voting power of the county’s Hispanic majority, were also informed in no uncertain terms that a failure to ensure Hispanic voters are adequately represented would land the county in court.

The threat of a lawsuit comes from Visalia voting rights attorney Marguerite Melo, who as a lawyer for the Dolores Huerta Foundation has used the courts to force several cities and voting districts to convert to by-district voting, an effort to bolster a diversity of representation in local governments.

In the past, Tulare County has carefully crafted its supervisorial districts to minimize the impact of Hispanic voters, Melo claims. She and her clients do not intend to let the practice continue.

“We are giving the county the option right now to do the right thing with the understanding that if they try to implement a district scheme that disenfranchises the Latino majority — that’s where we are in this county — we will take legal action,” she said.

Past efforts by Melo and the Huerta Foundation have forced by-district voting around the state, including in Fresno County, Visalia, Porterville, as well as in the Sierra View Hospital District, the Exeter Ambulance District and the Palo Verde School District.

“We don’t make just these idle demands about voting rights,” Melo said. “We’re serious about this.”

 

Disenfranchisement Not New

The acute problem of lopsided representation in Tulare County — four of five of the supervisors are non-Hispanic Whites, compared to the 65.5-percent Hispanic majority — has a long history, Melo said, but a new attitude among leadership means the county may be ready to change on its own.

“For approximately the last two to two and a half years, we have been keeping an eye on the Tulare County Board of Supervisors, and especially how its current supervisor boundaries are drawn,” Melo said. “We knew that the demographics of the county had changed over the last 10 years, to the point that several supervisory seats could have been majority Latino, however they were not.”

But, she and the Huerta Foundation are willing to give supervisors a final chance to do the right thing, and Melo says they intend to hold off on going to court for now.

“Prior to filing a voting rights lawsuit in court for the improper existing boundaries, we had a meeting with the county’s voting rights attorney, Ms. Marguerite Leoni,” Melo said. “Following that meeting, we decided to wait to initiate litigation until the new census numbers were released, and this commission had been given a chance to correct these historical errors.”

A lawsuit would be a distracting and costly way to address the disparity in representation in Tulare County, Melo said, but the need to ensure equal representation would be worth the price.

“We don’t want to go down that path. We live here, too. We want this county’s tax dollars spent on public benefits, not lawsuits,” she said. “But make no mistake, if the board fails to do the right thing, litigation is guaranteed.”

 

‘It Is About Power’

Commissioners also heard from Jesus Garcia of La Cuesta Demographics — the company hired by the Huerta Foundation to produce what they say is a more fair redistricting of the county —  who said accurately reflecting the county’s communities, allowing voters to select individuals who truly represent them, is absolutely key to maintaining a healthy democracy.

“Redistricting is about power and influence,” Garcia said. “It’s embedded in the Constitution that the Census will determine every 10 years who is going to be in charge of our politics. We’re having a nice discussion here, but it is about power, it is about change.”

Garcia described a “census battle” between an established order and an underrepresented “community at large” brought on by past gerrymandering intended to minimize members of the Hispanic communities in Tulare County.

“We have the current districts that are basically created with what I call ‘candy stripe,’ and a ‘candy stripe’ that takes a little bit of this and little bit of that, but basically what it does is disenfranchises the mountain communities and disenfranchises the Latino community, …” Garcia said.

 

Latino Majority Increasing

According to Garcia’s data, the current 65.5-percent Latino majority in Tulare County will grow to 68.3 by 2030, and the trend shows no sign of letting up.

“It hasn’t slowed down,” Garcia said. “Tulare County and the San Joaquin Valley are growing, growing in population and in diversity.”

Of the current supervisorial districts, just one is able to produce a Latino representative. At least three of the districts should be able to accomplish that, Garcia said, provided political lines are redrawn to represent ethnicities, as well as voter eligibility and registration numbers — two of the other factors he took into consideration when preparing new district maps. Those maps have now been presented to the county on the Huerta Foundation’s behalf and the commission will present it to the Board of Supervisors.

If the county does not adopt his maps or maps that treat Hispanic voters equitably, the result will be a failure of Tulare County’s government to represent the majority of its citizens, Garcia said.

“By maintaining the current lines, you disenfranchise two potential Latino districts,” he said.

 

Tulare, Visalia Split

The maps produced by La Cuesta Demographics — known as the “Equity maps” or the “Huerta maps” — besides attempting to increase Hispanic voter participation and representation, also seek to keep most of the county’s cities in single districts. Visalia and Tulare, however, had to be split, Garcia said.

“All of the cities, all of the places in Tulare County are kept whole,” he said. “They’re kept within one supervisorial district. The only exceptions being Visalia and being Tulare. Tulare and Visalia are split to maintain a dense DAR district (to comply with the Voting Rights Act).”

The maps Garcia presented to the commission were generally well received by commissioners, who voted at a subsequent meeting to recommend them to county supervisors. Commissioners did, however, ask for the database of community comments and endorsements Garica said he gathered during the mapmaking process. Those numbers have now been made available for verification by the county’s staff, along with final drafts of the new district proposals.

The idea of including parts of Tulare in two different districts met with opposition from Tulare City Councilman Patrick Isherwood, who addressed the commission “as a citizen” of that city. He asked Tulare be kept whole for practical political reasons.

“The reason behind this is, of course, in the municipality’s jurisdictions of overlays with infrastructure, diverse representation relating to policies in the municipality and the county, geographic and integrity to those issues and representation, would hope that all the maps in consideration, of course, keep our city of Tulare in one supervisorial district,” Isherwood said.

 

Critics Target Equity Maps as Partisan

The so-called Equity maps have been criticized by some citizens as partisan. Deene Souza of Visalia claims the draft maps give preference to one of the two major political parties over the other, though she did not directly state which party was being excluded.

“As a concerned citizen of Visalia, this is a blatant example of gerrymandering, which goes directly against the rules or guidelines for submitting maps and for this redistricting process,” Souza told commissioners. “I just want to make sure you recognize that.”

When asked to elaborate by giving examples of how the proposed boundaries created political favoritism, Souza instead repeated her insinuation of partisan motivation.

“It looks very political to me,” she said. “Breaking up Tulare in two sections, Visalia into three. But to divide all these up into different, small, little sections, it just looks like a gerrymandering map to me.”

Rachel Reigns of Visalia also claims the Equity maps divide communities for partisan reasons.

“There’s a lot of political stuff going on,” she said. “I just want to say I oppose that, the Dolores Huerta one.”

 

‘Outside Forces’ Seek Influence

County staff said the map does not favor any political party while meeting all legal requirements, and the county’s attorney said the county has “received no evidence this map favors one political party or another,” adding the county does not analyze maps using data on citizens’ political affiliation.

That did not stop citizen Cory Wells of Springville from attacking the motivation of the Dolores Huerta Foundation and the Tulare County Equitable Map Coalition — the name of which he was unable to remember — despite the county finding the Equity map meets all state and county criteria. After viewing the Foundation’s online presence, Wells said he fears the Democratic Party may be behind the effort to guide the county’s political future.

“First and foremost, I don’t like that it’s not based in this county. It seems like they’re outside forces trying to influence this county’s districting,” Wells said. “And, I mean, additionally, just based off their website, it seems like they’re pretty close with certain partisan Democrats. And, I don’t think the districting should have any bearing of or influence on partisan politics.”

Operating since 2003, the Dolores Huerta Foundation is based in Bakersfield with satellite offices in Visalia, Tulare, Arvin and Fresno.

 

Two Additional Proposed Maps

The commission also reviewed maps submitted by Visalia resident Steve Kindschuh and Visalia City Councilman Brett Taylor, who is also CEO of the Tulare County Association of Realtors.

According to the analysis of the county staff, Kindschuh’s map has the lowest “population deviation” of the three maps the commission has so far decided to endorse, lower even than the Equity maps. Taylor’s had the greatest population deviation of the three proposals.

A six-year resident of Visalia, Kindschuh, a cheese expert working in the dairy industry, appears to be motivated by altruism to create a nonpartisan political map for the county.

“I’m really here just by myself presenting. I don’t have a group. I don’t have an affiliation with anything,” he said. “I’m a guy that uses Tulare County to live, and I go up to the mountains to hike.”

His proposal features straight lines and attempts to use features such as rivers and major roads to define districts. It splits Visalia into two districts along Court Street and it contains the entire mountain region of the county in a single huge district to preserve that particular sense of place.

“Let’s have the data speak for itself and go from there,” Kindschuh said.

Taylor’s map splits the mountain communities into two districts and keeps Tulare in a single district.

“In creating my map, the first things I wanted to make sure I protected was the communities of interest,” Taylor said. “If you look at my map, I think it flows really well. There’s no fingers. There’s no reaching out and grabbing anything. To me that’s almost a red flag if you’re cutting communities in half or if you’re, like, reaching in, it’s almost like a leftover or you’re reaching for something that wasn’t there.”

County staff, however, pointed out Taylor’s proposal splits several small communities off from nearby population centers. It divides Goshen and West Goshen, splits Visalia’s influence into three districts, splits Lindcove from Lemon Cove, and does the same to Poplar and Cotton Center, as well as Tulare and East Tulare Villa. Taylor said he would update his proposal to address those divisions.

“I’ll definitely go take a look at my map,” he said.

 

Advisory Commission’s Final Recommendation

The Board of Supervisors must make its final decision on new district lines this month, giving the Elections Office adequate time to educate voters on potential changes before the upcoming election cycle.

The Advisory Commission will make the decision on final recommendations to supervisors on October 21, meeting in the Porterville City Council Chambers, 291 N. Main Street, at 6:30 p.m. The commission will also meet the week before on October 14 at the Woodlake Community Center, 145 N. Magnolia Street, beginning at 6:30 p.m.

Maps of the proposed districts can be viewed online at the Advisory Commission on Supervisorial Redistrict’s website: tularecounty.ca.gov/redistricting.

An interactive map of the Equity map is available at arcg.is/10eraj.