”It's unreasonable to expect a conversion to happen and then immediately to see mind-blowing results.”
In Madera, a heavily agricultural town near Fresno where streets have names like Pecan and Merlot, about 90 percent of the more than 20,000 public schoolchildren are Latino, and about as many qualify for free or reduced lunch. More than a third are English-language learners.
School board President Al Galvez, who has lived in Madera for 35 years and served on its school board for almost two years, said that when the board was elected at-large, members paid more attention to the schools in affluent neighborhoods. It wasn’t that they didn’t care about the needs of other families, he said, they just didn’t have firsthand experience with the problems.
Galvez grew up in a poor migrant laborer family, spending his youth picking grapes, plums and cotton along the San Joaquin Valley. He worked the fields into college.
He eventually moved into the middle class. But he remembers the needs of families like his.
“I know that side of the street. I’ve been there. I know that,” he said. “My passion is to try to help.”
Almond trees give way to palm trees heading south into Fullerton. Kitty Jaramillo has lived in this Orange County city for all of her 62 years, raised in the barrio on the east side, and she calls an ethnically mixed, middle-class neighborhood on the southwest side home.
Jaramillo, along with a Korean-American resident, sued the city last year. One of the complaints describes a compartmentalized city, with Latinos concentrated to the south, Asian-Americans to the northwest, and whites to the north, particularly the northeast. Jaramillo said council members almost always come from the well-heeled north side.
She described a popular Latina city councilwoman in the 2000s who, although also a resident of north Fullerton, engaged with southside Latinos, even drawing immigrants who couldn’t vote out to council and community events. Otherwise, Jaramillo said, residents on the south side haven’t felt close to a council member or felt they had a champion in city hall.
In a settlement, the city agreed to put the question of districts on the November ballot.
She said Latinos need other Latinos to represent them in Fullerton.
“There’s a certain familiarity or comfort level: ‘Wow, there’s somebody on city council that really cares about us,’” she said.
About 2 1/2 hours to the north, in the coastal city of Santa Barbara, Frank Bañales, 70, remembers when the city switched to an at-large system in the 1960s. He said the change made it hard for minorities to become involved in city politics.
He joined a lawsuit against Santa Barbara in 2014. The city settled and carved out six districts. The next year, voters elected a pair of Latinos.
Today, Latinos make up about 40 percent of the population, concentrated in two of the new districts – the ones that produced the Latino representatives. Bañales said “as long as they do the work for the neighborhood,” it doesn’t matter if representatives are from the same race or ethnicity.
“That’s what district elections is about. It’s about getting your streetlights,” he said. “It’s about getting your streets fixed. It’s about taking care of crime in your neighborhood.”
Other communities that have switched to a district system have experienced changes in power as well. Compton, which African-Americans dominated for years but has a growing Latino population, elected its first Latino to the City Council in 2013. The school district in Cerritos, in the Long Beach area, now has a multi-ethnic school board of Latinos, Asian-Americans and whites.
John Dobard, manager of political voice for the Advancement Project’s California office, said there might be a direct relationship between the racial compositions of the boards and electorates after a law-induced conversion, but not necessarily.
Dobard said it can take time to see long-term change.
“It’s one way in which we can try to get fair representation and also try to encourage more participation,” he said. “(But) it’s unreasonable to expect a conversion to happen and then immediately to see mind-blowing results because you’re dealing with historical factors that have created particular conditions.”