Diversity Lacking, San Mateo County Moves to Elections by District

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Francesca Segre/KQED

San Mateo Supervisor David Pine (R) and his chief of staff David Burruto look at photos of past county supervisors and consider whether future boards will be more ethnically diverse.

HOST: Only one Latino and one African-American have served on the San Mateo County Board of Supervisors during the past 60 years. Every other supervisor has been white.

This in a county where one quarter of the population is Asian and another quarter is Latino.
Now that San Mateo County voters have passed Measure B, there’s a better chance that more people of color will be elected to the board. 
Francesca Segre reports on why the move from at-large elections to elections by district could lead to better representation of minority interest.
FRANCESCA SEGRE:   We’re standing in the hall of the San Mateo County Government Center in Redwood City, and Supervisor Dave Pine is pointing to a long wall of photos.

DAVE PINE: So what you'll see on this wall is pictures of supervisors over the last 60 years, and you’ll have to really search to find anyone other than a Caucasian.

SEGRE:  Pine believes the new voting system will help diversify the board to better reflect the demographics of the county. That’s because candidates can now focus on appealing to one of the county’s five districts, instead of the entire county population.

PINE: With the district election system, more people can run for office because they don’t have the burden of having to raise many hundreds of thousand of dollars or having substantial name recognition.

SEGRE: San Mateo County put the measure on the ballot as it faced a civil rights lawsuit filed last year.  The suit claims the at-large system dilutes the voting power of minority residents.  

Ray Satorre is a Filipino-American, and he's a plaintiff in the suit. He says he won’t drop the suit until he’s sure the new voting system is fairly enacted.  Satorre does a lot of his organizing at the Bayanihan Filipino Resource Center in Daly City.

RAY SATORRE:  We have a lot of Filipinos in Daly City who are aspiring to be a supervisor but they cannot, because of the expense, because the political field is not level, so to speak.

SEGRE:  Satorre and other Filipino-Americans at the center believe that with a more diverse board, minorities may feel they have better access to government officials and more say in defining county priorities.

Voting rights attorney Robert Rubin agrees.  Rubin represents Satorre and others in the case against San Mateo County.  Rubin says he’s filed a dozen similar suits against local governments, and their at-large voting systems, to force compliance with the state’s 2001 California Voting Rights Act.

ROBERT RUBIN: Two-thirds of all school boards in the state of California do not have a single Latino member. That is in a school system that I believe is approximately 50 percent Latino. That’s just reprehensible.  It cannot possibly fairly reflect the interests of the community when such a large segment of the community is shut out of the political process.

SEGRE:  He points to the Madera school board, which had only one Latino on its seven-member board under at-large elections. After Rubin won a lawsuit and the board converted to district elections, four of the members elected to the board were Latino.

RUBIN: This is as empowering a tool to minority communities as the removal of literacy tests and poll taxes were 30, 40 years ago.

SEGRE:  Many in San Mateo County continue to oppose district elections. Sheriff Greg Munks thinks it might make politics more parochial.

GREG MUNKS: For example, I’m in the process of building a new jail in the county. My concern is that if a supervisor is concerned only about his or her district, they're not going to be willing to make tough decisions about where to place something like a jail or a homeless shelter or something that a lot of times people don’t want in their district.

SEGRE:  Munks says San Mateo is one of the best-run counties in the state.  He doesn’t see why a shift is necessary.

Redwood City  Mayor Alicia Aguirre, a Latina, agrees the county is well run.  But she still gets questions from her constituents.

ALICIA AGUIRRE: 'Alicia, why don’t we have more Latinos participating? What do we need to do to get them on our boards?' And so  I see it as a path of educating folks, of empowering.

SEGRE: Aguirre is optimistic electing via districts will encourage more candidates to get involved in local elections, and perhaps add more people of color to that wall of supervisor photos at the county government center.  

For KQED News, I’m Francesca Segre in San Mateo County.


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