Santa Clara's Measure C: A Fight Over Dark Money and District Lines

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The city of Santa Clara is weighing a vote which would split the city into three districts, instead of six. It's becoming one of the most expensive races in the Bay Area.  (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

Santa Clara voters are renewing debate over the city’s council district lines.

On March 3, residents will choose between voting for council members in six districts or three districts. Measure C has divided city leaders and caught the attention of the city’s most famous occupant — the 49ers.

First Asian American Elected on the Santa Clara City Council

Historically, Santa Clara has chosen its City Council through an “at-large” system, in which voters picked six council members to represent the whole city. In recent years, Santa Clara's minority population (especially from Asian American communities) has grown, but its City Council has remained predominantly white.

That changed in 2018, after a legal complaint was filed against the city for its voting system, one of dozens of challenges to at-large elections across the state.

Santa Clara County Superior Court Judge Thomas E. Kuhnle found that the city’s at-large voting system diluted Asian votes and therefore violated the California Voting Rights Act. In a court order, he ruled the city must be divided into six districts, where each City Council member would represent an individual district. In November 2018, Raj Chahal won the District 2 seat.

“I think I’m the first Asian American, Indian Sikh on the council ever,” Chahal said.

Councilman Raj Chahal speaks at a press conference, hosted by the Asian Law Alliance, against Measure C. Chahal is the first Asian American to serve on the Santa Clara City Council. (Adhiti Bandlamudi/KQED)

Chahal believes splitting the city into six districts allowed him to campaign effectively in his smaller district, versus having to spend money on a campaign that would have to cover the entire city. He was able to walk throughout his district to talk to voters.

“I went to areas where nobody has ever seen any people coming to that area,” Chahal said. “I was able to converse with people and I was able to chat with them.”

He believes that a six-district voting system allows people who come from outside of politics to represent their district and fight for change from a grassroots level.

What Measure C Does

Judge Kuhnle’s court order technically only pertains to elections in 2018 and 2020. So, what does that mean for elections in the future?

Enter Measure C. In future years, the measure would shrink the number of districts from six to three, with two council members in each. It would also require council candidates to live in the districts they’re representing, for at least 30 days.

Council member Teresa O’Neill supports the measure because having two council members per district could be good for voter representation.

“If you only had one person to go to, and if they weren’t available for whatever reason, you might feel unrepresented,” O’Neill said. “But at least, if you had two people that you knew came from your section of the city, that would give you, once again, another chance to have more direct representation from the council.”

It’s an idea that voters have rejected before. In the 2018 primary, before Judge Kuhnle released his final decision, the City Council proposed Measure A which would split the city into two districts: north and south. Each district would have multiple representatives. It was rejected by 52% of voters.

But now, O’Neill believes Measure C is a good compromise. If it passes, the council members would be up for election every two years, which means people could vote on a City Council member during gubernatorial or presidential cycles.

Because different groups of people vote in gubernatorial versus presidential elections, “you might get better representation or a more distributed representation in that methodology rather than having six districts with just one person,” she said.

The 49ers Owner Joins the Fight Against Measure C

This fight over the city’s district lines has become one of the most expensive campaigns in the Bay Area, thanks to the San Francisco 49ers. The football team plays in Santa Clara and the 49ers owner, Jed York, has spent more than $330,000 to defeat Measure C.

Councilwoman O’Neill thinks the donations are motivated by the team’s rocky relationship with the City Council over the management of Levi’s Stadium.

“I find it somewhat disingenuous that [the 49ers] say they’re doing this because of civil rights,” she said. “I would ask the people of Santa Clara to consider other things that have happened between the 49ers and the City of Santa Clara.”

Councilman Chahal disagrees. He says the 49ers are standing for a real cause.

“If they’re doing anything illegal, then yes, hold them responsible. I’m all for it,” Chahal said. “But if they’re doing the legal thing, I don’t know. It’s up to the residents and the voters to decide what’s wrong and what’s right in that.”

Dark Money Concerns

Like other city leaders, Santa Clara City Clerk Hosam Haggag is also skeptical of the 49ers support of the fight against Measure C and fears that they may have engaged in dark money practices.

“Residents received an anonymous push poll trying to influence them against Measure C back in December,” Haggag said. “Based on a tip I received, I sent warning letters to the 49ers and their political consultants for failure to disclose their political activity and informing them of a potential violation of the dark money ordinance.”

In 2018, the city of Santa Clara passed a “dark money ordinance”, which requires contributions of $100 from any organization to be reported as campaign contributions. Shortly after receiving Haggag’s warning letter, the 49ers filed paperwork for their campaign committee.

“Had I not sent that letter, nobody would have known where that political activity was coming from and who was behind it, which is the definition of dark money and is potentially a violation of our ordinance,” Haggag said.

An Ongoing Lawsuit

Judge Kuhnle’s ruling in the 2018 case was appealed by the city and is still making its way through the appellate court. That decision won’t be made until after the March 3 elections.

“If Measure C doesn’t pass, there’s uncertainty as to how we elect our council members after the 2020 election,” Haggag said. “Because the court’s ruling is under appeal, if the appellate court overturns the ruling, the city would default back to at-large voting.”

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Robert Rubin, a civil rights attorney, filed the initial complaint against Santa Clara in 2011 arguing the voting system was discriminatory. He doesn’t agree with Haggag on that sequence of events.

“That’s just folly,” he said. “A no-vote is not going to reinstate an at-large system because the court that we’re in front of already found that system to be illegal.”

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