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Activists Helped Create the Bay Area's Most Diverse Congressional District. Now They're Probably Getting John Garamendi

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A billboard alongside a highway that says "Respectful. Fair. Effective. Congressman John Garamendi"
A campaign billboard for U.S. Democratic Rep. John Garamendi, along Interstate 80, near the Carquinez Bridge, on April 14, 2022. (Amaya Edwards/KQED)

Taylor Sims, vice president of Pittsburg Unified School District’s board of trustees, stood on a stage at Pittsburg High School earlier this month for more than an hour, greeting a procession of students who were being awarded for academic achievement.

“That’s a lot of handshakes,” quipped an onlooking teacher, as pockets of cheers broke out from students reacting to the announcement of names.

The students who streamed across the stage reflect the growing Black, Latino and Asian population in the outer reaches of the Bay Area, marking a decades-long trend of gentrification pushing families from cities like San Francisco and Oakland to suburbs like Pittsburg and Antioch.

Sitting on the southern shore of Suisun Bay, Pittsburg was anchored for generations by a U.S. Steel mill that’s set to close next year. According to figures from the U.S. Census Bureau, the vast majority of city residents are people of color. “It’s a very diverse but very much a bubble community,” said Sims, who is Black. “Everybody knows everyone.”

But Sims said the issues Pittsburg faces aren’t limited to that community: Residents across the industrial suburbs and cities of Contra Costa and Solano counties struggle to find affordable housing, good jobs and clean air.

“In Richmond, the refineries, the pollution, the debris, it blows this way to Pittsburg, and so we actually have a really high asthma rate for our students,” she said.

In a bid to get representation in Washington that would be acutely attuned to these challenges, Sims and other local activists pushed the California Citizens Redistricting Commission last year to draw a new congressional district enveloping the region — a move that would concentrate the voting power of these diverse communities into one seat.

The commission agreed, and the state’s new congressional map, approved in December, grouped cities, including Vallejo, Fairfield, Richmond, Pittsburg and part of Antioch — many of which have been located in separate districts — into the new 8th Congressional District. It's the most racially and ethnically diverse district both in the Bay Area and statewide.

A map of Congressional District 8
A map of the newly drawn Congressional District 8, which includes parts of Contra Costa and Solano counties. (Courtesy of the California Citizens Redistricting Commission)

The new congressional district is the only one in California in which white, Latino, Black and Asian residents each account for at least 15% of the citizen voting-age population, according to data from the 2019 American Community Survey. 

“I was ecstatic — it was something that we really, really fought for,” said Sims, who worked with the civic engagement coalition Lift Up Contra Costa to advocate for the new district. “I think it’s a great opportunity for a person of color who’s from the community to run and actually be the voice of the community.”

But this shining example of the redistricting commission’s ability to uplift community input has been followed by a textbook case of political machinations. The day the commission approved the new 8th District, John Garamendi, a 77-year-old white congressmember who lives in the Sacramento County town of Walnut Grove, outside the district, announced he would run for the seat.

Garamendi's previous district had been divided into multiple seats, and unlike in the state Legislature, members of Congress are not required to live in the districts they represent.

"Immediately you see that juxtaposition of, like, 'Oh, yeah, we have this diverse area, but look who's running,'" said Kimi Lee, executive director of Bay Rising, another civic engagement group.

Lee said the development in the 8th District is a manifestation of the long-term underrepresentation of residents of color in local government, resulting from the high costs of running for office and a lack of leadership training.

A 2020 collaborative study by Bay Rising and PolicyLink, a research institute focused on advancing economic and social equity, found that while 60% of Bay Area residents are people of color, they only account for 34% of the region's top elected officials.

Without a diverse pool of candidates in local government, "you’re not going to have a diverse pool at the congressional level,” said Lee. “Even though we have this opportunity now with a more diverse district, it will take years to actually get people in the pipeline to be able then to run.”

A lack of local competition is playing to the advantage of Garamendi, who enters the June primary with an enormous edge over his opponents in name recognition, endorsements and cash.

“The problem is just the fact that John Garamendi doesn’t live in this district,” said Danny Espinoza, campaign director for Lift Up Contra Costa. “I think in order to build trust with your constituents, to build trust with your community, they want you to feel like you’re part of that community.”

Garamendi countered that his decades of experience in Congress and state government will give the district’s needs instant priority in the nation’s Capitol — regardless of where he makes his home.

“Living in it is not important,” said Garamendi, who is seeking to extend his nearly 50-year career in public service. “Knowing it and knowing how to represent it — in the district as well as here in Washington — is what’s critical.”

A smiling woman standing in a large room.
Taylor Sims, vice president of Pittsburg Unified School District’s board of trustees, said the new district offers 'a great opportunity for a person of color who’s from the community to run.' (Guy Marzorati/KQED)

For the last decade, the cities of the new 8th District were placed in House districts with whiter and wealthier communities.

Vallejo, Benicia and Martinez currently sit in a district with Wine Country communities represented by Congressmember Mike Thompson from Napa. Richmond and San Pablo, meanwhile, are paired with the suburbs of Lamorinda and the Tri-Valley in a seat held by Congressmember Mark DeSaulnier of Concord. Fairfield and Suisun City currently are represented by Garamendi, in a district that stretches north to rural Glenn and Yuba counties.

“The communities that are in Antioch, Pittsburg, Vallejo, Fairfield, Suisun [City], Richmond, they all look similar,” said Espinoza. “And they all have similar — I’d say vibes — but really they have similar sets of struggles as far as public transportation, lack of quality jobs in those specific cities, access to affordable housing.”

Espinoza points to the region’s five oil refineries, all of which will be included in the new district. The facilities and their operations have large impacts on the local economy and public health, but can seem a world away from the tasting rooms of Sonoma or the corporate headquarters of San Ramon.

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“Part of our thinking was pairing these communities that all share more similar policy issues that one elected could really try to address,” said Kristin Nimmers, who organized community involvement in the line-drawing process with the California Black Census and Redistricting Hub.

The first step toward shaping the district was establishing a “community of interest” among the various cities. Groups like Black Women Organized for Political Action (BWOPA) scoured census data and business records and heard resident testimony to find where Black, Latino and Filipino residents were living, shopping and worshiping.

“Folks in Richmond would come to Vallejo to go to church. There's a fish shop here in Vallejo — you see people from Richmond coming to purchase fish here,” said Latressa Wilson Alford, vice president of BWOPA’s Solano-Napa chapter. “Then also you see people from Vallejo going to Pittsburg, taking their kids to participate in events in Pittsburg.”

“We looked at all that information and we began to see that, well, this is the community,” she added.

The findings and recommended district lines then were presented to the state’s redistricting commission, which met last year to draw the new districts that will be in place for the coming decade.

In most states, political maps are approved by the state Legislature, which allows the ruling party to draw districts to the advantage of incumbents. But in California, starting with the 2011 redistricting process, an independent group is tasked with drawing the lines irrespective of current representatives or political parties.

While most of the Bay Area’s congressional map will remain similar to the version approved 10 years ago, the 8th District is markedly different: By grouping together pieces of different districts, the seat drawn by the commission was left with no clear incumbent.

But on Dec. 20, as the commission gave final sign-off to the maps, Garamendi announced that he would be “running for re-election” in the 8th District.

A young man with a goatee smiles as he stands outside.
Danny Espinoza, a campaign director for Lift Up Contra Costa, believes it's problematic that Garamendi lives outside the district he's likely to represent. (Guy Marzorati/KQED)

A similar political shake-up on the heels of redistricting helped launch Garamendi's own political career in 1974. New political lines for that year's election convinced the assemblymember representing Garamendi’s home county of Calaveras to run in a new district — leaving a seat up for grabs.

“It was open territory, it had no incumbent,” remembered Pat Johnston, Garamendi’s first campaign manager, in a 2002 interview for the California Oral History Program.

In that election, Douglas Carter, a sitting assemblymember from San Joaquin County, was “district shopping” and made a run for the seat. But Garamendi prevailed, appealing to rural voters with his rancher roots, which he would tout throughout his career.

“The brochure when you opened it had a picture of John on a cattle ranch and it said, ‘Born on a cattle ranch, schooled at Harvard,’” Johnson recalled. “The yin and the yang. The smart cowboy, not too big for his britches but a lot bigger talent than you might expect to send to Sacramento.”

The victory set in motion a career that has included 16 years in the state Legislature, stints as lieutenant governor and insurance commissioner (twice), and more than a decade in Congress.

Garamendi first won election to the House in a 2009 special election in a district that stretched from Livermore to just outside his home in the Sacramento Delta.

When district lines change, Garamendi said he finds ways to use his experience and seniority on behalf of a new set of constituents.

“In the last redistricting [in 2011], I was sent up the river, sent to one of the largest agricultural districts in the entire nation,” he said. “So what do you do? You reach out to the community, you understand the issues of the community you work [in], in that case with agriculture, individual farmers and organizations.”

“And we’ll do the same [now] … and then my job is to represent those and to make sure to address the issues in the community,” he added, pointing to the tens of millions of dollars for Bay Area schools and roads in the American Rescue Plan and the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, both of which he voted for last year.

Asked about his agenda for the new district, Garamendi said he already has a plan to bring jobs to Vallejo by making the former Mare Island Naval Shipyard a hub for the repair of U.S. Navy combat vessels. Garamendi traveled there last month to tout the private investments in the shipyard.

“That’s about 2,000 jobs if that comes together, and there’s every reason that it would come together because as chairman of the [House Armed Services] Readiness Subcommittee, I know that the U.S. Navy does not have adequate shipyards on the West Coast to take care of its fleets of ships,” he said.

The mayors of Antioch, Fairfield and Vallejo, along with dozens of local elected officials across the district, have endorsed Garamendi, who enters the primary with $1.4 million in his campaign account.

Garamendi also will have the backing of the state's Democratic Party, which granted him a fast-tracked endorsement as an incumbent, despite the fact that just 20% of registered voters in the new district are Garamendi’s current constituents.

“John Garamendi is an incumbent candidate for Congress. Just like Josh Harder,” said Shery Yang, party communications director, in an email, pointing to another Democrat running as an incumbent in a district with mostly new voters.

A woman in a headscarf sits at an outdoor cafe.
Cheryl Sudduth of El Sobrante, a member of the West County Wastewater District Board of Directors, is one of five District 8 candidates on the June primary ballot. (Guy Marzorati/KQED)

For some, the anticipated marriage of the 8th District’s newly empowered communities and Garamendi’s Capitol connections is a union worth celebrating, at least for now.

“When you see the diversity and the breakup [of the new district], I am thrilled for the people that advocated and did the hard work,” said K. Patrice Williams, a Fairfield resident and CEO of the community outreach firm Empower Solano.

She called this moment “a pause” for candidates of color in the district “to get ready.”

“Who is ready to run an effective campaign where they can be elected?” asked Williams. “I think that happens in a moment in time. And it will probably be soon, but I don’t think that it’s this term. This term I am very satisfied with John Garamendi being in that seat and representing all of us.”

But Jovanka Beckles, an Alameda-Contra Costa Transit District board director, said Garamendi’s early announcement to run deterred the entry of high-profile candidates that an open seat in the Bay Area, particularly one with no term limits, typically invites.

“I think people are intimidated by the fact that, you know, he’s claiming to be an incumbent,” said Beckles, a former Richmond City Council member. “We know that it is a lot more challenging running against an incumbent as opposed to running in an open seat.”

Garamendi’s strongest challenge was expected to come from Richmond City Councilmember Demnlus Johnson who, at 25, finished as the top vote-getter in the 2018 citywide race. In February, Johnson launched a campaign for the House seat with a splashy video and the hashtag #IAmDistrict8. But election officials in Contra Costa and Solano counties said Johnson failed to submit the 40 voter signatures that are required for his name to appear on the ballot.

That leaves Democrats Christopher Riley, a high school math teacher in the East Bay; Cheryl Sudduth, a director at the West County Wastewater District; Edwin Rutsch, the founder of Center for Building a Culture of Empathy; and Rudy Recile, a Republican small business owner, on the June primary ballot with Garamendi. The top two finishers regardless of party will face off in the November election.

The candidates facing Garamendi — none of whom has anywhere near the resources or name recognition he has — are likely to convey a similar message: that his years of experience in Congress can’t match their lived experience in the district.

“When that Chevron refinery goes off, I shelter in place, too. When I talk about needing a hospital in West County, it’s because I live there,” said Sudduth, who lives in El Sobrante. “You mean to tell me that out of 760,000 people in this district that no one is capable of representing us?”

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