Santa Monica's Progressive Legacy Going South
April 12th, 2023 marked seven years since the Pico Neighborhood Association and I filed a lawsuit challenging Santa Monica's at-large city council elections for violating the California Voting Rights Act. By then, the at-large election system had worked for 70 years to largely prevent Black & Latino candidates supported by voters of color and allies to win a seat on the Santa Monica City Council.
For all that time, the Pico Neighborhood, where Santa Monica's Latino community is concentrated, was without representation. The impact of not having political representation resulted in years of neglect and marginalization of Pico Neighborhood residents. In the Pico Neighborhood, we endured the environmental racism of the freeway, trash sorting facility, landfill and hazardous waste storage facility, unabated drug use and gun violence. Our neighborhood had no voice in city government and nobody to turn to when we needed help from the City. It is no wonder then that the vast majority of the hundreds of kids molested by employees of the Police Activities League (PAL) resided in the Pico Neighborhood.
In 2018 the Los Angeles Superior Court ruled that Santa Monica's at-large elections violated the California Voting Rights Act. Indeed, the court found that the at-large election system was established and maintained with the purpose of denying non-white voters effective representation.
Rather than accept the court's ruling and implement the fair district elections ordered by the court, the City Council appealed, fearing that district elections might threaten their power and privilege. While that appeal was temporarily successful, as the appellate court ruled there were not enough Latino voters in the Pico Neighborhood to create a Latino-majority district, the City's victory was short-lived. The California Supreme Court granted our petition for review, and immediately depublished the lower appellate court's opinion in its entirety. The case is expected to be argued to the California Supreme Court in the next few months.
It should disturb every Democrat to learn where the City of Santa Monica has placed itself on the issue of voting rights. While an army of civil rights groups (e.g. LULAC, Asians Advancing Justice, SCLC of Southern California and Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights) and progressive elected officials (e.g. Sen. Alex Padilla and Congressmembers Correa, Chu and Cardenas) all expressed their support for the voting rights plaintiffs, the City, on the other hand, finds itself in the ideological company of the most right-wing opponents of voting rights. Just as the Republican-led Alabama legislature seeks to weaken the federal Voting Rights Act in Merrill vs. Milligan pending in the U.S. Supreme Court, the City of Santa Monica seeks to weaken the California Voting Rights Act in the California Supreme Court. Just like Republicans in Alabama, those in power in Santa Monica decided that protecting their own power is more important than allowing historically-marginalized Americans from having representation.
If the opponents of voting rights succeed in Alabama and Santa Monica, they will not stop there. They will dismantle similar voting rights protections in other states, like New York, Washington and Virginia, that have modeled their voting rights laws on the remarkably successful California Voting Rights Act. This would be the legacy of the purportedly-progressive Santa Monica councilmembers who placed their own power over voting rights.
Among today's City Council there is only one member who, seven years ago, chose to spend tens of millions of public dollars on attorneys to defend an outdated and racially-discriminatory election system. Though the other six councilmembers did not choose the course the City is on, their legacy will nonetheless depend on whether they correct that course. Will they stand on the right side of history with progressive leaders and civil rights groups? Or will they stand with Republicans in Alabama to enable the dismantling of voting rights everywhere?