COMMENTARY | COLUMNISTS | VINCE VASQUEZ

The future of political empowerment in San Diego

This July, San Diego City residents will have a rare and historic opportunity to help shape the future of representative government at City Hall. As ethnic politics evolve in our region, it is critical that every San Diegan learns the importance of the Redistricting Commission.

Once a decade, the Redistricting Commission (which began taking applications July 1st) is responsible for revising the political district boundaries of the San Diego City Council. With new population data from the 2010 U.S. Census canvass, seven citizen participants will attempt to redraw district lines in a balanced and equitable way, and in adherence with federal Voting Rights regulations. Though many powerful political and business interests are expected to attend the Commission meetings that will be held beginning this fall, San Diego's communities of color will in fact have the most to gain (or lose) in the next round of redistricting.

According to the latest estimates from SANDAG, the county's planning agency, the City of San Diego's population increased 10.7 percent over the last decade, with nearly all of the growth deriving exclusively from ethnic minorities. Of the 130,593 new residents that have arrived (or been born) since 2000, more than half (66,747) are Latinos, 34 percent (44,511) are Asians and Pacific Islanders, and only 4 percent (5,303) are Caucasian. The Asian and Latino communities have taken two starkly different approaches to growth -- whereas the Hispanic population has mostly increased in neighborhoods that are already Latino-dominant (Otay Mesa, Southeastern San Diego, San Ysidro), the Asian population increased in mixed or transition neighborhoods that were once overwhelmingly Caucasian (University City, Carmel Valley, Mira Mesa). It's unclear how this information (when confirmed officially by Census) will impact the redrawing of council district lines, but a new local law may become a vehicle for greater minority voter empowerment in San Diego.

This summer, San Diego City voters overwhelmingly passed Proposition D, a local ballot measure that made our successful "strong mayor" form of government permanent. In addition to creating more checks and balances at City Hall, Proposition D required the expansion of the eight current council districts, adding a new ninth district that will be drawn up during the upcoming redistricting process. The guidelines for drawing this district are clear: generally, district boundaries must be contiguous, separated by natural boundaries, and most importantly, they must preserve identifiable "communities of interest" and not dilute the voting strength of protected classes. Where to place it, however, is a different question.

Based on growth and demographic trends, the most logical place to create a ninth district would be in the northern Asian neighborhoods flanked by the I-15 and Highway 5 -- Mira Mesa, Rancho Penasquitos and possibly Carmel Valley and UTC. These neighborhoods are currently separated between Districts 1 and 5, a deplorable decision by the 2000 Redistricting Commission that has arguably disenfranchised Asian voters. A broad coalition of Asian community leaders proposed uniting these neighborhoods under one City Council District to the 2000 Commission, but their efforts were ultimately rejected. However, since 2001, Mira Mesa and Rancho Penasquitos have grown in not only population but also diversity. SANDAG's population projections also show that Council Districts 1 & 5 have ballooned in size, and have since become the largest among all eight Districts.

Since council district elections were approved by San Diego voters in 1988, racial diversity has increased among the City Council. More importantly, strong political power bases have been cultivated by Latino and African-American leaders in South of the 8 neighborhoods, improving the quality of life of every resident, providing ladders for future civic leaders and opening forums for neighborhood concerns to be voiced. Though the Asian community has grown immensely over the last two decades and has reached an estimated 214,717 today, an Asian candidate was last elected to City Hall in 1962. A ninth council seat may ultimately change that fact, but only if good, qualified applicants emerge from the city and apply to sit on the Commission.

Time is of the essence -- the application window will close after only a short 33 days (July 1st to August 2nd). Applicants must be registered voters in the City of San Diego, pass a police background check, and be capable to serve impartially. Those interested in applying or finding out more information are encouraged to visit the San Diego Clerk's webpage, sandiego.gov/city-clerk.

As the old saying goes, "power isn't given, it's taken." The political destiny of San Diego's Asian & Pacific Islander community is now closer to being realized than ever before. The time for leadership is today.


Vasquez is the senior policy analyst with the San Diego Institute for Policy Research.

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