Latinos in Escondido suffer repeated discrimination in many forms: as drivers at traffic checkpoints, as workers on city contracts and as renters seeking decent housing for their families. These are symptoms of disempowerment arising from the fact that Latinos, who make up almost half of the city’s population, are systematically underrepresented by the current at-large format for City Council elections. In Escondido’s 123-year history, it has elected only one openly Latino City Council member, and it currently has no representative from the city’s central, largely Latino core area.
Construction workers in Escondido are fed up with a city government that ignores workers’ needs, treats them scornfully and operates within a system that they are powerless to change. To target immigrant construction workers on public works projects, the city has attempted to force contractors to use e-verify, until they were forced to back away by state law. They have attempted to ban local hire agreements, prevailing wages and apprenticeship requirements from Escondido contracts.
Last month, Demetrio Gomez, a construction worker who lives in Escondido, presented a letter to the Escondido City Council on behalf of several Latinos, demanding that Escondido immediately replace its at-large election system with a district-based system that would give Latino voters an adequate opportunity to elect candidates from their own community.
“I have lived, worked and raised my family in this city,” said Demetrio Gomez, a construction trades laborer and a 40-year resident and voter in Escondido, addressing the council in December. “There are no representatives from our large Latino neighborhoods, and this council is elected by — and caters to — wealthier non-Latinos.”
In contempt of the testimony, Mayor Sam Abed walked out of the Council Chambers and reconvened the council after the Latino workers had left.
Escondido politics are highly polarized along racial lines, with frequent attacks on “immigrants” that depict Latino people as undesirable. Abed selectively enforces a “clapping ban” at City Council hearings, allowing the public only to applaud with what he agrees with, and has called the police to expel those from the Council Chambers who protest his actions under their First Amendment rights protected by the U.S. Constitution.
Simply put, Latino workers in Escondido do not feel that their voices are heard by the local government. The city’s election system violates the California Voting Rights Act of 2001 and the federal Voting Rights Act of 1965, which prohibit the use of at-large methods of election that result in the denial or abridgement of a protected class’s right to vote.
But instead of engaging the community in serious political reform, Abed said he is willing to waste $3 million to $5 million of taxpayer dollars on legal bills to keep city-wide elections. It’s no surprise that he wants to defend status quo, since the current system allowed him to be elected with only 38 percent of the vote.
Throughout its long history, the Building Trades have worked to change government to better serve the needs of workers around the state. That’s what we are doing in Escondido now. That’s why the Building Trades and our Latino workers in Escondido have filed suit to force the city to change the way it elects its City Council members. The current discriminatory at-large system, in which every councilmember is elected by the entire city, effectively disenfranchises the minority Latino population.
The people of Escondido deserve better governance. We are demanding the city switch to a district-based system that would allow residents of predominantly Latino neighborhoods to compete to represent their areas on the council, and cast meaningful votes for candidates more concerned about issues important to their community. Escondido’s two school districts have recognized the injustice and made the switch to district elections.
The politicians who want status quo in Escondido are losing the fight. They have suffered two major setbacks to their charter proposal from recently enacted California state laws. First, they were derailed from rushing to the ballot with a new charter in June this year, without adequate public input that would address the underlying disenfranchisement of minorities. Second, they were forced to back off from a ban on project labor agreements, as doing so could cut off state funding of public works projects in the city.
The charter of a city is its lasting constitution that expresses the ideals and principles that establish the governance of a city. It should not be an ideological cut-and-paste template of cheapness, bigotry and political vendetta.
It is time to pause and reflect on what is best for the future of Escondido.
Lemmon is the business manager of the San Diego County Building and Construction Trades Council AFL-CIO.