Diversity defines Silicon Valley, except at town halls
Originally published in the San Jose Mercury News April 16, 2011
By Joe Rodriguez
Silicon Valley may have the most dynamic, multiracial society on earth, but you wouldn’t know it at city hall. With the 2010 census in, minorities now outnumber whites almost 2-to-1 in Santa Clara County. Yet non-Hispanic whites hold the vast majority of local city council seats, as well as every city manager’s office in Santa Clara County’s 15 towns and cities.
“I cried when I saw those numbers,” said Ed Sanchez, a veteran community and voting-rights activist in Gilroy.
A look at who holds the most powerful positions in municipal governments shows that the political representation of Asians and Latinos — the largest minority groups in the county — lags far behind their surging populations. Countywide, three out of four city council members are white.
“It’s a little bit shocking to me,” said James Lai, an associate professor of Asian studies and political science at Santa Clara University. “It’s a fair, rational request — should the pool of elected officials reflect the population?”
Especially since minorities together had eclipsed the number of whites in the county a decade ago and in some cities before that. The question of political equality is long-running. San Jose, for example, switched from citywide to district elections in 1981 in part to give minorities a better chance at council seats.
Thirty years later, minorities hold half the city’s 10 seats, but the level of racial diversity has dipped lower in every other town hall but one. Cupertino’s City Council, with three Asian-American members, comes closest to reflecting the population it serves.
A number of forces and reasons, from entrenched incumbents and at-large elections to the diminished power of voting-rights organizations and low voter turnout for some minority groups, have emerged to keep local governments from reflecting the real face of the valley. At the same time, enough minorities have won election to foster some degree of optimism in new political strategies.
Countywide, non-Hispanic whites make up 35 percent of the population in the county’s 15 cities but hold 76 percent of city council seats. All but three mayors are white. Every city manager, the top administrator appointed by a town’s council, is white.
The picture of diversity doesn’t improve much in the seven cities where Asians, Latinos, blacks and other people of color outnumber whites: Minorities on average hold only a third of city council seats.
Moreover, five municipalities — Santa Clara, Los Altos, Monte Sereno, Los Gatos and Los Altos Hills — have no minorities on their councils.
Terry Christensen, a political scientist at San Jose State, said there is a natural lag time of a generation or so before immigrant communities show some power at the polls. But lag time doesn’t explain the dearth of Mexican-American officeholders with deeper roots here.
“By 2010, the numbers should be higher,” he said.
The census results threw some towns into new demographic and political territory as minority-majority towns, or close to it.
For the first time, whites became a minority group — 36 percent — in Santa Clara, a city of 116,500 blessed with some of the world’s largest high-tech companies. While its long-established Latino population grew steadily to 19 percent, the Asian population skyrocketed to 37 percent. Yet the town’s all-white power structure remains.
Asking why sparks furious arguments here, with many fingers pointing at incumbents for manipulating an at-large voting system to stay in power. As opposed to district voting, where candidates run to represent their neighborhoods, at-large systems force them to run citywide. Around the country, at-large voting has come under attack for allowing voting blocs to keep power long after their populations have plummeted.
Some at-large systems are tougher for nonwhite candidates than others. In cities such as Campbell, all the candidates run in a pool, and the top vote-getters fill the number of council seats that are open. But in Santa Clara, candidates must run for specific seats — a system that diffuses the influence of newcomers. The successful candidates in Santa Clara often are members of political families with a network of connections: council members Lisa Gillmor and Patricia Mahan are the offspring of former city councilmen, and city clerk Rod Diridon Jr. is the son of a longtime county supervisor.
“Santa Clara is the place with the most entrenched old-boy and old-girl network,” Christensen said.
Nine years ago, Mike Rod- riguez seemed to have everything going for him when he ran for Santa Clara City Council. The Latino candidate had grown up in town, gone to college and paid his dues on the city’s Planning Commission. But when the incumbents didn’t back him, Rodriguez said it was game over.
“Even though I never had a chance after that,” he recalled, “I still felt I was the best-qualified candidate.”
Mayor Jamie Matthews rejected any notion of racial politics.
“We don’t select people here by race or ethnicity,” Matthews said.
He pointed instead to weak Latino political activism in town, and he said he expects a more energized Indo-American community to produce a winning candidate soon.
One interested outsider has the proven ability to turn Santa Clara politics inside out.
Voting-rights attorney Joaquin Avila, who once lived in Fremont, won a prestigious “genius award” from the MacArthur Foundation for forcing cities with “racially polarized” at-large elections to adopt district voting. He has been watching Santa Clara from his perch at Seattle University.
“Santa Clara is vulnerable” to a voting rights lawsuit, he said.
Avila’s observation raises a question: Where have the Latino and Asian political watchdogs been?
One of them, the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund, closed its Bay Area office several years ago.
Alberto Carrillo, a member of the League of United Latin American Citizens, said Latino politicos became complacent after winning the battle in San Jose for district elections.
“We need to take responsibility ourselves, too,” Carrillo said.
Meanwhile, the Asian Law Alliance in San Jose concentrated on redrawing the lines for state and congressional offices.
At the same time, the county’s Asian population was becoming more diverse, with many newcomers arriving from India and parts of Southeast Asia. SCU’s Lai says Asians increasingly arrive and settle in new “21st-century gateway cities,” where they tend to fan out as opposed to clustering in enclaves as they once did. That also makes it more difficult to build Asian political power.
Consequently, Asian and Latino officeholders in some gateway cities don’t see district voting as the answer. They see what state Assemblyman Paul Fong, D-Mountain View, calls “pipeline development.”
One believer is Otto Lee, a Chinese-American and the only minority on the Sunnyvale City Council. The at-large system in Sunnyvale has been more open in practice than Santa Clara’s. He and another Asian were elected in 2003, three short years after Sunnyvale became a minority-majority city. Lee said he believes district elections might get one Latino elected, but he’d rather recruit and groom minority candidates on local boards and commissions — a pipeline to the City Council — where they can learn how to appeal to all voters, not just minorities. That would deliver racial parity at City Hall sooner, Lee said.
In another seismic result from the 2010 census, Milpitas joined Cupertino as the only cities in the county with clear Asian majorities. Both have become more than 60 percent Asian, but with very different town hall complexions.
According to Lai, Cupertino’s first Asian council members succeeded in feeding a pipeline to the council, which now has an Asian majority. However, Milpitas’ elected minorities failed to groom successors. Today, non-Hispanic whites make up only 15 percent of Milpitas residents but have a majority on the council.
Meanwhile, in South County, Gilroy became the only town with a Latino majority — 58 percent. However, only two Latinos sit on the mostly white seven-member council. Next door in Morgan Hill, the Latino population grew to 34 percent, but there are no Latinos on the council. The city does have a black council member.
Ed Sanchez, the semiretired founder of the Gilroy Citizenship Educational Program, said Gilroy Latinos should look for a model nearby in Salinas, a Monterey County town that elected a majority of Latinos to its City Council in 2004 after adopting district elections.
But Sanchez says the Latino community also has to help itself, by persuading Mexican immigrants to become citizens and getting more Latinos to the polls. For a host of reasons, many of them socioeconomic, Latinos tend to turn out on election day in smaller percentages than whites, and white-controlled town halls won’t fix that on their own, Sanchez said.
“It has to come from the Latino leadership. It has to come from the heart.”