by Jonathan Frieman
It’s almost certain San Rafael will move to district elections for its City Council by 2020, at the latest.
This near-panacea would simultaneously fix two nagging issues: the fact that there have been no challengers to the incumbents in the last two election cycles, and the fact that, despite Latinos making up 30 percent of the total population in San Rafael, never has there been a Latino on the City Council. Ever.
Right now, San Rafael has at-large elections, where all voters elect all council members — anyone who runs for City Council is voted on by anyone registered to vote in the city of San Rafael.
By stark contrast, in district elections voters who live in their district vote only for the City Council candidates who live in that district.
Think what a sea change this would be — it’s a massive cultural shift.
This question will help: If you lived in the Canal Area, where most of the city’s 17,000 Latinos live, would you feel represented by a high-wage earner from Peacock Gap?
And another distinct advantage of district elections is that representatives can delve more deeply into issues facing their district.
Campaign costs would be much lower, which means more people will run because they’ll feel more excited about their chances of getting elected. Right now, it costs too much to run a winning campaign for a seat on San Rafael’s councilperson club — upwards of $100,000.
That could plummet by a factor of 10.
Districts must keep communities together. They must be contiguous and compact and “obey” landmarks like roads and waterways.
The haphazard topography of the city limits of San Rafael could make for meaty debate as to where the districts will sit, and to make the demographics fit the law we might have to go for five districts.
That means a rotating mayor rather than one who’s separately elected.
It’s almost certain that one of the districts would encompass almost all of the Canal area, where the majority of the city’s Latino people live. That means the membership of the council will undergo a dramatic shift and become much more diverse — imagine a female Latino business owner, or a tradesperson, on the San Rafaek City Council.
So, why now?
Well, San Rafael is rightly in the crosshairs of Kevin Shenkman, a Malibu lawyer who has targeted a number of cities and compelled them all to shift to district elections. San Rafael city staff and council have known for a month they are being targeted, but there seems to be little concern because it’s felt San Rafael district elections wouldn’t benefit the entire city.
But that’s exactly the reason why district elections are featured in the California Voting Rights Act of 2002, which Shenkman uses to push his point.
That law says that if there’s been racially polarized voting in a city’s at-large elections, and a protected group — for example, a minority group such as Latinos — is perforce omitted from political dialogue, the city must switch to district elections.
And the Latino population in San Rafael had been at a high percentage for a long time before that law was passed.
District elections are a near certainty because Shenkman’s undefeated. All of the many cities and school districts he’s targeted have switched to district elections, including Santa Rosa, just this year.
Only one city resisted, and lost $4 million in court.
With this fantastic opportunity, we — the entire San Rafael community, neighborhood associations, various community activists and city council and staff — can create a much more representative city government with this exciting prospect of the liveliness of diversity.
Jonathan Frieman of San Rafael is a local political activist. He is a member of the Alliance for San Rafael’s Future.