February 23, 2001


The Failures of District Only Elections

By Daniel H. Muñoz

It was just about ten years ago that the Chicano Federation, Attorney Mike Aguirre, et al, led the charge to change the way city council members were elected, from an at-large election to district only elections. The theory was to create a super Hispanic/minority district were the residents had the unique opportunity to elect one of their own, and minimizing the impact of outside interest, which at that time dictated the eventual winner.

The argument back then was that Chicano/Hispanic candidates never had a chance at winning an election. Often times a White candidate would move into the district to run for office with the support and monies of the downtown establishment. Or, favored candidates of the power structure, and special interest groups would receive funding beyond what anyone else could raise, winning the primary. In the general election the candidate who best represented the interest of the majority communities (read white) would win the election.

The Chicano Federation represented by Aguirre argued that through district elections, outside interest would be minimized and that district voters would have the ultimate say in who would best represent their interest. In District Eight it was presumed that the representative would be Hispanic.

La Prensa San Diego argued against district only elections. The two main arguments against district elections at that time were:

The most compelling being, the Federation's argument was based upon past elections and did not fully evaluate the future impact of the Hispanic community on elections at-large. With the growing number of Hispanics, spread throughout the city, it was argued that the tables would turn to the point where candidates in all eight districts would have to be cognizant of Hispanic issues and needs and would need to demonstrate a response to those needs. A candidate ignoring Hispanic issues and needs would, in a close race, would be dramatically affected by the Hispanic vote. Needing the Hispanic vote would dictate that coalitions among city council representative would be created on issues of utmost importance to the Hispanic community.

The second argument against district only elections was that outside interest and outside monies would not be minimized. It was argued that the only way to truly control outside monies, and the obligations to special interest, from flowing into a district only election was to eliminate political contributions accepted from outside of the boundaries of District 8

With the upcoming District 8 Primary Elections this Tuesday, it serves as a perfect backdrop to examine whether or not district only elections have fulfilled its promise to empower and change the political landscape for the district and the Hispanic community.

Let us first look at the primary motivation of district only elections of divesting itself of outside interest and money.

Even before the seat in District 8 was vacant and the race declared open, Ralph Inzunza, Jr., was announced as the odds on favorite to win, not by the community of District Eight but by special interest outside of the district. He received major endorsements from groups outside of the district. And of particular note Inzunza raised over THREE TIMES the amount of monies than ALL of the other 11 candidates combined - monies primarily from interest outside of district eight.

So in regards to diminishing the impact of outside monies influencing district only elections, we only have to look at the war chest of Inzunza, and state the obvious — outside interest more than ever control the outcome of who gets elected in District Eight. The mother's milk to any political campaign is and always will be money. With few exceptions the campaign with the most money will win. In fact if anything, district only elections is proving to be a cost savings to the power structure. Now instead of having to finance a citywide election the focus is now much narrower, requiring a lot less money. In District Eight, which historically has one of the worst voter turnout responses, it is relatively easy to target likely voters and focus all political mailings and phone calling to those few voters.

As to the argument that district only elections would ensure a Hispanic representative, that much has come true. Unfortunately, because the Hispanic candidate is beholden to those who put him into office, the Hispanic candidate's first responsibility is to the White power structure.

The city council now has a Hispanic representative, a black representative, a Gay representative, and five white representatives (six counting the mayor). So what we have now is a fragmented board with each representative only responsive to the needs of their particular district. With the majority of the Hispanic vote concentrated in the South Bay and with the other districts facing a small minority number of Hispanic voters in their own particular district, all Hispanic issues are the provinces of this lone representative.

For even the best Hispanic representative, they face the daunting task of being a lone voice facing a White majority city council. With the Hispanic community unable to impact on the other districts, those representatives have no cause to create a coalition with District 8, which in political terms has little to offer the other representatives. The tools necessary to build a coalition are missing.

In fact it is a shame that a city the size of San Diego has only one Hispanic representative. You look at Chula Vista, which has at large elections, and you have two Hispanic representatives. You look to the north to L.A. and the number of Hispanic representatives is too numerous to count. Yet here in San Diego we sit with one representative who is powerless to affect change and a community that is left with only one real recourse and that is through public demonstration, an art form that has diminished through the years.

So here we sit ten years later with the reality of district only elections facing us. The arguments La Prensa San Diego made ten years ago have come true. Instead of growing as a political power, we, the Hispanic community, have been relegated to a single district, powerless. We have had our Hispanic representatives but they have been obligated to the power structure, outside interest, that put them in office.

District only elections have proven to be a total failure.

The only light at the end of this tunnel is for the community to stand up to outside influences, reject the anointed and vote for a representative that will truly take on the Don Quixote fight of District Eight.

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