(This column was cross-published at Informe Local – En Español)
Residents, activists and community leaders are unified around a lawsuit filed against Orange County over the way County voting districts were created. The redistricting fight is moving into a crucial stage as the lawsuit is set to go to court in the spring. The Latino Justice lawsuit against Orange County is charging forward, declaring Orange County violated the Voting Rights Act.
“Redistricting is the most important issue affecting the Latino community of Orange County,” said Zoraida Rios-Andino of Frente Unido 436. “Almost one-third of the Orange County residents are Latino and yet no one from our community sits on the seven member Orange County Board of Commissioners that decides on how to distribute the over 5 Billion dollar County budget. This translates into the lack of Contracts, Jobs, Social Service, Educational and Cultural programs needed in our Latino communities. Taxation without representation is not acceptable.”
Two years ago, Orange County Mayor Teresa Jacobs and the County Commission voted for a redistricting plan that mirrored previous existing district lines. This decision diluted Hispanic and black voting strength in the two commission districts with the highest percentage of minorities. There were also NO Puerto Ricans represented on the Orange County Redistricting Board. With over 300,000 Hispanics in Orange County, Mayor Jacobs and the Commission did not appoint one Puerto Rican to advise on redistricting and only appointed three non-Puerto Rican Latino members.
Community leaders and activists urged the redistricting board and County Commission to draw district lines that would better represent the growing and diverse community. They pointed out that Orange County has seen a more than 80% increase in the Hispanic population over the past 10 years but still lacks any Hispanic representation on the elected county board.
Under the plan offered by the public and supported by the activists, “Map E” would have created a district with Hispanic voters making up 49.3 percent of voting-age residents in District 3, which is currently held by Commissioner Pete Clarke. The competing map also would have preserved the majority African-American District 6.
Instead, Mayor Jacobs voted for a plan that reduced Hispanic and black voting power in the two districts that now have the largest number of minority voters.
At the time, Mayor Jacobs was supporting then-Commissioner Lui Damiani who was appointed to represent the old District 3 but had never been elected to that office. Jacobs heavily supported Damiani but he lost the runoff election to Pete Clarke. The lone Hispanic candidate in the 2012 campaign was Democrat Mike Aviles.
Taking no consideration of the changing community, Orange County’s redistricting adviser suggested at the time that creating a new Hispanic majority district was a poor legal idea because it would move more residents to new districts and not preserve prior district lines. County Commissioners then heard hours of public testimony on heated issues of race, ethnicity and fair representation.
“The reason there is such outcry for a majority Hispanic district is because roughly one in three people in Orange County is Hispanic and yet there is no representation,” said Trini Quiroz, a co-founder of the Black, Latino and Puerto Rican Alliance for Justice.
Mayor Jacobs said she was not concerned about legal ramifications when her maps were passed. However, the concerns about Hispanic voting power are so serious that Mayor Jacobs is preparing to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars in court. Earlier this year, Mayor Jacobs was ready to spend up to $340,000 on private legal counsel to defend a redistricting plan in court against the lawsuit. Powerful lobbying and legal group GrayRobinson is the desired choice to fight the Hispanic community.
The fact Jacobs is using public tax dollars to hire outside attorneys signals her lack of confidence in Orange County’s legal position (or of her administration’s own legal capabilities on the matter). Latino Justice is the legal group backing the community and their experts agree there are both political and geographic reasons to create a more robust Hispanic district in Orange County.
“The litigation has been forced on the Community because this County Commission would not listen to the cries of Latinos and Puerto Ricans or other minorities and insisted on protecting the interests of incumbents and the status quo,” said Doug Head, a member of the Black, Latino and Puerto Rican Alliance for Justice. “Orange County has changed, but this County Commission can’t deal with that. As the old centers of power stretch to maintain their influence a new Community is developing and it demands a seat at the table. Now, not in 2022.”
County Commissioner Ted Edwards argued the lawsuit could have been avoided. Commissioner Edwards voted against Mayor Jacobs final redistricting map at the time and said it was inappropriate to dilute the Hispanic vote. The final map plan proposed by Mayor Jacobs was approved by a 4-3 vote.
Another option to possibly avoid the redistricting courtroom battle is to have Orange County create new districts and expand the size of the County Commission. This idea would allow more representation on the board while allowing Commissioners to represent fewer constituents so they can be more in tune with whom they represent.
“During the redistricting process it became clear that the 15-member Redistricting Advisory Committee was not interested in keeping the historically Hispanic District-3 a majority-minority district,” Ms. Quiroz said. “It was at this same time that the county Charter Review was holding their hearings and we petitioned them to entertain our request to increase the decades-old 6 districts to 7 or even 8 but it also fell on deaf ears.”
It does not seem likely that Mayor Jacobs is open to hearing suggestions about more minority representation. All attempts of arbitration and mediation on this issue have failed, including the final attempt at the end of September this year.
Now, ahead of the courtroom showdown, Hispanic leaders and activists are building community support and educating residents about the redistricting fight.