Drawing Lines in the Sand

With the filing deadline for the June primary coming up on Friday, I thought we’d take a closer look at the 2011 redistricting process that created the current San José City Council districts.

There was no public application process for the San José Citizens Redistricting Commission. The Mayor and Council made recommendations, and the cohort was appointed without discussion. This was in sharp contrast to redistricting commissions at the State and County level, where openings were widely noticed.

It was the second consecutive redistricting process that saw very few changes to the geography of San Jose’s political map. City staff led the volunteer commissioners to settle for a 10 percent population variance between the 10 council districts, and the Commissioners moved a few census blocks here and there to bring the map in line. But you can’t blame them for not taking bolder steps.

The City Charter left the commissioners only a few months to finish their work. Meanwhile, they were under siege from residents who’d prefer that nothing ever change. Ever.

When confronted by these factors, a commission made up of lobbyists, developers, activists, and former councilmembers did what you’d expect—kicked the proverbial can down the road.

To be fair, some commissioners pushed for a lower population variance and more thoughtful changes, but they were generally shot down in favor of expediency. And who could’ve heard them over the cacophony from homeowners and realtors convinced that a shift in council district lines would affect property values?

When the dust cleared, we were left with a finished product as inequitable as it was efficient. And as is so often the case, the inequities fell along ethnic lines.

Under the new map, districts with Asian or Hispanic pluralities— 3, 4, 5, 7 and 8—approach 100,000 residents, while districts with the highest percentages of Caucasian residents — 2, 6, 9, and 10 — are closer to 90,000. (District 1 is the lone exception, just over the mean of 95,000.)

Councilmembers from Caucasian-plurality districts now have 5,000 to 9,000 fewer constituents than their counterparts from districts with Asian and Hispanic pluralities. This is not an issue of one resident, one vote — it’s an inequity of representation.

Perhaps, then, it’s not surprising that there were exactly zero members of Asian descent on the Citizens Redistricting Commission in a city that is nearly 33 percent Asian. Also unsurprising, there were only two Hispanic commissioners in a city with a Hispanic plurality. This becomes particularly disconcerting when you consider that “communities of interest” were a key factor considered by the commission in drawing its lines.

Will any of this change who represents us next year? Not really—unless you live in one of the “population transfer areas.” But it does raise questions about how transparent our city government truly is. Seems like there’s a lot of those questions going around these days.

Bottom line: Recent shifts in San José’s population show no signs of diminishing in the next decade. And because the changes in 2011 were merely cosmetic, the commission that takes up redistricting in 2021 will be forced to make drastic changes to meet even a modest 10 percent population variation.

In other words, if you thought Redistricting 2011 was a battle, the 2021 version could be a full-fledged war, pitting neighbor against neighbor over each and every block of San José. Get your popcorn ready.

Peter Allen is an independent communications consultant and a proud native of San José. He has dual citizenship on Twitter @pjallen2.

2 Comments

  1. So Peter it sounds like Sunshine Reform, Open Government and little things like “Ethics” are really the hallmarks of the San Jose City Government under Boss Reed and the Council.

  2. I don’t know who these “Caucasians” might be, but I do know that the population share of the diverse white American residents in San Jose is now smaller than 28% which is what it was in 2010.

    It has been in serious decline since the Mayor Susan Hammer administration, and it is a share that is significantly smaller than the share held by the diverse Asian American residents as well as the share held by the diverse Hispanic American residents.

    I wonder if you could explain to us how a share of the population smaller than either the Asian share or the Hispanic share could provide some kind of dominating effect on four of the ten districts?

    You’re hinting at some kind of scheme, but you haven’t provided the bones of the scheme for us to look at.

    By the way, as far as I know, even though the diverse white American residents now fall into the category of a “minority” for redistricting purposes under federal law, they were not treated that way by either the redistricting commission or the city council which in itself was a violation of federal law.