Latino voters in Kern County now have the opportunity to tap unprecedented political power.
A federal judge approved new boundaries for the Kern County Board of Supervisors on Friday, creating two Latino-majority districts that could substantially shift the balance of local power. Latinos, Democrats and rural residents of the county stand to gain the most from the boundary adjustment.
Three of the board's five districts will be contested in November, rather than the two previously scheduled for June.
Fresno-based Judge Dale A. Drozd of the U.S. District Court's Eastern District of California, aided by federal Magistrate Jennifer L. Thurston of Bakersfield, approved the new boundaries as part of the settlement in the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund's suit alleging that the old boundaries violated Section 2 of the 1965 Voting Rights Act.
A seven-hour settlement hearing Wednesday resulted in a tentative compromise map, which supervisors officially endorsed in a closed-session emergency meeting Friday morning by a vote of 4 to 0, with one abstention.
Supervisor David Couch, who loses a substantial portion of his 4th District, was the abstention. He has already indicated he will run for a truncated two-year term.
“While I do not agree with the process this board has taken throughout the redistricting process, I am committed to continuing to serve the Fourth District," Couch said in a statement. "I am proud of the accomplishments we’ve made over the last five years in the Fourth District and they are many. I look forward to bringing those ideas and energy to the new parts of the District.”
Among the names bandied about as a possible opponent for Couch is Emilio Huerta, son of civil rights icon Dolores Huerta. Emilio Huerta attended the 15-minute afternoon hearing, but afterward wasn't giving away his plans. Asked if he was running, Huerta said, "Maybe. No. I don't know. I've been asked that a lot in the last 15 days."
Couch and 3rd District Supervisor Mike Maggard, both absent, participated in Friday morning's closed-session vote by phone. Neither attended the afternoon hearing, either, where the map was officially accepted the the court.
"It's a wonderful resolution to a long, hard-fought case affecting so many Latino voters," said Denise Hulett, MALDEF's national senior counsel and lead counsel in the case. "This will ensure Latino voters will have a seat at the table, and that's no small thing. We have arrived at a compromise that will propel the electoral politics of his county forward."
Fifth District Supervisor Leticia Perez, misty-eyed with joy following the afternoon's brief hearing, is currently the only Latina and only Democrat on the nominally nonpartisan board. Unless Couch, a Republican, can wield the powers of incumbency and name recognition to his advantage, she could well have the company MALDEF sought for her in its suit against the county.
The new, predominantly Latino 4th District district will include Arvin and Lamont as well as McFarland, Delano, Wasco, Shafter, Lost Hills and Buttonwillow — all Hispanic majority communities. Couch loses some of his longtime strongholds, including Taft, Frazier Park and Pine Mountain Club, which go to Zack Scrivner's 2nd District — now a vast rural swath of some 3,640 square miles, roughly 44 percent of this Delaware-sized county.
Maggard's opponent, Jeff Heinle, who was drawn out of the new 3rd District, the seat he seeks to take from Maggard, complained during Friday morning's brief window for public comment about the lack of a public process in the development of the county's initial version of the map. And he wasn't happy that, in the final, approved version, his home sits outside the boundaries of the district he would like to represent.
"It just figures," Heinle said Thursday. "I'm sorry — closed-door sessions and then I'm drawn out. I just think it's a travesty that there wasn't more transparency. This is politics before people."
But he will be able to run and to win nonetheless. County Counsel Mark Nations confirmed that any person who was a qualified candidate prior to the redistricting would still be eligible to run and to win. That person — incumbents included — would have to move into a home within the newly drawn district by January.
November's three races will be decided by plurality vote — no runoffs — Nations said.
The federal court ruling follows an 11-day trial in December, that a redistricting plan adopted in 2011 by the Board of Supervisors violated the Voting Rights Act.
“Today’s swift settlement following the court’s post-trial decision provides hope that Kern County will soon attain a governing body that fairly represents the entire community,” Thomas A. Saenz, president and general counsel of MALDEF, said in a prepared statement. “The settlement also stands as an example to all California jurisdictions of their obligation to draw district lines in a fair and evenhanded manner, respectful always of equal voting rights.”
Under the 2011 map declared unlawful by Judge Drozd, the boundary between the 1st District and the 4th District unlawfully fractured a large cohesive Latino community, submerging their votes in a larger white electorate in both districts, thereby diluting Latino voters’ ability to participate effectively in the political process, MALDEF said.
“The new plan ensures that the democratic process leading to the election of members to the Board of Supervisors for the first time will be equally open to all Kern County voters, and that Latino voters will be afforded a reasonable opportunity to participate meaningfully in that political process by electing a candidate of choice to the Board in two districts,” Hulett said in a statement.
The 2016 lawsuit, Luna et al. v. County of Kern et al., marked the first challenge to a California jurisdiction for violating the federal Voting Rights Act since 2001, MALDEF said.
Note: This story has been updated with a correction. Judge Drozd had earlier said he would issue a ruling on the resolution phase of the MALDEF suit if the parties failed to settle, but he said his ruling would not include a map. It's moot now because a compromise map was agreed upon and approved by the court, but Saturday's story on the county redistricting settlement was in error.