by Leslie Layton
CHICO, Calif.—For the past 24 years, Republican Congressman Wally Herger has represented a swath of Northern California, seldom facing opponents who have had the financing or support to present a serious challenge. Yet, throughout the Northern Sacramento Valley, residents say they’re eager for competitive campaigns that address high unemployment and poverty rates, immigration reform and health care.
Redistricting, now underway by the California Citizens Redistricting Commission, has given some hope to Democratic Party strategists that they might be able to better compete in conservative central California. But the voting maps released last week by the redistricting commission would also reduce the number of Latino voters in the district represented by Herger. That concerns some Democrats, who see ethnic diversity as the future of the party.
In California’s cities, civil rights organizations are lobbying for redistricting that protects the rights of minority groups that are large enough in population to form a voting majority and elect candidates of their choice. Yet, there’s much at stake even in the rural North State, including the ability of marginalized communities to elect candidates who will address their needs.
Many Latinos have no idea what redistricting means for their communities, much less that the 14-member citizens’ commission considers and responds to citizen input. Conservative and other partisan groups, meanwhile, are hard at work in hopes they can wield influence. (See “How California Tea Partiers Hijacked Redistricting Reform.”)
The citizens’ commission represents the first time redistricting has been done by citizens rather than by politicians, who in the past drew districts to protect incumbents, and used rural areas as infill to achieve the population needed in districts with urban cores. The commission says it will consider testimony at public hearings in Sacramento and in other cities, and review all written comments that are submitted through the June 28 deadline.
Small minority communities are dispersed throughout what is now Herger’s District 2, the state’s largest congressional district in area. District 2’s expansiveness – it runs through 10 counties — makes it particularly difficult for minority communities to exercise their voice on issues of common concern.
Some Democrats argue that the present configuration of District 2 also makes it impossible to elect moderate candidates.
“What we have hasn’t worked well for the people who live here,” said retired Chicoan Ken Fleming, adding that districting “has locked up North State counties by political ideology.”
Fleming developed behavioral health programs in the region and is now active with the North State Budget Coalition that works to protect social services from budget cuts. He and other Democrats say that Herger — perhaps because of his dislike of earmarks and other forms of government spending — has failed to bring funding into the district that might expand services for children and repair infrastructure.
“There’s been a lack of understanding of the importance of government spending in rural areas,” Fleming said.
Herger could not be reached for comment, and his staff did not reply to an e-mail query about redistricting.
According to census data, Latinos are 19 percent of the District 2 population, a figure that’s grown about five percentage points over the past decade and is just short of the Latino population growth rate in the state as a whole. California is about 38 percent Latino, and NALEO (the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials Educational Fund) says Latinos accounted for 90 percent of the state’s growth over the past decade.
At present, almost 10 percent of District 2 eligible voters are Latino, said Rosalind Gold, who’s helping track the Latino vote for NALEO in Los Angeles.
The draft maps divide most of what is now District 2 into what the commission calls the “Modoc-Tehama District” and the “Yuba District.” In the Modoc-Tehama District, where Herger has his home, only about 7 percent of eligible voters would be Latino, Gold said. But Latinos would be about 13 percent of all eligible voters in the Yuba District, where Congressman Mike Thompson, a Democrat, resides.
The proposed redistricting splits four counties, including rural Glenn County. Orland and Willows land in the Yuba District, while the majority-Latino town of Hamilton City would be in Modoc-Tehama.
Chico’s Bob Mulholland, who serves on the Democratic National Committee, questions how much effect redistricting can have in an area where most voters are “white heterosexuals who vote Republican.” Mulholland argues that the party “has increasingly come to be seen as a party of women, gays and minorities.”
But other Democrats say the party needs engaged minority voters, as activists work to change the political culture in rural Northern California.
During the past 50 years, the Democratic Party has lost much of its white voter base in the rural North State. “Now, God and guns trump every other issue,” said David Wilson, who chairs the Shasta County Democratic Central Committee and works with the organization, Take Back Red California. “Part of our mission is to reverse that.”
When the citizens’ commission held an April meeting in Redding, about 70 people attended. Some, including Tea Partiers, argued that District 2 should keep its north-south configuration, ensuring that in the foreseeable future it will be a Republican stronghold. Others lobbied for an east-west configuration that would include liberal enclaves on California’s coast and lead to fiercer party competition.
The commission designed Modoc-Tehama as a district that reaches east to the Nevada border. Many Democrats welcome some of the shifts in boundaries, even if they’re less than what they had hoped for. For the first time in at least a decade, Butte County will be kept whole in all its voting districts — Assembly, Senate and congressional.
Chico resident Lupe Arim-Law agrees that Latino voters can help the Democratic Party boost its ranks, but she and other community leaders note that more outreach is needed before that happens in a significant way.
Arim-Law chaired the local “Latinos for Obama” group when Obama was campaigning, and later worked on the 2010 campaign for Democrat Jim Reed, who ran against Herger and captured almost 43 percent of the vote. Arim-Law said her view of Herger was shaped largely by his comments at a 2009 health care forum in Chico.
Arim-Law was disappointed in Herger’s stance on reform, but was “deeply offended” when she said Herger placed blame for dysfunction in the system on “illegal aliens.”
“You don’t blame a broken system on the people who live on the fringes,” Arim-Law said, noting that she also objects to the terminology “illegal aliens.”
Said Arim-Law: “I don’t feel he represents me. I don’t believe Wally Herger values the Latino community.”
Arim-Law said Latinos sometimes fail to get involved politically because they’re struggling to make a living or may be unsure of their rights. During the Obama campaign, Arim-Law said she was approached by a few Latinos who had been counseled by their employers to “vote Republican because it’s good for jobs.”
The Butte County city of Oroville, which previously was divided between two congressional districts, would be part of the Modoc-Tehama district, adding minority voters, Democrats note.
Seng Yang, program director for the Hmong Cultural Center of Butte County, said there’s about 10,000 Hmong in the county, the vast majority in Oroville.
Yang said some members of the Hmong community have had to seek help from their congressmen with issues related to immigration status; in general, he said, the community enjoys a warm relationship with Herger. But more often than not, Yang said community members identify with the Democratic Party.
Yang said the Hmong are becoming increasingly engaged with political life. “It would be really good to know what’s going on,” Yang said when asked about redistricting. “We haven’t heard how our community would be affected.”
This story was also published by New America Media.