By Vladamir Kogen (The Ohio State University)
Despite its reputation as a conservative military town, San Diego is today a heavily Democratic city. Indeed, Republicans are now members of a third-party in San Diego, their registration numbers trailing behind independents. Yet in the election this June, I predict that Republicans will win a 5-4 majority on the city council, adding to their current control of the mayor’s office.
So how could a party that represents barely a quarter of registered voters have attained so much electoral success and, effectively, a lock on political power for the foreseeable future? In the case of the city council, the short answer is redistricting. (With regards to the mayor’s office, the Republican victory was largely due to an unusual low-turnout special election, but that’s a topic for a different day.)
As I argue in a recent article at Voice of San Diego, the city’s districting plan — adopted in 2011 by an independent citizens commission — effectively produced an anti-Democratic partisan gerrymander. That may not be surprising. What is unusual, however, is that the plan was strongly supported by the Democrats themselves.
To understand why Democrats would want to redistrict themselves out of power, it is important to understand the local political dynamics in San Diego. The local Democratic Party is essentially an agglomeration of four separate groups — organized labor, the LGBT community, Latinos, and African-Americans. Between 2001 and 2011, the city’s political geography reflected this reality. Latinos and African-Americans controlled one city council district each, and another district was centered on Hillcrest, the city’s most gay-friendly neighborhood, and consistently elected either gay or lesbian councilmembers.
Yet, changing demographics posed a significant risk to this system. Growing immigration meant that the African-American district was becoming increasingly Latino. Members of the Latino community wanted a second majority-Latino district, so the community’s political power was proportional to its population. African-Americans, too few in numbers to form a majority-black district, feared that gains for Latinos would come at their expense.
In the lead-up to 2011 redistricting, a number of these interests came together under the umbrella of a group called Empower San Diego. With the technical assistance of a long-time Democratic operative, they were able to craft a redistricting plan that satisfied all of their objectives: A second majority-Latino district was created; the LGBT district was made more “gay-friendly,” by incorporating neighborhoods that had voted against California’s same-sex marriage ban; and the African-American district was made more black.
The resulting map, which anticipated the plan that would later be adopted by the redistricting commission, had one fatal flaw, however. The four minority-empowerment districts were also overwhelmingly Democratic, hoovering up too many Democratic voters to give the party a good chance of holding on to any of the other five seats. Indeed, the map was a classic Democratic “packing” plan, essentially wasting a huge number of Democratic votes by putting them in uncompetitive districts where they would have no influence over the outcome of the election.
As I write in my article:
San Diego’s redistricting experience as a perfect example of the dilemma that is likely to confront Democrats in more and more cities. As America’s urban areas become increasingly diverse, leaving no racial or ethnic group with a voting majority, winning elections will require cooperation and coalition-building. The danger is that Democratic-aligned groups will focus too much on descriptive representation, or electing representatives that look like them, rather than substantive representation around their shared policy priorities.
When Republicans take control of the City Council in June, San Diego Democratic leaders and activists will need to seriously ask themselves whether having four LGBT, black and Latino Council members who make up a permanent Council minority and have little influence over actual policy outcomes is really the kind of representation that serves their constituents.
As I note, the debate about the tradeoff between descriptive and substantive representation — and the fissures it can create between otherwise politically aligned groups — is not unique to San Diego.
In a very important article published a few years ago in Urban Affairs Review, Reuel Rogers took a look at similar dynamics in New York City. Specifically, Rogers examined political cooperation between African-Americans and Afro-Caribbean groups — two communities with similar and broadly shared political goals and policy objectives. In the piece, Rogers makes the case that New York City’s political institutions “have tended to undermine the intraracial commonalities between these two constituencies; these institutions, in fact, often have exacerbated the interethnic conflicts over descriptive representation between them.”
Related suggested reading from Urban Affairs Review:
- Hajnal and Trounstine. 2013. What Underlies Urban Politics? Race, Class, Ideology, Partisanship, and the Urban Vote.
- Kaufmann. 1998. Racial Conflict and Political Choice.
- Fisher and Kling. 1989. Racial Conflict and Political Choice.
- Bennett. 1993. Harold Washington and the Black Urban Regime.
Vladimir Kogan is an assistant professor of political science at the Ohio State University and a member of the Urban Affairs Review Editorial Board.