Unions Will Control Mid-Sized Cities with California Voting Rights Act

Unions firmly control the political agenda in California’s largest cities, but civic leaders and citizens in some of the state’s smaller cities are still resisting the union political machine.

Some of these cities, with populations from 100,000 to 250,000, include Escondido, Oceanside, Murrieta, Costa Mesa, Huntington Beach, Anaheim, Santa Clarita, Thousand Oaks, Simi Valley, Clovis, Elk Grove, and Roseville. These are cities where a dominant faction of elected and appointed officials generally puts a priority on efficiently providing basic services at a reasonable cost to their citizens.

Not surprisingly, city councils in some of these cities have attempted to enact home-rule charters or have exercised rights under their home-rule charters to free themselves from costly state mandates. This greatly agitates unions, which have long worked to attain their unchecked control of the agenda at the capitol.

Union officials want California’s cities to submit fully to state laws regarding collective bargaining for public employees and government-mandated wage rates (“prevailing wages”) for construction contractors. As reported in www.UnionWatch.org throughout 2012, public employee unions and construction trade unions spent huge amounts of money to convince voters in some of these cities to reject proposed charters.

Obviously unions don’t want to spend $1 million in dozens of cities every two years to defeat proposed charters, as they did in Costa Mesa before the November 2012 election. And soon they won’t have to spend any more money.

Unions are now implementing a tactic to alter political control of these smaller cities. It is likely to succeed in turning almost every California city with a population of 100,000 or more from fiscal responsibility to “progressive” governance based on theories of social justice.

Unions and their attorneys are masters at exploiting the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) to attain unrelated economic objectives that benefit unions. And now unions are using the California Voting Rights Act of 2001 (Election Code Section 14025 et seq.) as a tool to ensure the adoption of union-backed public policies at local governments.

Governor Davis signed Senate Bill 976 into law in 2001 as a way to address what the bill’s author called “racial block voting.” The law tries to end situations in which a class of relatively prosperous white community leaders has complete or nearly complete political control of a local government, even though the local government also represents a substantial number of relatively poor residents who are historically victims of racial discrimination in education, employment, and health.

According to this law, such a circumstance results from “the dilutive effects of at-large elections” in which candidates run together in a pool and the candidates who get the most votes take office. To give “protected classes” a better chance to have their own community representatives on an elected board, the Voting Rights Act of 2001 allows the implementation of “appropriate remedies, including the imposition of district-based elections” that end democratic practices that “hinder their ability to participate effectively in the political process.”

Californians have passionate views about the rationale for this law, the implications of enforcing this law, and the assumption that citizens vote and will vote based on appeals to class consciousness and race consciousness. But the completely party-line vote on Senate Bill 976 (all Democrats in support, all Republicans in opposition) showed that every state legislator recognized how political power at local governments would change.

What district-based elections mean in actual political practice is that union-backed candidates get a better chance of winning a majority or a substantial majority of a local government’s elected board. The elected board shifts politically to the Left.

Escondido City Hall

Escondido City Hall

The State Building and Construction Trades Council of California (a Sacramento-based umbrella group for construction unions) saw an opportunity to use this law to derail a plan that it opposed in the City of Escondido. It was among the plaintiffs who filed a lawsuit against the City of Escondido in December 2011 alleging that the city violated the California Voting Rights Act of 2001 by not having city council districts designed to elect more Latinos to the city council. (Demetrio Gomez v. City of Escondido, Case #37-2011-00060480-CU-CR-NC).

An article published by www.CaliforniaWatch.org on March 9, 2012 (White-Dominated Boards Face Legal Threats Over Racial Makeup) was surprisingly blunt about the true motivation for the union involvement in the lawsuit:

But labor unions and other groups also could use the law as a weapon in disputes with cities and school boards.

The first such case came in December, when the State Building & Construction Trades Council of California sued the city of Escondido, in San Diego County, alleging that at-large elections leave Latinos without fair representation. The union targeted Escondido because officials there have been trying to lower wages on public construction projects.

At that time, the Escondido City Council was developing a proposed charter for its citizens to consider enacting in 2012. That charter would have allowed the city to establish its own policies concerning government-mandated construction wage rates on municipal projects and on private projects receiving municipal financial assistance. It also would have prevented the city from entering into contracts that required construction companies to sign Project Labor Agreements with unions as a condition of work.

The brief submitted by the State Building Trades can be found here. Of course, it says nothing about the underlying objective of the lawsuit: dissuading Escondido and other cities from adopting home-rule charters that could erode the union political agenda.

A more honest union perspective about the lawsuit is revealed in excerpts below from the State Building Trades web site:

Members of SBCTC Affiliates Demand Fair Elections by Bob Balgenorth, head of the State Building and Construction Trades Council – January 2012

It’s not surprising that a city council that treats its Latino citizens disdainfully also has plans to worsen the quality of life for all construction workers. As the San Diego Union-Tribune reported in its coverage of the lawsuit, the current council will try to convince voters to make Escondido a charter city, in hopes of lowering construction wages on public works projects – for all workers, Latino and non-Latino alike.

“They want to take away the prevailing wage,” Demetrio Gomez, the lead plaintiff, told the paper. “They want to take away the things that make the average worker’s life worthwhile. We believe that’s wrong. And we believe if we had the ability to elect Latinos we would have better representation.”

(Also, see Members of SBCTC Affiliates Demand Escondido Change to District-Based Elections on the State Building and Construction Trades Council of California web site.)

In response, the City of Escondido asked a San Diego County Superior Court judge to dismiss the State Building Trades as a plaintiff because it lacked standing to sue: see here. The judge ruled on March 16, 2012 (Superior Court Decision – Gomez v. City of Escondido) that the State Building and Construction Trades Council of California did NOT have standing to be a plaintiff in this lawsuit:

In addition, Plaintiff Council does not satisfy the requirements for associational standing because voting rights are not germane to its purpose. The purpose of the Council is to protect the members’ rights with relation to their work and trade in construction. Voting rights are separate and distinct. Registering members to vote and providing voter education does not make members’ voting rights germane to the Council’s purpose.

Nevertheless, the lawsuit continued with the remaining plaintiffs. On March 22, 2013, after spending about $200,000 in legal fees, the City of Escondido submitted a settlement agreement to San Diego County Superior Court.

As explained by the city, “Escondido will be divided into four districts with each district to be represented by a Council member living within that district. The Mayor will continue to represent the entire City.” District boundaries “will respect the geographic neighborhoods and communities of interest, including any racial, ethnic, or language minorities.”

Retired judges will select a seven-member commission to draw the district boundaries. Union officials and their allies in local groups such as the Escondido Democratic Club will surely apply for appointments.

As a topping, the city will reimburse the plaintiff for attorneys’ fees of $385,000. It would be reasonable to assume that construction unions paid some of those legal costs.

But this is not the only union victory. After all of this union-backed litigation provoked by the proposed charter, Escondido voters ended up rejecting it in the November 2012 election. They chose to let the state legislature supersede local control over municipal affairs.

The City’s explanation of the settlement agreement concludes with this sentence: “Getting this litigation out of the way will enable the City to continue focusing on economic development and job creation – the issues that matter to all Escondido residents.”

It’s more likely that the City of Escondido will soon be focusing on social justice programs, generous concessions in contract negotiations with public employees, and requirements for construction contractors to sign Project Labor Agreements with unions.

In the meantime, surely California unions will again manipulate the California Voting Rights Act of 2001. At the National Federation of Independent Business (NFIB) in California “Day at the Capitol” program on April 18, 2012, I asked a bipartisan panel of three California elections experts if they thought unions and other special interest groups would routinely use the California Voting Rights Act of 2001 as a weapon to achieve their political objectives at local governments. The unequivocal answer was YES.

“Absolutely,” said Paul Mitchell, a political consultant with Redistricting Partners, a firm based in Sacramento. He agreed with me that “that’s exactly what happened” at the City of Escondido and noted that the California Voting Rights Act of 2001 is “a card able to be played.” He expressed surprise that police, firefighters, and other public employee unions in cities such as Stockton had not already used this powerful weapon to win concessions from governments during negotiations for collective bargaining agreements.

Can Escondido avoid the fate of Stockton and San Bernardino? Only if Republicans can convince Latino voters in Escondido that limited government and fiscal responsibility are better for their communities than higher taxes, bigger government, and more regulatory restrictions on commerce. These are two conflicting philosophical views about the role of government and the relationship between government and commerce. Right now the latter is ascendant in California.

Kevin Dayton is the President & CEO of Labor Issues Solutions, LLC, and is the author of frequent postings about generally unreported California state and local policy issues at www.laborissuessolutions.com. Follow him on Twitter at @DaytonPubPolicy.

1 reply
  1. Minerva Leah Williams-Hoover says:

    Enlightening article on how the CA Voters Right Act ties into the union’s interest . . .

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