Minority Political Representation In 29 Palms Evolves Organically

Quietly and without fanfare, the City of Twentynine Palms has distinguished itself both politically, socially and demographically in a way that, if not unique among California cities, is certainly rare.
Last month, Octavius Scott replaced Karmolette O’Gilvie on the Twentynine Palms City Council. For the last year, O’Gilvie had been the 27,435-population desert city’s mayor. As a result of the November 8 election, she was replaced as the city’s District 4 council representative by Scott on the basis of just 8 votes.
Scott claimed 311 of the 614 votes cast in the district, or 50.65 percent. O’Gilvie captured 303 votes or 49.35 percent. Scott, an African American, will replace O’Gilvie, an African American.
The same night that O’Gilvie gave up the mayoral gavel and her council post, McArthur Wright replaced her as the council’s choice as mayor. McArthur Wright is an African American.
A generation-and-a-half ago, a college professor said that in a cultural and political context, the American population had grown too sophisticated to talk about race. Three-quarters of a generation later, the California Legislature begged to differ when it passed the California Rights Act of 2001. The California Voting Rights Act had as its purpose ensuring minority representation – what is more accurately referred to as “protected” minority representation – on political bodies in the Golden State. For the context of the California Voting Rights Act, protected minorities meant ethnic minorities that had previously been underrepresented in elected office: African Americans, Latinos, Asians, Native Americans and Pacific Islanders.
Provisions were worked into the California Voting Rights Act to prevent what was referred to as majority dilution of the minority vote. The problem was, or so the theory went, that the overall ethnic majority in any given city, which in most cases at that time meant Caucasians, would overwhelm – or dilute – by its more numerous votes the fewer minority voters in the city, be they Hispanic or Black or Oriental or Indians or those with ancestors from the South Pacific.
In at least some of the cases, it was noted by theorists and conceptualists, there would be a significant number of one minority living within a given community, in many cases enough or more than enough people to represent a bloc larger than one fifth or one seventh of the city’s population. Since most city councils consisted of five members with a handful having seven, that meant that in a city where one minority ethnicity represented 20 percent or more of the population, it should be able, at least statistically speaking, to install one member of that ethnic minority onto a five-member city council. Nevertheless, assuming that members of a majority ethnicity were more willing to vote for members of their ethnic group than for minorities, minority candidates would see the votes they received, again assuming voters of their own ethnicity would be more inclined to vote for them, diluted by the majority vote, keeping members of ethnic minorities from being elected to office.
The cure for this that was worked into the California Voter Rights Act was to divide a city into smaller pieces – wards or districts – and have the city’s voters vote only for a council member who lives within his or her own district. This meant that in those cases where ethnic groups tended to congregate in one neighborhood or set of neighborhoods in one part of a city, a district or ward could be drawn in which one of the minority ethnicities predominated. Again assuming that voters of one ethnicity are more likely to vote for a candidate of their own ethnicity than candidates of a different ethnicity, this made it more likely that ethnic minorities could get elected.
One provision of the California Voting Rights Act was that a citizen could allege that minority voting dilution was taking place in his or her city and demand that the city switch from the at-large voting system that was the most common form of electoral selection among the state’s cities to by-district elections. Cities could, if they chose, contest the assertion that minority voting dilution was occurring. If the cities could provide a convincing case that minority voting dilution was not taking place and had not taken place in that particular city historically, it could obtain a court ruling that it could continue with the at-large voting system. If, however, the plaintiff in the case was able to demonstrate that such voting dilution had taken place by showing that the percentage of ethnic minority members living in that city was higher than the percentage of members of that ethnic minority serving on that particular city council over a fair sampling of time, the city would be forced into adopting a by-district voting system.
To encourage such challenges of at-large voting systems, the California Voting Rights Act incorporated another provision that prevented cities from seeking to recover their legal costs if they prevailed in any such litigation. The same provision allowed for a plaintiff against those cities to recover his or her legal costs if he or she prevailed. Thus, someone wanting to challenge the elective status quo in any city could do so with impunity, as long as the lawsuit was filed on behalf of a protected minority.
Under the California Voting Rights Act, Caucasians are essentially credited with being a majority, even if they are not actually a numerical majority in a given jurisdiction. In short, Caucasians cannot be considered a protected minority under the California Voting Rights Act.
In this way, if someone sues a city under the California Voting Rights Act on behalf of African Americans or Latinos or Asians or Native Americans or Pacific Islanders and wins that lawsuit, he or she can collect all of his or her attorney fees, which, depending on how drawn out the court case proves, can run into millions of dollars. If the litigant loses, he must pay for his or her own attorney but is not required to cover the legal costs of the city.
While for more than a decade there was little interest in using the advantage offered by the California Voting Rights Act in this fashion, in 2014 in San Bernardino County, a number of lawyers began to come forth to represented plaintiffs, first in the City of Highland, which went to come expense in resisting the change and then knuckled under. Thereafter, in relatively quick succession, demands were made of Chino, Chino Hills, Upland, Rancho Cucamonga, Fontana, Redlands, Big Bear Lake, Hesperia, Apple Valley, Yucaipa, Yucca Valley, Twentynine Palms, Barstow, Victorville and Ontario, all of which have folded and have agreed to engage in by-district elections. Ontario, the last to do so, will make the switch in 2024. As San Bernardino and Colton already had ward or district systems, that leaves Montclair, Rialto, Grand Terrace, Loma Linda, Needles and Adelanto as the only cities still conducting at-large elections.
The changeover in some instances appears to have boosted the number of Hispanic council members, while in others it was less effective than what it was anticipated it would be. In Victorville, moving to by-district voting had the reverse impact. Between 1991 and 2021, Victorville’s voters had elected a total of 20 council members, eight of whom – Felix Diaz, Rudy Cabriales, Angela Valles, Gloria Garcia, Eric Negrete, Blanca Gomez, Rita Ramirez and Elizabeth Becerra – were Latino or Latina and two of whom – Jim Busby and Leslie Irving – were African American.
In 2021, Scott Rafferty, an attorney from Northern California, alleged that Victorville had been plagued with racially/ethnically-polarized voting and demanded that the city transition to district elections. Despite Victorville City Attorney Andre deBortnowsky’s insistence that the city had not engaged in racially/ethnically polarized voting, in the face of Rafferty’s effort to force the city to embrace ward system voting, the city council voted to make the transition. In November’s vote, the one Caucasian on the council, Debra Jones, who was also the appointed mayor, hung onto her council seat. In the city’s newly created District 4, that race was held essentially to fill the gap that had been created as a consequence of the 2021 removal of Councilwoman Rita Ramirez, based upon her no longer being able to meet the city’s residency requirement following the amputation of her lower left leg such that she had to reside out of the city and live under the care of one of her son’s in the aftermath of her operation. In that race, a Caucasian male, Robert Harriman, with 2,096 of the 4,034 votes cast or 51.96 percent, defeated Lizet Angulo, a Latina, who polled 1,938 votes or 48.04 percent.
In Twentynine Palms, the African American politicians there did not need the artificial boost offered by the California Voting Rights Act to assert their ability to achieve politically. Looking at that city’s demographics, African Americans make up barely more than one-tenth of the overall population. With 27,435 residents, 2,771 identify as Black or African American, or 10.1 percent. Nevertheless, two of the city council members are Black, equal to 40 percent of the city council. And notably, the candidate one of those candidates defeated in last year’s election was herself African American.
Organically, the African American population in Twentynine Palms has come into its own politically.
-Mark Gutglueck

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