Last Tuesday, some people in Kern County were hoping District 4 residents would vote for a candidate that would make the Board of Supervisors more diverse. But, it looks like the board is staying the same, with four white men and one Latina.
Although election results are unofficial, it’s more likely than not incumbent David Couch will represent District 4. As of Tuesday, he has about 45 percent of the vote and leads by about 8 percentage points.
Last week, we were cruising around his district in my hatchback. He starts by showing me the wealthiest part, Seven Oaks.
“This is the nicest part as far as highest residential housing values in the fourth district,” Couch says.
He mentions the gated community and golf courses in Seven Oaks. Couch points out the attractive landscape surrounding sidewalks and shopping centers that are nearby.
As we keep driving east toward Lamont everything gets more rural and the roads are rockier. The views of shopping centers turn into farms and empty plots of land that are consumed with weeds. We end up in a community neighboring Lamont, called Weedpatch.
“Really, really nice people live here but they live in here in some pretty difficult conditions,” Couch says. “This is Harold Street. This is a street that is literally paved on the left half and not on the right half.”
As the District 4 Supervisor, Couch says he wants to make communities like Weedpatch safer and with better living conditions.
But, even though Couch got the most votes, a lot of efforts were made to see a Latino candidate in his seat. For one, there was the lawsuit filed by the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, or MALDEF, who accused Kern County of violating the Voting Rights Act.
The county fought the lawsuit and lost. It cost them at least $5.5 million and the court ordered the county to redraw the districts. Now, there are two districts with a majority Latino population instead of one.
After the districts were redrawn, District 4 had the best chance of getting a Latino supervisor. In part because it has a majority Latino population.
So, what happened?
“Well what happened is we had a spoiler in the race,” says Dolores Huerta, who’s with the Dolores Huerta Foundation.
The Foundation was instrumental in getting MALDEF to take the county to court. She says one of the candidates, Jose Gonzalez, shouldn’t have entered the race so the other candidate, Grace Vallejo, could win.
“We begged him not to run,” Huerta says. “We told him, ‘If you run you’re going to split up the vote and that’s going to ensure that David Couch is going to get elected.’ But of course, he didn't listen to us.”
Huerta says because there were two Latino candidates running against Couch, the Latino vote got split.
“Just add the numbers that Grace Vallejo got plus the numbers that Gonzalez got and they would definitely overcome the numbers that Couch got in the election,” Huerta says.
She’s right. As of Tuesday, Vallejo has almost 37 percent of the vote and Gonzalez has almost 18 percent, which gives us 55 percent. However, there is no way to know how that 18 percent who voted for Gonzalez would have voted if he didn’t run.
But, what about the district map? Could it have been drawn in a way that would’ve made the Latino vote in District 4 stronger? Huerta thinks so.
“We had submitted a stronger map when they were in the negotiations but the map we submitted wasn’t considered,” Huerta says. “The negotiations were between MALDEF and a committee from the Board of Supervisors and the plaintiffs. Although we were very involved in having all of this happen we were not at the table when the final map was drawn, unfortunately.”
Thomas A. Saenz, president and general counsel of MALDEF, notes in an emailed statement that more votes still need to be counted.
"With thousands of votes still being counted, it is premature to cast blame for an election outcome here,” Saenz says. “Nonetheless, the current numbers do demonstrate that Latino voters will determine the outcome in the district in an ordinary cycle of primary and general election. Even if ultimately delayed due to the plurality special election, the change that the lawsuit victory achieved will affect governance in Kern County for the better."
Supervisor Leticia Perez, who represents the other majority Latino district, District 5, says the map was extensively scrutinized. She was on the board’s committee that negotiated the final maps.
“Essentially five politicians were being asked to either reduce or increase their power willingly at the cost of another or more supervisors,” Perez says. “So, it was an incredibly tense, incredibly difficult process, one in which a very difficult issue of race and immigration and ultimately dwindling or growing power were very sensitive and fragile topics.”
She says the committee looked at a dozen versions at least. She calls the final map an “incredible victory,” and says it couldn't have been drawn stronger.
Perez says that before the primaries, various Latino advocates, educators, and Democratic leaders came together to strategize the best way to get a Latino candidate elected.
“It was an open brainstorming and strategy session where everyone put their concerns out there,” Perez says. “Everyone said we want to work together, we don’t want to split the Latino vote, we know that we’ll lose if we do that.”
Everyone at the meeting voted from a pool of candidates and the choice was Vallejo.
“And that was not an easy thing to procure, it took some discussion, it took some cajoling to say, ‘Look this is a process that we can really make meaningful and it would be representative of a huge percentage of support for the Latino community in Kern County,’” Perez says.
But, when Gonzalez heard about this meeting, he was concerned.
“This group said, ‘Well, that’s the only two choices you have, Couch or Vallejo,'" Gonzalez says. “No, it’s not. We as citizens have the responsibility if we don’t like our choices to stand up and make things happen by running for office.”
Gonzalez says he knows some people are upset with him but he wasn’t happy with his choice of candidates.
“The people that are calling me the spoiler are the people that wanted to control the vote,” he says. “We live in a democracy and we can’t have a democracy when we don’t have the freedom to choose. And when someone tries or a group of people get together to try and control democracy, it ceases to exist.”
Vallejo says she had the bigger picture in mind when it comes to this race because having a Latino represent District 4 would better represent the population.
“If I had wanted to run for this seat and there was a group of individuals who were offering to support financially and every which way to someone they felt could win, and I was doing it because I cared for the community and I saw that, absolutely I would step out,” Vallejo says.
But, Couch says he can represent the district just as well as a Latino. He talks about bringing in more money and working on infrastructure projects in places like Lamont and Weedpatch. He says he’s already filled up about 200 potholes in the area and cleaned up some lots.
“I think some people thought, for whatever reason, ‘He used to represent that area so he’s not going to want to represent our area,’ which isn’t true,” Couch says. “I think, frankly, I have a tremendous opportunity here because there is so much that could be done you don’t have to look around for something to do. You just have to pick what you want to work on and make an impact, do something positive.”
The three District 4 candidates will still have to work together in the future: Vallejo because she’s the mayor of Delano, Gonzalez because he’s the president of the Lamont Chamber of Commerce and Couch, who kept his seat.
This story was updated from an earlier version. The reporter sent a request for comment to MALDEF through their website, but MALDEF claims it did not receive it, and therefore was unable to comment on the lawsuit.