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November Election Is First Test Of New Kern County District Lines, Latino Vote

Sep 25, 2018

Lidia Gonzalez still lives in the same part of Delano she did a year ago. But even though she’s in the same place, she says one big thing is different- the district she lives in and the Kern County supervisor who represents her. 

She says it’s not just the districts that changed, but how the people in them are responding to the changes.

“Now community members are being more outspoken," Gonzalez says. "They’re organizing, they're going out to these Board of Supervisor meetings, budget hearings, anything possible they’re trying to include themselves in these spaces where usually they’re not included.”

November’s election marks the first time some people in Kern County will vote for their county supervisor since the redistricting of county lines.

A lawsuit filed in U.S District Court two years ago by the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund, or MALDEF, against Kern County and the Board of Supervisors alleged the way district lines were drawn violated the Voting Rights Act. Earlier this year the court found the board violated the act.

The court ordered the redrawing of district lines and three board of supervisor seats be up for election. Many, like Gonzalez, are now in new districts.

Gonzalez used to live in District 1 and now lives in District 4, represented by David Couch. District 4 used to have a majority white population and now it’s a majority Hispanic district.

As a Latina voter, Gonzalez says she would feel more comfortable with a Person of Color representing her, especially since supervisors in Kern County have mainly been white.

“It would better represent me and my community and other communities that are Latino-based due to the fact that they’ll be able to understand some of the things that we go through," she says.

Before the court ordered the redrawing of district lines, there was only one district that had a majority of Latinos, District 5.

According to documents filed in April through U.S District Court, the new map is now “equally open to voters of all races and ethnic origins in Kern County, and reasonably allows Latinos voters an opportunity to elect candidates of choice in two of the five Supervisorial districts.” 

“If there’s been any change it’s been primarily in what is now the Fourth District and what you see with the now incumbent David Couch is that he’s actually started taking up some of the issues in some of the poorer outlying communities at least in the rural districts that are covered by the fourth Supervisorial district," says Dr. Mark Martinez, a political science professor at Cal State Bakersfield. 

Martinez says it’s interesting Couch now represents a majority Latino district because he’s been vocal about not supporting sanctuary state laws since he was on the Bakersfield City Council about a decade ago. While on the Bakersfield City Council, Martinez says Couch proposed making Bakersfield a non-sanctuary city and making English their official language.

Both were turned down, but Martinez says more recently Couch "was encouraging our Sheriff Donny Youngblood to declare Kern County a non-sanctuary county and so because of MALDEF he has made a big shift. I wouldn’t say a 180-degree shift but he’s made a big shift in how he’s approaching governing.”

Martinez says Couch is going to more Latino-themed events and proposing infrastructure projects.

Although some may see non-sanctuary policies as anti-immigrant policies, Couch doesn’t see it way. Couch says handing off undocumented people who were incarcerated to Immigration and Custom Enforcement officials is more “preferable” than letting them back into the community. 

“Having ICE go into our communities to look for people that are in the country illegally is not a good situation," Couch says. "It’s a dangerous situation. It’s dangerous for the community. When you here from other people that somewhere along the lines that ‘he’s anti-immigrant’ it doesn’t quite square with the facts.”

Couch talked about how a wellness pilot program he just launched is an example of how people are treated “without regard to their immigration status.” Couch says the program offers free nutrition and exercise classes run by the county health department. He says this program was an effort to do something about high rates of diabetes that affect the Latino community.

“And no one was asked their immigration status, and there were many, many people there that were if not Spanish speaking only but Spanish was their primary language," Couch says. "I’m giving you an example of how county government treats people here in Kern County without regard to their immigration status.”

Couch says he believes he can be a voice for the Latino community just like a Hispanic candidate could be a voice for a majority white district. But, there’s a Latina candidate also running for the District 4 seat.

The mayor of Delano, Grace Vallejo says she’s running to represent the communities who haven’t been heard. She says like her family and a lot of the District 4 community, she was a farmworker also.  

“You have to walk in that’s person’s shoes to understand their feeling of not being heard for many, many years," Vallejo says. "The voices on the board are not the same as theirs. So when I decided to run I felt that I was running to represent all of these communities that while yes, they are predominantly Hispanic it’s to represent everyone that lived the kind of lives that I’ve led.”

Vallejo says many residents have expressed to her the frustrations they had before the new district lines were drawn. She says the old map made it difficult for communities similar to Delano to be heard.

“I’m hearing that from many of the residents of the outlying communities that say ‘You know what? We would ask and ask and ask and say help us, help us with our streets,’" Vallejo says. "The would say ‘Help us allow our kids to walk to school in the winter without walking in mud.’”

Jose Gonzalez is the third candidate running in District 4 and is also Latino. He did not respond to messages from Valley Public Radio requesting an interview for this story.

As of now, four out of the five supervisors in Kern County are white males. Leticia Perez representing District 5 is the only woman and Latino on the board. The third and second district seats are also up for election but no people of color are running.

According to 2017 data from the U.S Census, about 53 percent of people in Kern County are Hispanic or Latino.

But, Martinez says there is another aspect to this story, and that’s money. The Bakersfield Californian reported that at least $5.5 million was spent by Kern County in legal fees.

Kern County officials did not respond to multiple requests for comment from Valley Public Radio to confirm how much money they spent fighting the lawsuit.

Martinez says it’s interesting “that nobody’s really spoken up about how it was really self-preservation on the part of the board of supervisors to spend that much money in a county where you see fire and law enforcement officials and especially the Sheriff Donny Youngblood screaming that we don’t have any money to fill the positions that we need but the board of supervisors had no problem … defending a lawsuit that they eventually lost.”

For Lidia Gonzalez, who says she is going to vote in the November election, she is seeing how the lawsuit changed things. She says she even had the chance to talk to Couch and has seen him going out into Latino communities and making the effort to listen to their voices.

This story was corrected from an earlier version.