Disparities between population and elected officials have led some Bay Area cities to increase voting outreaching among communities of color.
The Bay Area is one of the most diverse regions in the country and is widely seen as a hotbed of progressive politics, but in the land of Kamala Harris, Ro Khanna and London Breed, it is still a region where white men hold the largest chunk of political power at the local level.
While people of color made up 60 percent of the Bay Area’s population in 2018, 74 percent of the region’s top city and county leaders were white, and 60 percent of that group were men, according to a June 27 report posted on the Bay Area Equity Atlas website, a repository of data focused on quantifying racial and economic inequality in the region.
“The Bay Area is always seen as a fairly progressive place, the kind of place you’d hope would be on the cutting edge of this, but our analysis shows that it’s not so much the case,” said Justin Scoggins, data manager for the University of Southern California’s Program for Environmental and Regional Equity and one of the report’s authors.
“In a good democracy we’d hope, especially a very diverse democracy, it would be most effective if there’s even representation of all groups,” Scoggins said.
Instead, while Latinos made up 24 percent of the Bay Area population in 2018, they accounted for just 9 percent of the region’s city council members, county supervisors and district attorneys. Asian or Pacific Islanders, who made up 26 percent of the population, held 10 percent of those positions, according to the atlas.
African Americans, while under-represented in a number of cities, overall held 6 percent of the local elected positions across the region while accounting for 6 percent of the population.
The data doesn’t come as a shock to the region’s political observers, who note that structural barriers like the high cost of running a campaign, the nature of at-large elections and a general distrust of government disproportionately affect people of color.
“Millions of dollars get poured into our local elections,” said Kimi Lee, executive director of Bay Rising, a coalition of local grassroots activist organizations. “Only people who are independently wealthy or who are comfortable using thousands of their own dollars run for office.”
Also, many novice politicians cut their eyeteeth running for school boards, water district boards or for seats on other special district boards or commissions, which can be springboards to higher political office. Because many of those seats don’t provide salaries or only offer minimal stipends, however, low-income candidates often find it difficult to justify the time commitments required, Lee said.
Oakland City Councilman Noel Gallo, who represents parts of East Oakland that include the Fruitvale neighborhood where he grew up, began his political career nearly 30 years ago running for a seat on the school board.
He said he initially didn’t want to run for political office because, if he won, it would interfere with his family life and his job.
“Once you run for office, you have to sacrifice your time, and your time from home,” Gallo said.
“I was willing to do that (but) especially in minority communities, we’re struggling financially daily and want to make sure we have a full-time job that pays you, where at the political end you don’t make any money,” Gallo said.
Another barrier to running for office, particularly for people in Latino and Asian American communities, is that many are coming from countries with long histories of oppression and political violence where participating in civic life could lead to dire consequences.
“When they come to the U.S. as immigrants they come from governments that are not so nice, so running for office or being part of government is not something they consider,” said Lee, who also works with Bay Rising Action, which offers training for potential candidates.
Gallo, who encouraged his mother to become a U.S. citizen so she could vote for him when he ran for his first office, said it’s important for new arrivals to pursue pathways to citizenship, register to vote and show up on election day.
“On the political end, in my neighborhood, Latinos or African Americans, some of us don’t register to vote, whereas (in) other communities they do recognize that voting has power,” Gallo said. “I’ve seen where there’s districts with a majority of an ethnicity and you have those people running in that district but they don’t get elected.”
In 2018, 27 percent of Oakland’s population was Latino but just 13 percent of its elected officials were also Latino.
“The education to get out the vote is extremely important,” Gallo said. “You can blame Donald Trump and everybody in the world, but unless you get out and vote, nothing is going to change.”
In Sunnyvale, where 45 percent of the population was Asian or Pacific Islander and where just 7 percent of its elected officials at the city and county level were also from the API community, City Councilman Mason Fong said local governments need to do a better job at reaching out to communities of color.
“As an elected official, when other elected officials come to me and say, ‘How do we increase diversity in the city?’ Well, first you have to get people interested in government,” Fong said.
“Does your government agency have someone who can type in Chinese and get out the message,” Fong asked. “And the answer, I think, is probably not. That’s the same for Spanish radio and Vietnamese TV. That’s true for all ethnicities.”
To remedy this, Fong said he’s working to create an office of cultural affairs, in part, to provide ongoing and systematic outreach to the city’s various ethnic communities.
Sunnyvale has also joined a growing list of Bay Area cities that are changing the way they handle city council elections in an effort to avoid running afoul of the California Voting Rights Act, which prohibits practices that dilute the votes of people of color.
Last year the Sunnyvale City Council voted to put a measure on the November 2020 ballot so voters can decide if the city will switch from at-large elections to a district-based system. The move came in the wake of a legal decision involving neighboring Santa Clara that found at-large voting had prevented Asian Americans from being elected to office in that city since its founding.
According to Bay Area Equity Atlas data, 92 percent of Santa Clara’s elected officials were white in 2018, and while the Asian or Pacific Islander community made up 42 percent of the population, there were no Asian Americans in elected leadership positions.
“Most jurisdictions are trying to get ahead of the curve,” said Robert Rubin, a civil rights lawyer who has challenged many local governments over their election systems.
“We’ve successfully sued in probably close to 30 cases now,” Rubin said. “We haven’t lost any, and that is certainly causing the local jurisdictions to consider actually converting to district elections without us being required to sue them.”
San Jose, San Francisco, Oakland, Menlo Park, Fremont, Union City, Martinez, Redwood City, San Ramon and Concord are among the Bay Area cities that have either switched to district-based voting or are considering such a move.
Some cities – such as Oakland, Berkeley and San Francisco – have gone a step further by providing public funding for qualified candidates, which voting rights activists say is an important way to encourage low-income candidates, particularly people of color, to run for office.
Even with structural changes to the way local elections are financed and organized, many people of color, particularly immigrant groups, harbor a deep distrust of government that has been reinforced by anti-government rhetoric in the U.S., Lee said.
“We need a cultural shift around government. The conservative right has demonized government and that has really shifted how people feel about government,” Lee said. “Immigrants coming into this country are coming into this narrative.”
For most communities of color, the barriers faced by potential candidates are typically even more difficult for women to overcome. According to Bay Area Equity Atlas data, in 2018 women accounted for just 28 percent of the local elected positions held by Latinos in the Bay Area and 45 percent of the seats held by API politicians. Women accounted for 41 percent of the positions held by white politicians and 55 percent of those held by African Americans, according to the atlas.
“There’s a stereotype of who we want to see in office and what that looks like. Historically it’s accepted that it should be white males who should be our elected leaders,” said Melanie Ramil, executive director of Emerge California, an organization that identifies and trains Democratic women to run for office.
“Our society has to be really proactive in thinking really broadly about who are these women and women of color who could be taking leadership positions,” Ramil said. “We talk about who gets tapped on the shoulder, and I think there’s a natural inclination to look at traditional industries, like labor, where there’s lots of white male leadership.”
Since 2003, more than 500 women have completed the Emerge California training program and there are currently 100 alumni serving in elected office throughout the state, including San Francisco Mayor London Breed and Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf, said Ramil, a first-generation Filipino American.
Monica Wilson, another such alumnus and the first African American woman to hold a seat on the Antioch City Council, says the Democratic party has to do a better job of supporting women candidates, especially at the local level and in lower-profile races away from the Bay Area’s largest metropolitan communities.
When Wilson first ran for Antioch city council in 2012, she kept hearing that she probably wasn’t going to win and that people shouldn’t waste their time helping her campaign. After she took more than 23 percent of the vote in a citywide election that featured four other candidates, WIlson became the city’s first African American woman to sit on the city council.
In 2016, after a failed bid to win an empty Contra Costa County supervisorial seat, Wilson was reelected to the Antioch City Council but still faced skepticism from within her own party.
Wilson said it’s not unusual for African American women who make the transition from campaign staff to candidate to struggle finding support for their own candidacy.
“When one of us runs, no one wants to help,” Wilson said. “We’re tired of helping support John Doe white male over here… but when it comes time for us to run, the people we helped aren’t there for us.”
The atlas report notes that just because elected officials are of a certain race, it doesn’t mean they’re necessarily going to work to “support equity solutions.”
However, politicians who emerge from populations that have experienced “racism and discrimination bring important firsthand experience and knowledge about residents’ needs and concerns,” according to the report.
Also, just seeing people of color running for and winning campaigns can create positive momentum, Ramil said.
“Just the fact that seeing someone do a job that maybe no one in your family had done before, it plants a seed (that) this could be a career pathway, a career in public service could be sustaining,” Ramil said.