California Secretary of State formally opposes Santa Clara’s Measure C
An aerial image of a part of the city of Santa Clara. Photograph by The 111th Group

The California Secretary of State, Alex Padilla, jumped into local politics this week, taking a position to oppose an upcoming ballot measure that would halve the number of voting districts in Santa Clara.

Measure C will be up for a vote on March 3, and will ask residents whether they want to keep the city split into six districts during the November 2020 election, but then change to three districts ongoing. The measure has proved divisive in the South Bay city with proponents saying it will give residents more representation, and opponents arguing that it would dilute some residents’ votes, particularly people of color.

The measure “threatens to dilute the voting power of diverse communities in Santa Clara and restrict their opportunities to elect representatives of their choice as called for in the Voting Rights Act,” Padilla said in a statement Monday morning. “I urge Santa Clara voters to vote NO on Measure C and uphold the right of all communities to have their voice heard at all levels of government.”

The measure has been a hot-button topic in recent weeks, after the San Francisco 49ers and several human rights organizations agreed publicly to fight the measure at the start of February.

Last week, the 49ers, along with former California Assemblyman Paul Fong, veteran Santa Clara politician Patricia Mahan and former Police Chief Mike Sellers created a committee, called No on C. The 49ers have funneled more than $317,000 into the committee in an effort to get residents to vote no on the ballot question next month.

Meanwhile, city officials have cried foul about the NFL team’s involvement, and accused the 49ers of breaking the city’s “Dark Money” law by not disclosing whether the team paid for a phone poll that circulated in city in December, which City Clerk Hosam Haggag said was “undoubtedly designed to influence and affect voters’ decisions” on the matter.

Haggag said last week he did not have documented proof that the 49ers were behind the poll, but he received “tips” about the team’s potential involvement. He declined to elaborate or provide more information about the tips.

The city’s Dark Money ordinance dictates that political spending must be reported to the city within a certain amount of time. Whoever did the push poll in December did not report the spending by the Jan. 31, 2020 deadline, according to Haggag.

Santa Clara Mayor Lisa Gillmor told San José Spotlight she found it “puzzling that a football team is continuing to get involved in local city politics and governance because that is really what Measure C is.”

But team spokesman Rahul Chandhok said it’s the 49ers’ “civic duty” to fight Measure C because it “threatens to disenfranchise minority communities and strip them of equal representation in our local government.”

Haggag said the city would refer the poll to the Fair Political Practices Commission and likely launch its own investigation into whether the 49ers or the No on C committee violated any laws.

Districted elections in Santa Clara

The question around Santa Clara’s voting districts has been in limbo since 2017 when the city was sued by a group of Asian American residents over its longstanding at-large voting system, in which residents voted for every candidate.

That system, according to Santa Clara County Superior Court Judge Thomas Kuhnle, dilutes minority votes. Kuhnle ordered the city to be split into six districts, which were used in 2018, when residents elected Vice Mayor Karen Hardy and Councilmember Raj Chahal — the first person of color to be elected to Santa Clara City Council in decades.

But city leaders said the judge’s order only applied through 2020, and that residents would need to vote on a permanent solution to change Santa Clara’s charter to reflect districted elections. In 2018, residents said overwhelmingly that they wanted districted elections, but rejected a measure backed by the mayor and some of her allies that would have split the city into two districts.

Last August, a committee of council-appointed representatives, known as the Charter Review Committee, recommended a three-district approach, in which residents of each district would vote for one candidate every two years.

That’s the measure now being opposed by the 49ers and the California Secretary of State.

Measure C “was a result of a tremendous amount of work by our Charter Review Committee,” Gillmor said in an interview last week. “It will give Santa Clarans a right to vote for their councilmembers in every election and give them more representation in each district than they have now.”

But some say reducing the number of districts to less than six will continue to dilute minority votes, including The Asian Law Alliance, which was part of the prosecuting team to oppose the city’s at-large voting system in 2017.

“To be clear, if passed, Measure C would institutionalize anti-democratic elections in Santa Clara that would deny many in the community equal representation on the City Council — a fact that has been affirmed by the Santa Clara County courts,” Richard Konda, executive director for the Asian Law Alliance, said in a letter earlier this month asking the 49ers to get involved in defeating the measure.

Konda said he wrote the letter on behalf of Rev. Jethroe Moore II of the San Jose-Silicon Valley NAACP, Victor Garza of La Raza Roundtable and former California Assemblyman Fong.

“The NAACP, La Raza and the Asian Law Alliance requested our support in the fight to defeat Measure C, to ensure we protect the civil and voting rights of all Santa Clarans,” Rahul Chandhok, vice president of public affairs and strategic communications for the NFL team said. “We are proud to answer their call.”

Padilla’s announcement Monday notes he is joining not only those represented by the Asian Law Alliance, but former Congressman Mike Honda, Assemblymen Evan Low, Marc Berman, Ash Kalra and Santa Clara Councilmember Raj Chahal, who voted against putting the three-districts option on the ballot last year, in opposing the measure.

Those who are advocating for the measure include Gillmor, Santa Clara Councilmembers Teresa O’Neill, Kathy Watanabe, Debi Davis, Kathy Almazol — who was on the Charter Review Committee — and Richard Wang, a local business owner.

Contact Janice Bitters at janice@sanjosespotlight.com or follow @JaniceBitters on Twitter.

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