A judge has ordered Santa Clara to split into six election districts to end an at-large voting system that has excluded candidates of color from the City Council. Though residents of Asian descent comprise about 40 percent of Santa Clara’s population, not a single one has been elected to the council since the city adopted its charter in 1951.
The ruling this week by Santa Clara County Superior Court Judge Thomas Kuhnle concludes litigation brought against the city by a group of Asian American residents who claimed the at-large election system violated federal and state voting laws.
“It’s the right decision and it’s long overdue,” Richard Konda of the Asian Law Alliance said after the court issued its ruling Monday.
Kuhnle said that although he’s concerned about Santa Clara’s apparent violations of state and federal election laws, he chose the city’s six-district proposal out of consideration for “the rights of people in California to form charter cities, and the greater degree of autonomy charter cities provide.”
The city had initially attempted to address concerns of minority groups by presenting a two-district system through Measure A on the June 5 ballot, but the measure failed to pass. Wesley Mukoyama—a 44-year Santa Clara resident and one of the lead plaintiffs in the case—said he opposed the city’s two-district compromise because having more districts would give minorities a better chance of filling the council.
The plaintiffs had pushed for a seven-district map with a rotating mayor appointed by council members. But the plaintiffs’ attorney, Robert Rubin, said in court Friday that they “can live with six districts” and an at-large elected mayor.
The ruling stands to dramatically upend the political landscape in Santa Clara, where Gillmor leads a four-member majority bloc on the all-white council. The mayor expressed concerns about how to more forward, saying Kuhnle created a “confusing situation.”
“We celebrate all the different backgrounds, cultures and ethnicities of our residents in Santa Clara,” she affirmed in a prepared statement. “As a council, we support diversity and want all our residents to feel represented. While the city will comply with the order for the upcoming election, there is concern that it changed the election system overall without seeking robust input from all our residents.”
On Tuesday, the court released new details about how to proceed, saying that District 2 and District 3—the only two open seats, one held by Councilman Pat Kolstad, who will not seek re-election, and the other vacated since accused sexual harasser Dominic Caserta resigned in disgrace this past spring—will be on the ballot this fall along with the mayor’s. That gives potential candidates just two weeks to file nomination papers.
Virtually every other California city involved in similar voting rights cases wound up settling, which prevented them from appealing. Not Santa Clara. That means the city, which will already have to foot the bill for the plaintiffs’ $3 million-plus in legal fees, still has the option of challenging Kuhnle’s ruling.
But Konda said he’s optimistic.
“This really is a victory for the community and the democracy,” he said. “Both the Asian American and Latino community will get to elect the candidate of their choice.”
San Jose Inside/Metro news editor Jennifer Wadsworth also contributed to this report.