Latino Activist To Run In New City Council District, But Challenges Abound
February 06, 2012

Photo by Ruxandra Guidi
Latino political activist Mateo Camarillo draws a map on the day's newspaper during an interview about redistricting in San Diego.

SAN DIEGO -- A long-time Latino activist said last week that he would run to represent San Diego's new 9th City Council district in this year’s election.

The new district, centered in City Heights, is majority Latino. It was drawn that way during last year's redistricting process to give Latinos – who make up almost 30 percent of the city’s population - an edge on gaining a second safe seat on the council.

But the candidate, an activist and business owner named Mateo Camarillo, said he decided to run in part out of frustration that no Latino candidate had emerged.

"It's not right that all this effort went into creating a district, and then there's no candidate," said Camarillo, who was also a member of the commission that redrew San Diego’s City Council districts 10 years ago.

At least two Latinas had earlier said they would run in the district this year, but both decided against it. So until now, the only declared candidate was Democratic Councilwoman Marti Emerald, who is white. Emerald sold her house in her own district, the 7th, and decided to run for reelection in the new one.

Any candidate would face a significant challenge against Emerald, given her name recognition, fundraising advantage and endorsements from organized labor.

But even more so a Latino candidate banking on support from the large Latino community alone.

“Demographics are important, but they’re not the only factor,” said Doug Johnson, a fellow at the Rose Institute of State and Local Government in Los Angeles, and the consultant who helped redraw San Diego’s City Council district boundaries.

He said the newest district's large population of immigrants makes it appear more favorable to Latinos than it actually is.

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"This district was drawn to be majority Latino by total population but it's clearly far from it in voting age and citizen voting age population,” he said.

According to census data, Latinos make up just more than 50 percent of the new district’s population. But only 26 percent of eligible voters are Latinos.

For whites, the numbers flip.

They make up just 23 percent of the district’s population, but are 45 percent of eligible voters, more than any other ethnic group.

The numbers highlight the stark challenge that Latinos face in coalescing political power in the district and across San Diego, even in possession of such overwhelming people power.

As the Latino population has exploded across California and the southwest, it's become almost impossible not to draw overwhelmingly Latino districts, whether for Congress, city councils, or school boards.

But as in San Diego's newest district, that raw numerical advantage is tempered by residents’ immigration status, low educational attainment and a general lack of political mobilization among Latinos.

In southeastern San Diego’s 4th City Council District, African-Americans retain the council seat and other seats of power despite being the third largest ethnic group by population. The same is true in cities from Los Angeles to Phoenix.

During their campaign to get a second majority Latino district drawn last year, Latino advocates acknowledged that the population numbers alone would not be enough to get a second seat on the council.

And Camarillo, a resident of the whiter and more affluent Kensington neighborhood that is also in the new district, acknowledged that too.

"Let me just be very clear. I'm running as a citizen,” he said. “I'm running as a person who understands the life experiences of people that happen to be immigrants, because I happen to be an immigrant."

But since Emerald announced her candidacy, she's been courting the immigrant community too, showing up to events in parts of City Heights she doesn't represent yet, hoping to make Latinos wait some time for that second safe seat.