On June 7, 2022, Santa Clara voters approved Measure D without much fanfare. It’s a City Charter amendment that says the City will create six districts and elect one council member to represent each district. All Santa Clara voters will vote for the mayor.
By most accounts, the passage of Measure D was a formality. The City of Santa Clara has elected its council members in this fashion for the past four years, ever since Santa Clara County Superior Court Judge Thomas Kuhnle ruled against the City in a 2018 California Voting Rights Act (CVRA) lawsuit.
Ultimately, what Measure D represents is the culmination of a fight that started many years before the 2018 ruling and raged on for too many years after it. All of this costing the City not just millions of dollars in public funds, but also credibility and goodwill with one of the largest businesses in the City.
Financial Losses Associated with CVRA Lawsuit
The financial detriment caused by Santa Clara’s failure to comply with the CVRA is somewhat easy to quantify.
The City budgeted $188,000 (Carolyn Measure A doc) to place Measure A on the ballot in June 2018. Measure A was a last-ditch effort to avoid a CVRA lawsuit. It was designed to create a two-district election system with three council members elected in each district through ranked-choice voting.
Attorney Robert Rubin, who initially wrote to the City about its CVRA violations, said Measure A was not enough to comply with the state law. Voters also rejected the measure.
In March 2020, after initially losing in court, the City paid $250,000 (Measure C 2020 costs) to try again with Measure C.
Measure C was craftily worded. Santa Clara would start with a six district election system, but would revert to a three district system with two representatives from each district in 2022.
Voters again said “no.”
Finally, in June 2022, the City placed Measure D on the ballot. It spent several hundred thousand to research and develop the measure that created the same system outlined by Judge Kuhnle in his 2018 ruling. Measure D passed.
In addition to election costs, Santa Clara also owes a considerable amount in legal fees. Then City Attorney Brian Doyle needed co-counsel in the fight and found it in Steven Churchwell, a partner in the boutique law firm Churchwell White.
According to a document (CVRA Litigation Costs Dec 2020 Document) submitted to the Council in December 2020 and signed by Doyle, Churchwell was paid approximately $1.5 million in legal fees. This included his initial work in Yumori-Kaku, et al. v. City of Santa Clara (case no. 17CV319862) and the appeal that followed.
When Santa Clara lost the appeal, it was forced to settle with the plaintiffs, agreeing to pay a $4.2 million settlement.
When you add that all up, Santa Clara has spent nearly $6.5 million in settlements, lawyer fees and elections costs.
Loss of Credibility and Damaged Business Ties
What is less quantifiable is the City’s loss of credibility with the general public and one of its biggest businesses.
When the Council pursued Measure C in 2020 despite arguments that the measure did little to comply with the CVRA, it became a story of national interest.
Then Secretary of State Alex Padilla made it a point to speak out against the measure, saying it would threaten 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.”
It also brought one of Santa Clara’s biggest businesses into the mix.
In response to Measure C, the 49ers amplified the narrative that the people in power in Santa Clara were not friendly to minorities. 49ers owner Jed York used $330,000 of his personal money to help defeat Measure C.
That November, 49ers management continued to push back. It worked hard to make sure that minority representation made it onto the Santa Clara City Council and used every opportunity to point out how some members of Santa Clara’s leadership were doing everything possible to keep the status quo.
“Mayor Gillmor is once again supporting a slate of all white candidates while she spends millions of dollars in taxpayer money to upend voting rights to dilute minority representation,” 49ers spokesperson Rahul Chandhok told Politico prior to the 2020 election. “Her hypocrisy knows no bounds and we will not shy away from supporting diverse representation and upholding voting rights.”
The nation took notice.
Loss of Identity
But above the financial and political losses, the biggest loss to Santa Clara through all of this is the loss of identity. The battle over the CVRA brought to the surface a dirty little secret that Santa Clarans didn’t want to recognize. That the system they had operated under for more than 100 years was discriminatory and wrong.
Until 2018, the City had changed, but the system it operated under had not. Proud Santa Clarans could not admit that a piece of their proud history cast a shadow of racism on them. In fact, they vehemently denied it and clung to any scrap of proof left that they were not racist.
What has played out in these past four years is a discovery of a new identity. Because of that, Measure D should not be viewed as a formality, but rather the end of a low time in Santa Clara’s history.
City voters have righted a wrong. They have addressed a racism, that, whether intentional or not, needed to be addressed.
It is time for all of Santa Clara to embrace that change and move forward toward what’s possible, not backward to what was.
Measure D can be the marker for the City and its leaders to do just that.
The trouble with all of that is that the Ranked Choice options were actually more democratic, and gave better representation to diverse groups, especially if the diverse groups are spread out in the city and don’t live in clusters. It’s too bad that neither the 49ers nor Alex Padilla understand how Ranked Choice works.
Yes, Ranked Choice Voting can work better in many ways given correct contexts; it’s too bad the Santa Clara Mayor did not understand she was still violating voting law despite multiple warnings from legal, government and other sources who did their best to save the city and its citizens millions of wasted dollars — what could have been her motivation to battle against the obvious Correct Choice in the lawsuit?