Later On

A blog written for those whose interests more or less match mine.

A Malibu lawyer is upending California’s political system, one town at a time

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Robin Abcarian reports in the LA Times:

Kevin Shenkman, who is tall and bookish, does not look like the aspiring light heavyweight boxer he once was.

Clearly, though, he still relishes a good fight.

For the past several years, Shenkman, 38, who lives and practices law in Malibu, has been suing, or threatening to sue, cities all over Southern California, demanding they change the way they elect members of their city councils in order to increase the numbers of African-American and Latino representatives.

Many have agreed to do so, though some have resisted before capitulating.

Shenkman’s legal cudgel is the California Voter Rights Act, which for 15 years has made it easier for minority groups to prove that they are disenfranchised by at-large elections, where all voters of a city vote for all members of a city council.

Many believe this practice has institutionalized racial discrimination, allowing blocs of white voters to overwhelm the choices of blacks and Latinos. Until Shenkman sued Palmdale, for instance, where about two-thirds of residents are minorities, only one Latino, a Republican, had ever been elected to office.

“Obviously, the leadership did not represent the people they served,” said Darren Parker, who serves as chairman of the California Democratic Party’s African-American Caucus. “I’ve lived in the Antelope Valley for over 30 years, and had been trying to obtain some sort of equity or diversity in the leadership.”

In 2012, Parker decided the only way to change things was to sue the city for violating the California Voter Rights Act. He did some research and found a story about a young attorney who had sued Panda Express for failing to disclose that it put chicken broth in its steamed vegetables. Something about that appealed to Parker, who had once worked for McDonald’s, so he phoned Shenkman.

“When he called, I told Darren I had no idea what he was talking about, but I thought, ‘I’m a Democrat, and this sounds important, I’ll look into it,’” Shenkman told me. He asked his law partner, Mary Hughes, who happens to be his wife, what she thought. “She said, ‘You are crazy.’ I said, ‘Yeah, let’s do this.’ ”

He contacted three voting-rights experts — constitutional law professor Justin Levitt of Loyola Law school, Cal Tech history professor Morgan Kausser and demographer David Ely — who helped him figure out how to approach the case, and then brought in two experienced trial lawyers, R. Rex Parris (who happens to be the mayor of Lancaster) and Milton Grimes, perhaps best-known as the late Rodney King’s attorney.

Shenkman expected the Palmdale case to resolve quickly, but the city fought back. In 2013, the case went to trial. Palmdale lost. A judge ordered new, by-district elections.

In November, Palmdale elected its first Democratic Latino City Councilman, Juan Carillo, from a new district on the city’s east side, “one of our first success stories,” as Parker told me.

“I think Kevin was heaven-sent,” Parker said. “He is dedicated to serving others in spite of himself sometimes. I think he is so zealous that he forgets to eat and sleep.”

As the Voting Rights Act requires, Palmdale had to reimburse Shenkman’s legal costs, which were about $4.6 million.

Even if other cities didn’t see the benefit in switching to district elections for the right reasons, it soon became clear that moving to district elections was a sure way to avoid sky-high legal fees. Because they were probably going to lose.

::

Shenkman first came to my attention last week because he was the subject of a meandering profile on the Breitbart website, . . .

Continue reading.

Later:

. . . After he won in Palmdale, Shenkman was contacted by the Southwest Voter Registration Education Project, a Lincoln Heights-based group with a decades-long history in “the voting rights business,” as its president Antonio Gonzalez put it. He considers district elections “a paramount tool in the voting rights toolbox.”

“Palmdale created a new conventional wisdom for cities, which is, ‘We are not going to win, so let’s work it out,’” Gonzales said. “We just sent another 15 demand letters, so we are up to 25 jurisdictions.”

Before the year is out, he said, “We’re going to do 100.”

As my colleague Phil Willon reported last month, out of California’s 482 cities, only 59 hold district elections, and no city that holds at-large elections has ever prevailed in a California Voting Rights Act lawsuit. . .

Written by LeisureGuy

14 May 2017 at 12:23 pm

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