This article is adapted from our “Civic” podcast. Click on the audio player to hear the full story.
In the ethnically and racially diverse Bay Area, local politicians have long been disproportionately white. Research shows that although more people of color have come forward and won seats, they represent just over a third of elected officials in the region. Some city councils are completely white.
The pattern has been obvious, but not always well documented, said Kimi Lee, director of a coalition of regional militant groups known as Bay Rising.
“It’s one of those things where you kind of see it, and you’re like, ‘Hmm, there’s a lot of white people in this council,’” she said. “And then thinking of, well, has anyone checked?” For example, is there any real data to back up this sort of anecdotal thing that we often see? ”
In the absence of a usable dataset, Bay Rising and the Bay Area Equity Atlas set out to create one. Since 2018, the Bay Area Equity Atlas has been tracking city officials across the region, noting and verifying the racial identities of mayors, city council members, supervisors, and district attorneys. Meanwhile, the share of top Bay Area officials who are people of color has increased from 26% to around 34%. Sixty percent of the region’s residents are people of color.
When previously under-represented groups win elections, Lee said, “You see a difference in what we talk about in these meetings.”
She cited Oakland City Council President Nikki Fortunato Bas as an example, saying Bas made a special effort to involve community members in the governance process through events such as multilingual sessions in a park. public to help determine budget priorities.
For Huang, seeing such changes in action is powerful.
“I’m a first generation immigrant from Taiwan and attended one of those budget sessions with Nikki Bas. And seeing the translations hit hard, ”Huang said. “Going to a city meeting where decisions are made, seeing people who look like my grandparents, my parents, being involved, it was really nice to see.”
Huang and Lee identified some possible ways to improve representation among elected officials. On the one hand, the cost of running for office can be prohibitive. Even local races attract big donations, Lee said, noting that an Oakland School Board race in an area serving 30,000 students attracted hundreds of thousands of dollars in campaign donations.
“We had someone running for office, a single mother, a single black mother, trying to raise money,” she said. “And people say, ‘Oh yeah, school board, $ 5,000, $ 10,000. She raised $ 50,000. And that was still not enough, because the other person received $ 400,000.
Reforming campaign finance to reduce the influence of corporate contributions or shifting to a public campaign finance model can improve candidate diversity and level the playing field, the Equity Atlas report suggested.
The research also found that moving from city-wide elections to district elections can increase the diversity of elected officials. The lower cost of running a campaign in a smaller area can be a factor, as well as the reduced effort required to solicit and connect with residents of a single neighborhood.
“Then you also feel more in community. You have a neighborhood that you’re responsible for and that you can get to know the neighborhood better, compared to an entire city, ”Lee said.
District elections are well established in some cities. San Francisco hesitated between district and general elections, adopting a district system in 1976, then repealing it in 1980. Voters rejected an attempt to reestablish the district system in 1987, but adopted it in again in 1996. Supporters of the district system argued that it would create a more inclusive supervisory board. The city’s first district elections in 1977 supported this theory. That year, the winners included the council’s first black supervisor, Ella Hill Hutch, Chinese-American first supervisor, Gordon Lau, and openly gay first supervisor, Harvey Milk.
Research from the Bay Area Equity Atlas suggests that the district system holds promise for bringing people of color to power. Huang said Redwood City first elected its city council members by district last year, and in each of the four districts where a seat is open, at least one person of color has come forward.
“And the most exciting thing is that the color of the person won this position in the four districts,” Huang said. “When you compare that to the previous election cycle, when all the candidates were white, it’s a dramatic difference. It really shows that people – especially people who have been historically excluded from the race – find it more accessible to run for office. ”
Read the full report here.