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California redistricting commission revs up its work

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2020 Citizens Redistricting Commission members Ray Kennedy, Ph.D., left, and Antonio Le Mons. Photos: Courtesy CA Redistricting Commission
2020 Citizens Redistricting Commission members Ray Kennedy, Ph.D., left, and Antonio Le Mons. Photos: Courtesy CA Redistricting Commission  

The panel tasked with redrawing the political boundaries for California's legislative Assembly and Senate districts, as well as the state's 53 congressional House seats, based on the 2020 census is revving up its work as it strives to send the final maps to the secretary of state in time for next year's elections. It is expected the Golden State will lose at least one congressional district when the census bureau releases the results from the decennial tally of the country's population this summer.

Most of the 14 members of the 2020 Citizens Redistricting Commission have begun holding town halls in their regions of the state to educate the public about its work and how they can get involved. People can submit their own district maps for the panel to consider via the website www.drawmycacommunity.org before it tackles drawing the new boundaries in the fall.

According to the commission's work timetable, it will hold public input meetings this summer as it waits to receive the new census figures. On Friday, February 12, the U.S. Census Bureau announced it was pushing back its timeline for doing so again, from July 30 to September 30. But it also said it had completed the release of all states' 2020 census geographic products needed for redistricting so that the states will be able to "redistrict promptly" when they receive the tabulation data in the fall.

There will be some lag time from when the census bureau submits the data and when the UC Berkeley Statewide Database reallocates the state's prison population for the purpose of drawing up the district boundaries. The commission had been aiming to release its draft maps in October, leaving time for additional public comment prior to the final boundary lines being set by December 15.

The delay in getting the census data, however, will extend the commission's work, said spokesman Fredy Ceja.

"By the time the statewide database gets the cleaned up data to the commission, we are looking at an October 30 date. We are asking the Legislature for guidance," Ceja told the Bay Area Reporter shortly after the announcement from the federal agency.

A statement Ceja released later Friday on behalf of the commission said that for as many days after July 31 that it takes to get the census data then the panel will have a similar number of days after December 15 to submit its certified maps.

"We remain committed to including and involving as many Californians as possible in the redistricting process and again thank those who worked diligently last year to ensure that we would have the time we need to carry out our work," stated the commission.

In a reversal from the 2010 redistricting process, when maintaining the state's LGBTQ communities intact in the various districts wasn't taken into consideration until fairly late in the process, as the B.A.R. detailed in June 2011, this time the LGBTQ community is being considered as a community of special interest, similar to Black, Latino, Native American, and Asian communities across the state, according to three commissioners the B.A.R. spoke with this month.

"I am part of a process to help facilitate a process that has as many of those needs be met as possible," said Antonio Le Mons, a gay, African American single father of two Latinx teenage sons who is the chief operating officer at Skid Row Housing Trust in Los Angeles.

Fellow commissioner Ray Kennedy, Ph.D., who has traveled the globe providing electoral assistance in various countries since 1990, told the B.A.R. that the contiguity of LGBTQ communities would be considered as the panel conducts its work.

"It's not that we have proportional representation. We are talking about the LGBTQ community as individuals," said Kennedy, whose partner of nearly four decades, Foster Tucker, was the spokesman for the San Francisco Department of Elections in 1999 when Tom Ammiano, a gay supervisor at the time, was a mayoral write-in candidate. "When we are looking at communities of interest, we are looking for places where there are enough of a concentration of people to consider a community of interest."

Local redistricting panels in Sacramento, Long Beach, Los Angeles, San Francisco, and San Diego are also being advised to consider LGBTQ communities in those cities when drawing up new boundaries for city council and supervisor seats. For instance, lines of supervisor districts in San Francisco should not split the LGBTQ Castro district in half.

In a January 27 letter then-acting secretary of state James Schwab sent to the city-based redistricting commissions, he noted that the 2020 census will provide better data about married same-sex households that can be used to "draw districts that are centered around the LGBTQ population."

He added that the panels "must ensure the LGBTQ community has the political representation it deserves" by considering it a community of interest, even though it is not specified as such in the Fair Maps Act. The 2019 law defines a community of interest as "a population that shares common social or economic interests that should be included within a single district for purposes of its effective and fair representation."

"I respectfully urge the LGBTQ community be identified as a community of interest in the redistricting process," wrote Schwab.

Past concerns
A decade ago, San Francisco LGBTQ leaders voiced concerns when the statewide redistricting commission initially planned to move several of the city's LGBTQ neighborhoods from the 13th Assembly District, which had elected three out legislators, into the 12th District, which had been a launch pad for Asian lawmakers, fearing it would weaken out candidates' chances at the ballot box. While that did not happen, the city has not elected an LGBTQ person to the Assembly since 2012, when Ammiano was elected to his last term in the chamber, and has been represented by two straight Asian Assemblymen since 2014. (Those districts have since been renumbered and are now the 17th and 19th.)

Asked about seeing the city's Castro district split down Castro Street into two Assembly districts, Kennedy told the B.A.R. "that is not going to fly with this commission." But he also said it is important for LGBTQ Californians to speak up and address the panel in the coming months on what sort of district lines they want to see be drawn.

"We want to hear from people what they are worried about," he said. "We don't want to assume anything or just learn from newspapers or academic works. We want to hear from people; we want to hear from communities."

Lesbian state Senator Susan Talamantes Eggman (D-Stockton), who as vice chair of the Legislative LGBTQ Caucus is already looking for out candidates to run for legislative seats in 2022 and 2024, told the B.A.R. "it is imperative" that LGBTQ communities like racial and ethnic communities be considered when drawing up district boundaries for public offices at all levels.

"In a lot of places where the LGBT community lives, we share the same space as our African American brothers and sisters, especially in more urban areas. I think it is important to maintain our spaces," said Eggman when determining the maps for political seats.


2020 Citizens Redistricting Commission member Trena Turner. Photo: Courtesy CA Redistricting Commission  

Commissioners bring broad perspectives
One of her constituents is serving on the statewide redistricting commission, pastor Trena Turner, whom Eggman told the B.A.R. is "fantastic" and "a fine choice" for the panel. Turner, 60, is executive director of Faith in the Valley, a faith-based, multi-denominational grassroots community organization that represents families in Fresno, Kern, Merced, Stanislaus, and San Joaquin counties.

Born in San Francisco and raised in Richmond, Turner spent most of her life in the Bay Area and went to work for the telephone company right out of high school. She and her husband of 42 years, Rufus, ended up moving to Stockton in 1995 and formed their own church, Victory in Praise.

She quit her corporate job after 25 years to focus full time on her ministry. When several faith-based nonprofits decided to merge into a larger organization four years ago, Turner was asked to lead it.

With one of her focuses criminal justice reform, Turner was invited by the Astraea Lesbian Foundation for Justice and the Borealis Foundation to attend a conference in San Juan, Puerto Rico focused on addressing the increased criminalization of various communities, including the LGBTQ community.

"It was such an amazing experience," recalled Turner, adding that a main lesson for attendees was to scour their local city and county budgets to see how much funding was allocated toward public safety agencies.

Ten years ago she was unaware of the redistricting commission and its work. Hearing that it did not attract many Black applicants, Turner decided to submit an application and wasn't sure she would be picked. Her name ended up being the first one drawn during the random selection process held to pick eight of the seats. (Those selected then chose the other six commissioners.)

She had prayed that hers would be the first name read.

"They said, 'Trena Turner,' and I said, 'Oh, God! Well, here we go," said Turner. "True story."

A main goal for Turner is to educate other Black people about the commission and why its work is not only important but how it will impact their communities for the next decade. Keeping communities of color and LGBTQ neighborhoods together as much as possible in the various districts is a key goal, she said.

"It is extremely important for us as a commission to be able to achieve that," said Turner. "We have allowed another structure or system historically to water down and dilute the power of people. We have given that power over to the citizens and now it is our chance to ensure that does not occur."

She cautioned she is "not that naïve" to know some communities may not like the outcome.

"I think we will have our work cut out for us but I am down for the hard work," she said.

Southern California
With Southern California likely the region of the state to see one or more of its House seats be drawn out of existence, Le Mons said he is prepared to anger some politicians with the new maps.

"I can hold contradictory points and positions very comfortably. I am well suited in that regard. It is not about my personal agenda at all," said Le Mons, who turns 58 on February 16.

Like Turner, Le Mons had been unaware of the redistricting body until last year. Inspired by the Black Lives Matter protests of recent years, he was looking for a way to become more civically engaged. He happened to hear about the commission while listening to the radio in his car.

"It just connected in my head. This might fit the bill: something civic and high impact," recalled Le Mons, who phoned a politically connected friend to discuss it. "I was asking if he knew anything about it. He said, 'I do and you'd be great and I will give you your first letter of recommendation.' I said, 'I guess I am doing it.' That is how the ball started rolling."

He and his sons, the oldest at 19 is in college and the 17-year-old is a junior in high school, live in the Toluca Lake neighborhood of Los Angeles. Le Mons first came to California from Detroit at the age of 15, helping a great-uncle drive a car out for his daughter even though he didn't have a driver's license at the time.

Le Mons ended up staying for the summer but was ordered back home by his mother when school started in the fall. He vowed to return one day and has called the Golden State home since graduating from Michigan State University.

Over the last 35 years he has had a varied career, from being a therapist to serving as deputy director of the California AIDS Clearinghouse and facilitating its advisory council. Le Mons also spent five years on UCLA's Institutional Review Board for the protection of human subjects in studies.

Having the redistricting commission build into its schedule time to educate the public about its work before redrawing the maps was critical, said Le Mons, since most people aren't aware of it.

"We have to have an education component so people know it exists and how it works," he said. "The people we touch this cycle, we are preparing them more importantly for applying in 2030."

Kennedy, 62, and Tucker used to live in Palm Springs and moved to Morongo Valley last March to rehab a home on a five-acre property the couple, registered domestic partners, bought several years ago.

"Essentially, in order to be on the commission, I have had to give up my international work, so we are renovating," said Kennedy, whose grandfather a century ago served on a county board of elections in North Carolina. "I am taking a leave from work while on the commission."

An advocate for disability rights, Kennedy has worked for International Foundation for Electoral Systems, a nonprofit based in Washington, D.C., and the United Nations as a senior electoral expert. He has also collaborated with the Carter Center's Democracy Program on elections held in Liberia, Mozambique, and by a Native American tribe in Oklahoma.

After earning his doctorate in Latin American studies from Johns Hopkins/SAIS in 2000, Kennedy was hired by the U.N. as a deputy chief electoral officer in East Timor for two years. He was also stationed in the Republic of Georgia, Mexico, Sudan, and Afghanistan for its 2004 presidential election.

He would have preferred to remain in the Middle Eastern country but left the following year for Liberia after three of his colleagues were kidnapped and the use of IEDs — improvised explosive devices — made it increasingly unsafe to travel in Afghanistan.

"There was a time after our colleagues were kidnapped and bombs were going off on the streets near the restaurants Westerners frequented where the only three places we could be were home, the office or the PX," said Kennedy, referring to the store run by the U.S. military. "Compare that to when I first arrived in fall 2003. The men in the U.N. mission were allowed to walk alone at night in the streets as long as we had our radio on our belt."

While not a member of UNGLOBE, the employee group for LGBTQ staffers, Kennedy kept in touch with colleagues who were. He said he wasn't closeted while working for the U.N. but was reserved about discussing his personal life.

"I was me. I wasn't waving flags or making public statements about my sexual orientation," he said. "There were colleagues who were aware, but I wasn't necessarily talking it up with them even. I think everybody understood the problems that could ensue. We all kept our heads down."

At the urging of his friends and co-workers, Kennedy has contemplated how he could impart his experience overseas on the American electoral process. It wasn't until he heard about the redistricting commission via his Assemblyman Chad Mayes (I-Yucca Valley) that he found the right opportunity.

Kennedy and Turner are both registered Democrats, while Le Mons is an independent. Other commission members include San Jose resident Isra Ahmad, an independent who works as a senior research and evaluation specialist with Santa Clara County's Division of Equity and Social Justice, and Berkeley resident Jane Andersen, a Republican who was one of the first women to enter the field of structural engineering.

Fellow GOPer Russell Yee, Ph.D., a former pastor who lives in Oakland and has taught at the Fuller Theological Seminary, and Petaluma resident Pedro Toledo, an independent who is the chief administrative officer of the Petaluma Health Center, are the other commissioners from the Bay Area.

No matter when the census data is presented to the redistricting commission, Kennedy said he is confident it will have the new maps drawn in time for the June 2022 primary races for state and federal offices.

"We do have the luxury of more time than the 2010 commission had on the front side. As of February 3, 2011 the commission barely existed," said Kennedy. "The last six months we've tried to use to good effect to put staff in place, to put policies and procedures in place, and building relationships."

Turner said she is applying her management experience with the telephone company to the work of the commission. Because it has to conduct its business via online platforms due to the COVID pandemic, Turner said it has been difficult building rapport with the other members.

"I do more listening than talking," said Turner. "I am trying to learn. I try to understand and be wise about it."

Living in a rural community, Kennedy is working to reach other rural residents who may not have access to the internet or a newspaper so that they are aware of the commission and can provide input.

"We know the likelihood of a district line splitting a rural community might be lower than the likelihood of a district line splitting an urban community. We still want to hear from everybody," said Kennedy, who has seen how elections matter to people since his first mission in Haiti. "Having dedicated 30 years of my life to this, I really want to see people have their say."

The redistricting commission will be launching a new website this week for the public to learn about it and its work at www.wedrawthelinesca.org

/b>EDITED 2/15/2021 to clarify Ray Kennedy was not a member of UNGLOBE and correct his comment about proportional representation.

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