CHICO, Calif.—For the past two decades, Republican Congressman Wally Herger has represented a swath of northern California that includes depressed mountain and farm worker communities, fertile ranchlands and rice fields and a liberal-leaning college town.
Herger’s unbending conservatism has been a source of frustration to liberal voters and progressives advocating for immigrant rights and social services. But for 24 years, Herger has held onto his seat, seldom facing opponents who have had the financing or support to present a serious challenge.
Redistricting, now underway by the California Citizens Redistricting Commission, has stirred hope among some of his critics that there might be an upheaval in a district that stretches from north of Sacramento to the Oregon border. Throughout the Northern Sacramento Valley, residents say they’re eager for competitive campaigns that address high unemployment and poverty rates, immigration reform and health care.
But the voting maps released June 10 by the redistricting commission would reduce the number of Latino voters in the district represented by Herger. That concerns Democratic Party activists, who see ethnic diversity as the future of the party and helpful to its ability to compete in conservative central California.
Many Latinos have no idea what redistricting means for their communities, much less that the 14-member commission considers and responds to citizen input. Yet, there’s much at stake, including the ability of marginalized communities to elect candidates who will address their needs.
“What we have hasn’t worked well for the people who live here,” says Ken Fleming, a retired Chicoan who adds that past redistricting “has locked up North State counties by political ideology.”
Before his retirement, Fleming developed behavioral health programs in the region; now he is active with the North State Budget Coalition that works to protect social services from budget cuts. He and other Democrats say that Herger -- perhaps because of his dislike of earmarks and other forms of government spending -- has failed to bring funding into the district that might expand services for children and repair infrastructure.
“There’s been a lack of understanding of the importance of government spending in rural areas,” Fleming says.
Herger could not be reached for comment, and his staff did not reply to an e-mail query about redistricting.
Small minority communities are dispersed throughout what is now Herger’s District 2, the state’s largest congressional district in terms of square miles. District 2’s expansiveness— it runs 250 miles from north to south, through 10 counties as well as the cities of Redding, Chico and Yuba City— makes it particularly difficult for minority communities to exercise their voice on issues of common concern.
According to 2010 census data, Latinos account for 19 percent of District 2’s population, a growth over the past decade that’s comparable to the state as a whole. The Asian population increased slightly during the past decade to 4.4 percent.
At present, almost 10 percent of District 2’s eligible voters are Latino, says Rosalind Gold, who’s helping track the Latino vote for NALEO (the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials Educational Fund) in Los Angeles.
The redistricting commission’s first proposed maps divide most of what is now District 2 into what the commission calls the “Modoc-Tehama District” and the “Yuba District.” In doing so, it splits four counties, including rural Glenn County, which is home to several farm worker communities.
In the Modoc-Tehama District, where Herger has his home, only about 7 percent of eligible voters would be Latino, Gold says. But Latinos would be about 13 percent of all eligible voters in the Yuba District, where Congressman Mike Thompson, a Democrat, resides.
The citizens’ commission represents the first time in California history that redistricting has been done by citizens rather than by politicians, who in the past drew districts to protect incumbents, and used rural areas as infill to achieve the population needed in districts with urban cores.
Some Democrats argue that the present configuration of District 2 makes it impossible to elect what they call a “moderate.” That’s in part because the Democratic Party has lost much of its white voter base in the rural North State during the past 50 years.
Chico’s Bob Mulholland, who serves on the Democratic National Committee, questions how much effect redistricting can have in an area where most voters are “white heterosexuals who vote Republican.” Mulholland argues that in conservative areas, the party “has increasingly come to be seen as a party of women, gays and minorities.”
David Wilson, who chairs the Shasta County Democratic Central Committee, agrees in part but is more hopeful.
“Now, God and guns trump every other issue," says Wilson, who also works with an organization, Take Back Red California. “Part of our mission is to reverse that.”
One reason for the reduced number of Latino voters in Herger’s district is the removal of Sutter and Yuba counties, which would now be part of the Yuba District. Sutter County is about 29 percent Latino and Yuba County 25 percent, according to 2010 Census data. California as a whole is now close to 38 percent Latino.
Chico resident Lupe Arim-Law agrees that Latino voters can help the Democratic Party boost its ranks, but she and other community leaders note that more outreach is needed before that happens in a significant way.
Arim-Law chaired the local “Latinos for Obama” group in the 2008 presidential race, and later worked on the 2010 campaign for Democrat Jim Reed, who ran against Herger and captured almost 43 percent of the vote. Arim-Law said her view of Herger was shaped largely by his comments at a 2009 health care forum in Chico.
Arim-Law was disappointed in Herger’s stance on reform and “deeply offended” when Herger placed blame for dysfunction in the system on “illegal aliens.”
“You don’t blame a broken system on the people who live on the fringes,” Arim-Law says. “I don’t feel he represents me. I don’t believe Wally Herger values the Latino community.”
Arim-Law says Latinos sometimes fail to get involved politically because they’re struggling to make a living or may be unsure of their rights. During the Obama campaign, Arim-Law says she was approached by a few Latinos who had been counseled by their employers to “vote Republican because it’s good for jobs.”
Minority community leaders like Arim-Law said they didn’t yet have enough information about redistricting to take a position.
When the citizens’ commission held an April meeting in Redding, about 70 people—many of them reportedly Tea Party members— attended. Some argued that District 2 should keep its north-south configuration, ensuring that in the foreseeable future it will be a Republican stronghold. Others lobbied for an east-west configuration that would include liberal enclaves on California’s coast and lead to fiercer party competition.
The commission designed Modoc-Tehama as a district that reaches east to the Nevada border.
Democrats welcome some of the shifts in boundaries, even if they’re less than what they hoped for. For example, the Butte County city of Oroville, which previously was divided between two congressional districts, would be part of the Modoc-Tehama district, adding minority voters.
Seng Yang, program director for the Hmong Cultural Center of Butte County, says there’s about 10,000 Hmong in the county, the vast majority in Oroville. Yang says some members of the Hmong community have had to seek help from their congressmen with issues related to immigration status; in general, he says, the community enjoys a warm relationship with Herger.
But Yang says the Hmong are becoming increasingly engaged in political life, and more often than not, community members identify with the Democratic Party. “It would be really good to know what’s going on,” Yang says, when asked about redistricting. “We haven’t heard how our community would be affected.”
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