James Ledford, pictured in 2011, has been elected mayor of Palmdale 11 times. (Al Seib / Los Angeles Times )
Latinos and African Americans make up about two-thirds of the population of Palmdale. But since the city's incorporation in August 1962, not a single black resident and only one Latino has ever served on the City Council.
That's the backdrop of a complaint filed in Los Angeles County Superior Court by Antelope Valley civil rights activists alleging racial bias in city elections in this High Desert locale. The complaint argues that Palmdale's system of at-large council seats dilutes the influence of minority voters.
"Latinos and African Americans are locked out of the political system in the city of Palmdale," said Malibu attorney Kevin Shenkman, who is representing plaintiff Juan Jauregui, a Palmdale resident. Three local black activists and the NAACP have also said they will join the case, scheduled to go to trial in May.
The litigation is the latest in a series of racially themed conflicts in the Antelope Valley as blacks and Latinos have moved into once mostly white areas. Housing programs and police practices have been flash points as activists have challenged policies they perceive as unfairly targeting minority residents.
Plaintiffs say the city's at-large election system violates the state's 2001 Voting Rights Act, which guards against disenfranchisement of minorities. They seek a change to district-by-district voting.
Palmdale is fighting back. In court documents, city attorneys argue that because blacks and Latinos are a majority of registered voters in the city, they are "in a position, numerically" to elect the mayor and City Council members.
The lawyers also insist that district voting would not have helped minority candidates who lost. "They simply had very little support from voters, and no drawing or gerrymandering of districts would have resulted in a district which would have elected them," the attorneys said.
Moreover, in November 2001 Palmdale's residents voted against a measure to introduce district voting. City Atty. Wm. Matthew Ditzhazy said via email that "ultimately it was the community's decision to make."
In a recent deposition, James Ledford, who has been elected the city's mayor 11 times since 1992, said he did not even know the race of his fellow council members and was not aware that all but one had been white.
Asked whether it bothered him "in any way that racial minorities in Palmdale might feel that they are not being represented in the City Council," Ledford said no.
Ledford declined to be interviewed for this article, although in the past he has said he favored district voting.
Traditionally, low voter turnout among blacks and Latinos in Palmdale's municipal elections has shrunk their voting power compared with that of whites, who turn out in greater numbers, statistics show.
The majority of Palmdale Latinos voted yes for district elections in 2001, but the measure was defeated because 66% of whites opposed it, according to data compiled by a city consultant and cited by Shenkman.
Similarly, in 2009, when V. Jesse Smith, president of the Antelope Valley chapter of the NAACP, ran for City Council, he split the Latino vote 49% to 51% with Steve Fox, who is white. But neither won a council seat. The spots went to white candidates Tom Lackey and Laura Bettencourt, who scored heavily among whites, although neither got a single Latino vote, Shenkman said.
Shenkman acknowledged the poor voting record of minority groups, but he blamed the system of at-large voting. Blacks and Latinos didn't vote because they had "grown to understand that their vote doesn't matter," he said.
At least a dozen government entities in California, including cities, school districts and county boards, have been sued under the state's Voting Rights Act, said Shenkman. Some cases are still pending, others have ended in settlements resulting in district elections, he said.
One of those was Compton, which placed the issue on the ballot last June to settle a lawsuit. Voters approved the switch from at-large to district voting. The change may give Latinos — who make up a majority of the city's population but a minority of eligible voters — a greater chance of putting the first Latino on the City Council in April.
For supporters of district voting in Palmdale, the claim represents a new effort to shake up the political status quo in the Antelope Valley. They say it will make city representatives more accountable to voters.
But Richard Loa, an attorney who in 2001 became the only Latino ever to win a council seat in Palmdale, said that although he supported Latinos' push for representation, he opposes resolving the issue through litigation.
"The important thing is to have effective leadership," said Loa, who has said he will run again.
Race isn't everything, agreed Darren Parker, who as chairman of the California Democratic Party's African American caucus helps recruit potential minority candidates to run for local office, but he said High Desert cities need black voices in leadership.
"I don't believe that anyone who doesn't get up in the morning and look like me can really walk in my shoes," Parker said.
Among the lawyers representing the plaintiffs is attorney R. Rex Parris, mayor of neighboring Lancaster, which uses at-large elections but is weighing a change.
Lancaster's population is about 40% Latino and 20% African American, but the City Council has four white men and one Latina. The city has also faced charges of racial bias, but Lancaster has a track record of minority representation on its council, including an African American who twice served as mayor.
Lilia Galindo, who has used her Palmdale-based Café Con Leche radio talk show to encourage Latinos to get out and vote, said High Desert Latinos were eager to find their political voice. District elections would help, she said.
"We've started to realize how important it is to express our rights as citizens," Galindo said.