Editor’s Note: In the Nov. 8 edition of Our Weekly, we indicated that Fred Thompson finished second in the voting but inadvertantly failed to note that he actually won election to the City Council.
Fred Thompson, a former dean and member of the board of directors at Antelope Valley College, last week became the first African American to win a seat on the Palmdale city council. The retired college administrator won one of two contested council seats on the ballot, but when he will take the oath office is unclear. An appellate court will decide no later than mid-January 2014, if the election was legitimate.
Right now, no one really knows what effect Thompson’s victory will have on a lawsuit currently pending in the appellate court.
Additionally, because Juan Carillo, a city planner in Palmdale, and Joyce Ricks, a former grade school teacher, each won their respective races for the Palmdale School District, the lawsuit’s claim that the “at-large” voting system is unfair to minority candidates may prove unfounded. Carillo and Ricks are minorities, as is Doretta Thompson who was elected to the Eastside Union School District Board. In addition, R. Michael Dutton was elected to the Antelope Valley Joint Union High School District Board of Trustees, while Jannie P. Dutton and Manuel J. Magana each won election to the Keppel Union School District. Until court certification, current city hall officials will remain in place.
A lawsuit was filed in February requesting the election be halted because of the at-large system, which the suit alleges prevents minorities in the city from being able to elect the candidate of their choice. Superior Court Judge Mark Mooney granted the request of plaintiff’s attorneys Kevin Shenkman of Malibu and Lancaster Mayor R. Rex Parris, who repbad break Palmdale resident Juan Jauregui. But the 2nd District Court of Appeals later allowed the election to proceed, stipulating that it would determine after the votes were counted whether to certify the results.
City officials immediately fought back—filing a motion for injunctive relief—which was granted provided the results be returned to the court for certification. In court documents, attorneys representing Palmdale argued that because African Americans 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. Palmdale is expected to appeal the case once the trial judge completes his work.
Also, Shenkman and Parris have cited the trial judge’s “clarification” of the injunction in contending that the ballots should not have been counted. “That violates Judge Mooney’s order,” said plaintiff’s spokesman Eric Rose.
“It’s an illegal election,” Shenkman told the Los Angeles Times last week, “and once it’s decided to be an illegal election, it can’t be certified by another court. What we requested is a special election in June to coincide with the state primary.”
Palmdale city attorney William Ditzhazy countered Shenkman’s argument last week, stating that the city will contest the decision, if the judge rules for the plaintiff. “We believe our residents—all of them—are best served by an election process in which the voters have full say over all the candidates, rather than in a district situation where voters have their say over one candidate, while four other council members have power over them.” Ditzhazy continued: “I have been asked if there is a racist motive behind plaintiffs’ efforts (to prevent an African American from being seated on our council. I don’t think so. I think they need to prevent Mr. Thompson from being seated on the council, because it undermines their pretext for bringing this suit. This case isn’t about bringing diversity to the city council—it’s about plaintiff’ attorneys leveraging a poorly drafted statute for political power and easy money. Everyone in this state should be paying attention to what is going on here, because eventually it’s coming to your town, and it’s going to cost the tax payer plenty.”
“The next step in the process is for the Court of Appeals to handle the certification of the election, which will most likely happen in December or January,” said Palmdale communications manager John Mylnar.
Thompson, endorsed by Ledford and a number of civic organizations, is a former city planning commissioner and became only the second minority to win election since the city’s incorporation in 1962. Richard Loa, a Latino, and former city councilman in the 1990s and the first elected minority, ran a tight race Nov. 5 against Thompson falling short by a little more than 300 votes. Thompson once garnered 13.34 percent of the vote in a 2007 city council bid.
“The citizens of Palmdale didn’t vote for me because of or, in spite of, the color of my skin—or theirs,” Thompson said. “They voted for me on Tuesday for the same reasons they voted for me 30 years ago: I understood the voters’ issues. I made myself known in the community. I had the support of other community leaders. I put the work in to get my message to the voters, and I ran an effective campaign. What part of that formula is this lawsuit trying to fix?”
Thompson elaborated that political campaigns can sometimes lead the electorate to focus on a single matter. “I understand the impulse to explain elections based on a single factor, in this case race, but you can’t do that in Palmdale,” he said. “You certainly can’t explain [Nov. 5] in Palmdale using race. In the race for the Palmdale School District, you had White candidates both win and lose; you had Hispanic candidates both win and lose. You had African Americans elected to both the City Council and the Palmdale School Board. The voting rights lawsuit gives the impression that this is a racist community, and it is not. There isn’t a neighborhood in Palmdale that you can drive into that isn’t integrated.”
Ledford was equally candid in explaining the election results. “Fred Thompson’s victory spits in the face of the plaintiff’s ridiculous argument that a minority candidate cannot win a citywide election in Palmdale,” Ledford said. “He is the latest in a long list of minority candidates who have won citywide elections in Palmdale, including school and water boards. I couldn’t be more proud of our citizens’ determination to make their voices heard despite multiple attempts by plaintiff’s attorneys to stifle their right to vote. They not only went to the polls, but they elected a member of a ‘protected class’ to the city council not because of the color of his skin, but because of the quality and merits of the candidate. This is exactly what Dr. King envisioned when he boldly proclaimed: ‘I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.’ Our residents deserve the right to vote, and I vow as mayor to ensure their rights are protected.”
Ditzhazy wants to see Parris put pressure on his own city to switch to district-wide elections as opposed to the at-large system. “If he’s such a big believer in having five districts with the mayor’s position annually rotating amongst the council—like he’s proposing for Palmdale—why not do it in Lancaster for the April 2014 election?,” asked the city attorney. “It’s just further proof that this lawsuit has nothing to do with the rights of minorities. People are seeing through this charade and, quite frankly, they’re fed up with Parris and his ‘do as I say, not as I do’ behavior.”
If and when Thompson takes office, he has hinted at using the reservoir of high-tech workers from the aerospace industry to attract more business into the city, as well establishing new manufacturing to meet the demands of greater Southern California.
“I’m really keen on diversification,” Thompson told the Daily News recently. “For a long time, Palmdale has been entirely dependent on aircraft. We have the skilled workers here because of that, but now we have to find new industries and innovation to bring here.”
Regarding the alleged racial bifurcation among Palmdale voters, Thompson responded at an August candidate’s debate: “If you have a message, backing in this community is possible. I never felt like I was being disenfranchised because of my ethnicity.”
Thompson has a number of projects to tackle, first of which is the proposed high-speed rail project scheduled to run from Palmdale to Las Vegas; resumption of service at Palmdale Airport; continued construction at the Palmdale solar power plant; upgrades to the State Road 138 and State Road 38 expressways linking Palmdale to Interstate 15, and even development of a network of bicycle lanes. The high-speed rail project may be one of Palmdale’s biggest undertakings in decades. XpressWest initially was set to run only between Las Vegas and Victorville, but agreements reached last year extended it 50 miles west to Palmdale.
Palmdale is also part of the California High Speed Rail line and is a key connection point for carrying people between Las Vegas and Los Angeles.