By Vic Bedoian
Fresno County, along with all other counties in California, is in the process of redrawing its supervisorial districts. District boundary lines must conform to federal and state criteria, as well as traditional fairness principles.
Public workshops have been held over the past few months to gather ideas about how those lines should be configured. Many community groups have come together as the Fresno County Equity Map Coalition. They’ve been intensely engaged in the process, suggesting a new alignment that will reflect the demographic transformation of the county.
According to the 2020 Census, Fresno County now has a minority-majority population in which the White population is outnumbered by the county’s non-European ethnic groups.
Looking at the current map of Fresno County’s five supervisor districts, it’s clear why voter equity activists think it needs to change. Four out of the five districts are designed to favor conservative and largely White voters. That’s because three of the districts spread over generally conservative rural areas, while one represents ethnically diverse south Fresno and the other mainly white and affluent north Fresno. In other words, the deck is stacked. So, there are four White supervisors and one Hispanic representative.
Over the past year, the Dolores Huerta Foundation (DHF), part of the coalition, has focused on bringing the county’s forgotten residents into a process to draw new and fairer maps to represent community interests. Pam Whalen says that the coalition tried to figure out a way Latino, Asian and African-American communities could have more equitable representation.
“The Republicans have really done a bang-up job in the Valley of being able to draw districts in the past that gave them representation far beyond the numbers that are reflected in the community,” says Whalen. “And I think some of us haven’t been paying enough attention.”
Recently, two conservative supervisors, Buddy Mendes and Nathan Magsig, raised eyebrows by suggesting that district boundary lines need only minor tweaking. They later walked back those statements.
Lori Pesante, who heads the voter engagement arm of DHF, said that the district lines are obsolete: “They’re based on 2010 data, which has changed substantially in the last 10 years.
“The Latino population of Fresno County has increased substantially, which triggers a number of different obligations in the Voting Rights Act. The county is obligated to draw so-called majority-minority districts. So we’ve drawn a map that uses the Census data to draw a fair map for constitutionally protected classes and all people in Fresno County.”
The coalition is demanding that Fresno County supervisors meet all these standards and adopt the map submitted by the Equity Map Coalition. This map is supported by community member input.
One of the people who wants better representation is Ofelia Ochoa. She lives in Mendota, a west-side town surrounded by the factory fields of corporate agriculture. Ochoa says that Mendota, like other small towns that dot the rural landscape, is burdened with poverty, unemployment, tainted air and water, and a lack of essential services such as the Internet.
“The people are very, very important to me, and this community has children with special needs. We need transportation. I need help for my community.”
For the past few months, interested residents have played an important role in designing the coalition’s map and describing the diverse communities of interest in Fresno County. They worked on mapping using tools like online software and paper maps.
Pesante says that if the county adopts the Equity Coalition Map, then people like Ochoa will have more attention paid to their needs: “We believed that it would allow groups that have never been represented before to be able to elect candidates of their choice.
“In particular, we know from going to board meeting after board meeting that there are large swaths of underserved people in Fresno County who have never had their voices heard by elected leadership in a way that actually translates into solutions.
“We believe that our map gives Fresno County the best opportunity for everyone to have their voices heard and to seek real solutions to the problems we’re going to face in the next 10 years.”
At a downtown media briefing in late October, activists demanded the supervisors adopt the Equity Coalition’s map for new district lines that reflect the community and the needs of people living in one of the most poverty-stricken counties in the nation.
Referring to the uneven response to the pandemic, where Latinos, especially food workers, have suffered far more than other demographic groups, Fresno Unified School District Trustee Genoveva Islas declared, “In this process what is clear is that we have had to fight for those investments for our community. Our community has been most impacted by Covid.
“We deserve to have the Equity Coalition map because it creates an opportunity to have supervisors who are more representative [and] more responsive and should result in policies and funding decisions that will have a positive impact to improve the lives of our residents.”
The 11-member Redistricting Advisory Commission, which was appointed by the Fresno County Board of Supervisors, is holding public hearings to gather information and testimony. The Board will address the proposed maps at its Nov. 16 meeting.
Vic Bedoian is an independent radio and print journalist working on environmental justice and natural resources issues in the San Joaquin Valley. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.