When millennials run

Young progressives ran for local offices with mixed results but a unified message: make elections more representative

Rachelanne “Rae” Vander Werf successfully won a seat on the American River Flood Control District Board of Trustees at the urging of fellow young progressive Andres Ramos, who fell short in his campaign to join the Elk Grove City Council.

Rachelanne “Rae” Vander Werf successfully won a seat on the American River Flood Control District Board of Trustees at the urging of fellow young progressive Andres Ramos, who fell short in his campaign to join the Elk Grove City Council.

Photo by anne stokes

No one from the public attended meetings of the American River Flood Control District Board of Trustees from May to October 2017. That changed in November, when 27-year-old Rachelanne “Rae” Vander Werf started attending. She has been present at all but one meeting since.

Vander Werf, who works on drinking water quality issues for the State Water Resources Control Board, campaigned for a board seat and won by default when an incumbent candidate decided not to run for reelection. She will be sworn in this December.

The district maintains 40 miles of levees along the American River and area creeks. Trustees manage the general manager in charge of the district’s roughly 10-person staff, and contribute to flood emergency planning.

“We don’t generate a lot of interest,” acknowledged board president Brian Holloway. “People care about flood control when they’re at risk.”

As far as elected bodies go, even local ones, the board is obscure. What made Vander Werf’s race interesting—aside from heightening flood risk as the climate changes—was her platform of broader civic reform. She wants the board to change from at-large elections, where all voters vote on any seats in a given election, to a by-district structure, where voters only elect a representative of the portion of the district they live in.

The case for by-district voting is one of representation. Candidates spend less money to reach a smaller constituency they’re more likely to resemble both politically and demographically.

At-large elections can create vacuums of representation—no trustees live in the flood control district portion north of the American River—and tend to benefit those with money or “connections to people in power,” Vander Werf said.

Her effort reflects a common cause among progressives to make government more attentive to historically disenfranchised groups. But higher-level threats to protections mean she’s building on uncertain foundations.

Vander Werf ran for the board at the urging of Andres Ramos, who approached her at a meeting of political club Wellstone Progressive Democrats. He found the flood control district race while compiling a spreadsheet of local elections, as part of a Wellstone effort to create a farm team of political hopefuls.

“It was like, well you actually are qualified to be on the flood board because you’re a water scientist,” he said.

Ramos, a 27-year-old law school graduate, ran for Elk Grove City Council on a slate of six progressive candidates competing in three races. He and Vander Werf belong to a wave of leftist candidates who campaigned this fall. Their cohort gained media attention for being younger, more racially diverse, more queer and more likely to be women than incumbent politicians. Many ran where young candidates traditionally get their start: locally.

Of about 150 candidates under age 40 who ran for office in California with the support of progressive organizations Run for Something, which operates nationally, California-based Generation Change and California Young Democrats, roughly 60 won election, according to the three organizations. The overwhelming majority ran at the local level. Groups offered candidates endorsements, and sometimes funding.

CYD changed its bylaws this summer to allow canvassing on behalf of local candidates, instead of just those in state and national races, and ramped up canvassing to at least 15 coordinated events—multiple times the frequency in previous elections.

“What we’re doing is planting the seeds and building the infrastructure that will empower an entire new generation of leadership,” said Will Rodriguez-Kennedy, 30, president of CYD, which describes itself as the official youth arm of the state Democratic party. Rodriguez-Kennedy also works as the state Democratic party’s first organizing manager devoted to millennial constituents.

This new generation ran in a variety of races on a range of platforms. Vander Werf’s race was smaller, less competitive and centered on different issues than Ramos’, which he lost. But both made by-district voting part of their platform, and for similar reasons.

Taking a page from CYD, Ramos’ team had its members promote each other’s candidacies when they walked door-to-door. The approach had some success. Four on the slate won. Ramos and council candidate Orlando Fuentes lost to incumbents.

By-district voting was part of Ramos’ team’s platform. Slate member Mayor Steve Ly, who won reelection, requested the council discuss by-district voting earlier this year. This was after civil rights lawyer Kevin Shenkman threatened to sue if the city didn’t change. The council rejected his request.

Councilman Pat Hume, Ramos’ opponent, told SN&R that if councilmembers only needed votes from their district, they would not be accountable to the whole city.

Hume’s campaign site depicted a city in need of protection from the forces of change. “Even though there was one less zero on the population sign when I was growing up here and we have now grown to be the second largest city in the region, I believe at our core Elk Grove still feels like a small town,” it read. “I work to protect these small town values while also focused on growing our local economy.”

Elk Grove’s population has more than doubled since 2000, to an estimated 171,800 in 2017, according to census data. The city also grew more diverse, with the proportion of residents who identified as people of color growing from around 35 percent to roughly 55 percent.

High-profile incidents of racism have accompanied that change. In 2011, city council appointed a multicultural committee after two elderly Sikh men were shot and killed in a presumed hate crime. This January, the school board listened to hours of testimony about racist incidents in schools, especially toward black students.

Ramos, who served on the multicultural committee with Fuentes, found Hume’s messaging Trumpian.

“It’s basically a message about keeping Elk Grove the way it’s always been,” he said. “I mean, it almost reminds me of Trump’s ’make America great again.’”

The younger candidate moved to Elk Grove as part of the population boom to which 46-year-old Hume, who has lived in the city since 1977, seemed to be responding. Ramos’ Puerto Rican single mom was drawn to Elk Grove from Sacramento, where Ramos was born, by the prospect of affordable safe neighborhoods with good schools for her four children.

Not many at-large boards in California eagerly vote themselves out of office, which is what shifting to by-district can amount to. Office holders who win under an at-large model or from-district variation may lose when only their district votes. Most boards change only in response to lawsuits or threats of lawsuits under the California Voting Rights Act, or CVRA, said Caltech history professor Morgan Kousser, whose work focuses on minority voting rights.

Under CVRA, a court can compel a board to hold by-district elections if its at-large structure results in “racially polarized voting.” Proving that voting is racially polarized requires demonstrating that “the majority of the electorate consistently overrules,” or essentially cancels out, “the choice of the minority group,” said Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund staff attorney Tanya Pellegrini. MALDEF has sued localities for violating CVRA and the federal Voting Rights Act.

Proponents of by-district elections in Elk Grove say certain discrepancies reflect racial polarization. The city is about 18 percent Latinx and 11 percent black, but in 18 years has only had one Latinx and one black councilmember. Asian communities are currently represented on the council, which has Ly, the first Hmong mayor in the nation, and two Asian-American members.

The council’s “from-district” structure puts a twist on the traditional at-large model. Each councilmember represents a district, but the whole city votes on each seat. That means while there are no geographic representation vacuums, the city can elect someone who loses in their district. Candidates in from-district elections also need to win the most votes in their race to win, whereas in a traditional at-large council elections, multiple open seats means second- and third-highest vote-getters can win.

Disagreement locally is not the only challenge to changing structure. A bigger threat may come from higher authority.

Don Higginson, former mayor of San Diego suburb Poway, another place Shenkman pressured into by-district council elections, is challenging CVRA’s constitutionality. His lawsuit, which he is appealing after district court dismissed it, claims CVRA defines minority vote dilution too broadly. CVRA differs from the federal Voting Rights Act in that it does not require a plaintiff prove minority voters are geographically compact.

Lawyers who work on voting rights issues in California are split on whether Higginson’s case could feasibly undermine the CVRA. Some lawyers think California is guarded against the kinds of challenges federal voting rights have faced. In any case, the tools activists like Vander Werf and Ramos are leveraging to promote what they believe is fair are not immune to challenge. Efforts to change voting rights laws are reminders of greater stakes facing progressives.

“The local tools that we’ve got now may possibly go away, and what are the consequences if they did?” said historian Kousser.

The concern weighs on Vander Werf.

“I feel very lucky to live in California, where we have some more protections,” she said. But “the more rights they strip away, the harder it is. … I totally am very worried about that, especially on the federal level.”

Ramos said the changeability of laws underscores the power of culture.

“The legal victory won’t last if you don’t win over hearts and minds,” he said.