The past month has been a case study in how political sausage gets made in Kern County.
Kern County supervisors, under pressure from a U.S. District Court judge and on a tight deadline, scrambled to draw new political boundaries for themselves behind closed doors.
At the end of the process, they all knew, at least one of them was going to be pushed off a political cliff.
They had to decide which of them was going to be pushed and who was going to be doing the pushing.
The first thing supervisors had to come to grips with was the fact that they no longer had much control over their political future.
They lost that control in late February when Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund lawyers beat the county in court and U.S. District Judge Dale Drozd overturned the current county political districts.
Those lines, drawn in 2011, split up a constellation of largely Latino communities in northwestern Kern County and diluted their votes into two very conservative districts.
And that, Drozd found, violated the U.S. Voting Rights Act.
MALDEF had convinced him that Kern’s powerful political system — controlled by white Republicans — had discriminated against Latinos and robbed them of their political power.
It’s a loss that will cost Kern County at least $5.5 million in legal costs.
OVER A BARREL
Things got worse for supervisors less than two weeks later when Drozd ordered the county to meet with MALDEF and settle the case on March 28.
That settlement had to create a second Latino-majority district.
Drozd made it clear he wasn’t inclined to delay boundary changes or an election to populate the new district until 2020, as supervisors hoped.
If the two sides didn’t make a deal, he indicated, he’d move elections to November 2018 and demand supervisors quickly draw new maps in public.
If Drozd didn’t like those maps, he said, he’d draw some of his own.
Kern County lawyers got the clear idea he’d be looking to MALDEF ideas for help drawing those maps.
And supervisors did not like MALDEF maps.
So they got to work on maps of their own in the privacy of a series of closed-session meetings.
It was not an easy, friendly process.
Negotiations were so intense in the first week that 5th District Supervisor Leticia Perez, a Latina, said she stood up and walked out of the room.
Who got the ax started with the rules of engagement in those closed-door meetings.
Supervisors had just one rule and three guidelines they had to follow.
The rule was that they had to build a second district where the “citizen voting age population” (CVAP) and “Spanish surname registration” numbers were more than 50 percent Latino.
The supervisors' guidelines were those that have been followed by the board in past redistrictings. New maps must:
- Retain existing lines as much as possible.
- Include two districts covering the mountain and desert areas of eastern Kern.
- Have each of the five districts include a portion of metro Bakersfield.
It was that second guideline that quickly made Supervisors David Couch and Mike Maggard the likely targets for major district changes.
All Kern County politics and policy is governed by finding a number between one and five.
There are five supervisors.
Three votes are needed to approve most things the board does.
So, from the beginning, all the supervisors were counting to three.
And two people had a strong reason to vote together.
Supervisors Zack Scrivner and Mick Gleason were never going to vote for a map that didn’t maintain two east Kern districts.
The two are political allies and both represent portions of eastern Kern County’s geographically remote mountains and deserts.
They wouldn’t stand for collapsing those areas into a single east-side district.
“Preserving two eastern districts was a top priority for my constituents,” Scrivner said. “One eastern district would have been a deal breaker for me.”
That’s two votes.
“Now you have two people advocating for the east side and you just need to pick up one more vote,” Scrivner said.
And supervisors had to leave Perez’s 5th District alone. They needed two Latino-majority districts.
That’s three votes.
Only two people were left to take the fall.
Eliminating a single east-side district drastically reduced the options supervisors could consider.
“Once you draw two east Kern districts, you’ve got to go up to the northwest,” Scrivner said. “The only place you can find the Latino CVAP numbers that you need is in the northwest.”
David Couch and Mike Maggard have been friends and political allies since 1998 when they both took seats on the Bakersfield City Council, becoming two of the biggest driving forces in city policy.
Now they were sitting in a room deciding which of them was going to vote to gut the other’s political future.
A lot of maps were tossed on the table in the rumble-tumble back-and-forth that followed.
A software program allowed supervisors to drag their lines around on a map of the county and have the populations and demographic makeup of the new areas pop up immediately.
What eventually floated to the top was a map the county’s lawyers offered up, Maggard said.
It was a variation of a map proposed by former state Sen. Dean Florez years ago.
And it converted Couch’s 4th District from the most Caucasian, Republican district in Kern County into a heavily Latino district in northwestern Kern County that included Delano, Shafter, McFarland, Wasco, Buttonwillow and Lost Hills.
Supervisors said they didn’t target Couch.
“This guy has been my friend for a long time,” Maggard said.
But, he said, supervisors were told that the map they decided on was the only one that would work.
“It was the sweet spot of the largest amount of CVAP and the least amount of damage to the county,” said Perez.
Gleason said supervisors struggled repeatedly to find another, better way.
“It wasn’t easy and it wasn’t fun,” he said.
Supervisors weren’t trying to focus on one person.
“We kept coming back and back and back to the same place,” Gleason said. “We did the best job we could and unfortunately Dave took it on the nose.”
Despite his fellow supervisors' protestations, Couch feels like he was targeted.
The settlement with MALDEF is forcing him to face re-election two years earlier than he should have. Maggard has to run again this year normally, so why not move him into the Latino district?
Couch proposed maps which did that and, in his opinion, they were better than the map the other four supervisors decided on.
“My staff and I produced two maps using two different methodologies. One map had CVAP close to what the county was submitting. One map surpassed what the county was submitting and was very close to one of the maps MALDEF proposed at trial,” Couch said. “Both maps created two east Kern districts which was important for those constituencies. Both maintained a mix of rural and urban in each district. Both maps did not create a court-ordered election and the disruption and associated costs during a fiscal crisis.”
But supervisors wouldn’t seriously consider those maps, he said.
"The Board concluded the map we used to settle the case, drafted by our outside counsel based upon a previous map submitted by Dean Florez, was superior," wrote Supervisor Mike Maggard in an email.
Couch tried to push the process into the public eye, arguing development of the maps should be open to public input.
“The public didn’t see these maps. MALDEF didn’t see these maps. The court didn’t see these maps,” he said. “If there was a public process, there would have been a much better chance for a different outcome.”
But on March 26, supervisors voted 4-0 to take the map that disadvantaged Couch to the settlement hearing with MALDEF on March 28.
Couch hired attorney George Martin to represent his private interests in the outcome of the maps.
But ultimately he had to wait to hear the outcome of the settlement hearing.
It was clear from the first minutes of that Wednesday hearing that MALDEF thought the county’s map was too weak, Perez said.
She and Scrivner represented the board at the hearing.
“The first thing off the bat was ‘Thanks but no thanks. We’ll take our chances with the judge,’” Perez said.
The county’s proposal gave the 5th District a Latino citizen voting age population of 56 percent.
Magistrate Judge Jennifer Thurston told the county team, Perez said, that MALDEF was looking for a number in the range of 65 percent to 70 percent.
Perez said the county team scrambled to convince MALDEF, through Thurston, to negotiate a compromise map.
“Supervisors' priorities were out the window if there was not a settlement,” she said.
Perez offered to move the Latino communities of Arvin and Lamont to the 4th District to beef up the Latino CVAP numbers.
After a day of tweaking that idea by both sides, she said, MALDEF agreed to a map that made the 4th District's CVAP numbers 68 percent Latino.
On March 30, supervisors approved the map as well.
The deal was done.
The sausage was made.
And Couch had been ushered to the cliff.