Ten years ago, the eastern half of Contra Costa County was a sparsely populated swath of rolling hills, country roads, and agricultural outposts. Orchards, vineyards, and ranches spread out along the delta land, farmers offered fruit from roadside stands, and Mt. Diablo dominated the horizon. The only incorporated city, Brentwood, was a rural town, and the entire eastern half of the county — with only 170,000 residents — comprised only one of the county’s five supervisorial districts. In a sense, East County was the hinterland of the denser, industrial areas that clustered around the city of Richmond on Contra Costa’s western edge.
Today, Mt. Diablo and the rolling hills are still there, and local farms still supply fresh fruits and vegetables to local stores — but much has changed. East County’s population grew by more than forty percent over the last ten years — more than twice the county average — and the area’s golden hills now sport corporate complexes and single-family homes. In a decade that has seen development encroach on open lands throughout the Bay Area, Contra Costa has felt especially severe growing pains — and the character of East County has been redefined in the process. Now the county’s board of supervisors is trying to redraw the boundary lines that define their own districts, and East County (District 5) will be split into two, if not three, districts. It’s a decision that could affect not only the future of the county’s growth but the voting power of the area’s traditional minority communities — and it’s being decided by the very politicians who have the most to win or lose from the outcome.
The results of the 2000 census show that Contra Costa’s current district divisions are no longer adequate, because the eastern District 5 now has far too many residents. While most areas of the county gained between 10,000 and 30,000 residents each, District 5 saw an additional 68,824 people flood their rolls. State law requires that each supervisorial district must have a nearly equal population, thus ensuring that every voter has equal representation at the county level. And county services are important to residents on both sides of the spectrum: on the one hand, the western cities provide the greatest demand for health and social services, while the eastern half needs attention since the county controls land use in unincorporated areas. “Times have changed,” says District 5 Supervisor Federal Glover. “At one time, things were focused largely on other communities, but the dynamics of that are changing. With our economy, more people have had the opportunity to make choices in terms of where they live. For years people may have lived in Oakland, for example, but they’re moving out, and they look at the east county region as a comfortable place to raise a family. We have the delta, the hillsides, the open land, the ag area.”
So, the supervisors have begun the hard task of equalizing district populations. Clearly, burgeoning District 5 needs to be trimmed — but should the extra numbers go to District 4, centered on Concord, or to District 3, which includes Walnut Creek and San Ramon? Or should District 5’s extra space be split between these two neighbors? County staff was instructed to create a number of scenarios, making sure that each option would keep the variation between each district’s populations to a minimum. Those options have now been narrowed down to three choices — but behind the number-crunching hides a host of questions, and the direction of the county’s growth is one of the most pressing.
“What were once farmlands is now subdivisions, and redistricting is a symptom of that problem,” says Evelyn Stivers of Greenbelt Alliance’s Walnut Creek office. “The population is shifting to the east.” Greenbelt Alliance is one of several groups that has fought the increasing pressure of development; allied with District 3 Supervisor Donna Gerber, smart-growth advocates succeeded in passing a countywide growth boundary last year. But that doesn’t mean the book is closed on development issues; Gerber points out that 40,000 new units have been approved for East County, and as those fill up with families, traffic and infrastructure questions will still need to be answered. And cities will still have the option to annex nearby land, regardless of the county’s urban limit line. That could mean additional increases in East County’s population. “There are a number of amenities that have attracted people, and a number of them still exist,” comments Glover, “but if we continue to grow the way we have over the last decade, the face of East County will certainly change, and we need to keep that in mind.”
The shape of county districts could have a major impact on how the county approaches these ongoing growth issues. One scenario before the board would lump all of East County with District 4 — a possibility that Gerber says would weaken the demand for restraining growth. “My district has been the strongest voice for smart growth, as a district,” she says. “The next area as a strong voice is East County, because of the impacts of growth on East County. These are the two areas where most of the growth has taken place, and which are facing the most pressure from growth. If one of the scenarios is adopted that has me representing both of those areas, that means you’d have one district where all the growth is taking place — there’d only be one of us.”
And there’s another reason this option looks bad to Gerber: it would split up Walnut Creek, one of the bases of her support, taking much of it out of her district. The city itself wants to stay in one district; one of the guiding principles of the redistricting, after all, is to keep cities and “communities of interest” together in order to allow them united voting power and voice on the board. Walnut Creek and the rest of the San Ramon valley certainly constitutes a community of interest, Gerber argues; “They sit right at the base of Mt. Diablo, so they have an appreciation of open space, and they’re also at the 24-680 interchange, so they’re sensitive to traffic impacts. They’ve been on the forefront of very intelligent development — a development model that is the opposite of sprawl, around BART stations.”
But Gerber, whose resolute position on growth has sometimes been a thorn in the side of other board members, hasn’t been able to convince her fellow supervisors to rule out options that would split up her base. Other supervisors insist there’s no way to make everyone happy, and the League of Women Voters of Diablo Valley pointed out in a letter to the board, “It is sometimes difficult to separate protection of incumbents from protection of ‘communities of interest’ when such communities provide a political base for an incumbent.” But on the other hand, scenarios that would split up other supervisors’ key cities have been dismissed out of hand. “There is no way that I, and my constituents, intend to sit still for having Walnut Creek split up,” Gerber told the other board members. “I have watched all of you bend over backward to achieve the goals of Supervisor Glover, and your own goals for your hometowns — and no one is asking Supervisor Mark DeSaulnier [of District 4] to split up Concord. The original goal was to not split up communities of interest, because that dilutes their ability to have some control over their own destiny. The direction this is going really disturbs me.”
One other community of interest that faced the threat of being split in two was the African-American community that spans the District 5 cities of Pittsburg and Bay Point. Black leaders have lobbied hard to keep that voting base united; Glover is the first African-American elected to the board, and community organizers would be loath to lose the concentration of minority voters in a single district that made that possible. “We have never in the past had anyone with the perspective of our community on the board when it comes to funding and services,” argues Darnell Turner, first vice president of the Pittsburg NAACP and president of the Black Families Association. “Our input was not there. We need to do everything we can to ensure that we’re not going to be disenfranchised, that our political power is not going to be diluted.” Turner points out that the county was recently sued for discrimination in contracting practices; a minority perspective is needed to address those issues, he says. African-American pastor Bishop Curtis A. Timmons of Antioch also argues that “it’s crucial to our community that District 5 continues to serve the Pittsburg and Bay Point areas”; he points out that Pittsburg is the only area in the county not presently served by the county’s low-cost/no-cost child care, and losing an African-American voice on the board, he believes, could make the situation worse.
So far, these arguments seem to have worked well; no proposal that would split Pittsburg and Bay Point has made it to the final round. Supervisor John Gioia, who represents the heavily minority city of Richmond, has been a strong advocate for keeping an African-American voting block. “If we split Bay Point and Pittsburg,” he says, “we lose one of the two opportunities to allow communities of diversity to be represented.” But the commitment to keeping minority voting blocks intact may end there — Latino groups have argued that the far-east-county city of Brentwood should also stay in District 5 to keep a concentration of Latino votes in one district, but so far the supervisors have hardly touched on that issue, and nearly all the remaining proposals would indeed siphon Brentwood off into another district. Why the discrepancy? As Gioia admitted at one point during discussions, “The fact of the matter is, this has political ramifications, and we all know it.” Latino supervisorial candidate Mary Rocha lost to Glover last fall — and, as district reshaping is finalized by the end of this month, she or other Latino candidates may have an even tougher time at the polls in the future.