One third of cities in the region have all-white city councilsVallejo Times-Herald, by Leonardo Castaneda, Bay Area News Group
The Bay Area is one of the most diverse regions in the country, but you wouldn’t know that from looking at the region’s elected officials, according to a new study.
City council members, mayors, county supervisors and district attorneys in the nine-county Bay Area are mostly white and male, far beyond their share of the population, according to a newly released report on diversity in public office. About 40 percent of the region’s population is white, but 71 percent of elected officials are white. One-third of cities in the region have all-white city councils.
“Our elected officials largely do not reflect the diversity of the communities that they are serving,” said Sarah Treuhaft, a managing director at the Bay Area Equity Atlas, a project of the San Francisco Foundation, PolicyLink and USC.
Treuhaft is optimistic, noting that the percentage of elected officials of color has increased from 26 percent before the 2018 elections to 29 percent. The share of women also increased to 44 percent, up from 40 percent.
Regionally, Latinos make up 24 percent of the population but 10 percent of elected officials, the report found. Cities like Concord and South San Francisco are about a third Latino but don’t have any Latino elected officials.
Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders make up 26 percent of the population and 10 percent of elected officials. In Hercules, in Contra Costa County, nearly half the population is Asian American and Pacific Islander. The mayor is the only Asian American elected official.
Treuhaft said she was particularly surprised to see the lack of diversity in Santa Clara and San Mateo counties, both of which have long been majority-minority counties.
Black residents are the only racial group that has proportionate representation, making up 6 percent of the population and 6 percent of elected officials.
Having people of color in elected office, Treuhaft said, is a measure of a group’s power and an important step in addressing issues like structural and institutional racism that affect those residents.
“Representation is not everything, but it matters,” she said.
Keith Carson, a long-time black Alameda County supervisor whose district includes West Oakland, Berkeley and Piedmont, said residents struggling with issues like lack of access to education, healthcare or employment are more likely to turn to elected officials of color.
“(They say,) ‘We would like for you to be a champion on this,’ because they — probably rightfully so — believe there’s more identifying with their challenges,” he said.
Change is occurring in some communities. Before the 2018 elections, San Ramon — which is 46 percent Asian American and Pacific Islander and 43 percent white — had an all-white, all-male city council. That’s when Sabina Zafar, now the city’s vice mayor, was elected.
“Not having that representation was one of the things that bothered me,” Zafar said, noting that the council hadn’t had a female member in seven years. “Somebody has to step up and show the face of the community.”
Zafar said she was spurred to run by a reason many council members may find familiar — the sudden appearance in her neighborhood of a Walgreens in a location she thought could have been better used for smaller stores, maybe a coffee shop, that would work as a community meeting place.
For her, politics is something of a family legacy. In Pakistan, her father was a city council member and eventually a member of Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto’s cabinet. Meeting Pakistan’s famed female leader was inspirational, Zafar said. But any thoughts of entering politics faded into the background until she volunteered for the upstart campaign of U.S Rep. Eric Swalwell, a one-term Dublin council member who in 2012 defeated long-time incumbent Pete Stark.
“He kind of reminded me a lot of my father,” she said.
She applied to Emerge California, a program that trains women to run for office and whose alumnae include Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf, San Francisco Mayor London Breed and San Jose council member Magdalena Carrasco.
That training, she said, helped her deal with comments like people telling her it wasn’t her turn to run for office.
“I get to decide when it’s my turn and when I’m ready,” she said.
After an unsuccessful attempt in 2016, Zafar was elected two years later. Following a lawsuit, the city recently switched to district elections.
District elections have been credited with helping increase diversity in other cities, including Fremont, which expanded its council from five to seven seats. The city now has four Asian American and Pacific Islander representatives, double the number before district elections. In Santa Clara, the city’s only current non-white council member — Raj Chahal — was elected after a switch to district elections. Next week, Measure C, put on the ballot by the council, will ask voters to decrease the city’s districts from six to three, each with two council members — a change Chahal opposes.
Meanwhile, Zahal said she’s been working to make her city more inclusive. She said that aside from some disagreements on issues like district elections, her fellow council members have been welcoming and aware of the need for broader representation on the council.
“When I took the oath, the room was very different. It was the first time a lot of people had come out to the city hall,” she said. “I think people noticed. Certainly the other council members noticed.”