Woodland’s first district-based elections shook up the City Council on Tuesday night when two young, Latino candidates handily won districts representing the east side of town.
Enrique Fernandez won District 4 and Xóchitl Rodriguez won in District 5. It marks the first time in city history that a majority of Woodland’s five council members will be Latino in a city where Latinos constitute nearly half the population, as the two newcomers will join Mayor Pro Tem Angel Barajas.
Woodland switched to a system of electing council members by geographic district in 2014 to avoid a voting rights lawsuit as the City Council remained heavily white despite demographic changes in the city.
Three incumbents suddenly found themselves in the same district under a map drawn by a citizen commission, and two of them faced off Tuesday night. In that District 2 race, longtime local politician Tom Stallard defeated fellow incumbent and current Mayor Jim Hilliard with 65 percent of the vote.
The third incumbent, Sean Denny, moved to a rental apartment in District 4, drawing criticism that he was trying to represent an area in which he had not previously resided. He finished third in his race against Fernandez and Joe Romero Jr.
Woodland is in the midst of revitalizing its historic downtown, which is in District 2, and marketing itself as an agribusiness hub. The incumbents ran on continued economic growth, but Rodriguez and Fernandez focused more on community engagement, fiscal responsibility and connecting with youths.
Rodriguez, 33, grew up in Woodland and lives with her husband in District 5, where she won 54 percent of the vote over two other political newcomers, Brent Vann and James Vorhees. She’s a veteran who works in the state Legislature and serves in the Army Reserves. During her campaign, she pushed for more transparency in the budget-making process, increasing affordable housing and managing growth.
Rodriguez said connecting with District 5 voters through phone calls and door knocking was the most important part of her campaign. When she takes office, she said, her first priorities will be solving Woodland’s budget deficit and making sure the Spring Lake development area gets a shopping area as promised.
She will be the city’s first Latina council member. The switch to district-based elections opened up the opportunity for more minority members of the council, she said, and she’s excited by the idea of a Latino majority.
“We’re off to a good start,” she said. “There are a lot of resources at the local level we can make more available to the community.”
Mindy Romero, director of the California Civic Engagement Project at the UC Davis Center for Regional Change, said the new faces are exactly what district-based elections are intended to do. She said changing to districts often inspires voters because it gives the perception that they have more of a voice.
“It’s not just about symbolism,” Romero said. “It’s about sharing a common background ... there’s more of a chance that you will get where I come from and what our community needs.”
That doesn’t mean you can’t be a good representative if you’re not from the neighborhood, she said, but it removes the barrier of a candidate having different life experiences from voters.
Fernandez, 27, garnered 44 percent of the vote in his race against Romero and Denny. A Woodland native, he ran on developing neighborhood groups throughout Woodland, reducing impacts from the state’s shift of prisoners to the local level and protecting Woodland’s agricultural land. He was a member of the Woodland General Plan Update Committee and the Woodland Parks and Recreation Commission.
He said he held outreach events and canvassed neighborhoods in his district to rally support. Most of Woodland’s industrial area is located in his district and one of his priorities is getting high-speed internet into the industrial zone.
“Our campaign was 100 percent a community effort,” Fernandez said in an email Wednesday. “I intend on building upon that community effort because there’s a tremendous amount of work to do in our town and that work will require a collective, community effort.”