Some giants are never fully recognized for their greatness during their lives. Joaquin Avila, an influential voting rights lawyer who died from cancer complications at 69 last week, was such a giant.
Avila's work broke down barriers that were keeping Latinos and others away from ballot boxes across California and Texas. Born and raised in Compton by parents who were Mexican immigrants, he went on to attend some of the nation's most prestigious universities, but never lost his working-class humility and his will to help others.
Gifted with a stunning intellect, Avila attended Yale and then Harvard Law School. Then, instead of setting up a lucrative practice in the private sector, he took his skills back to the streets. He saw a lack of political participation and representation as a critical impediment blocking Latinos from achieving the American dream.
Avila didn’t buy the notion that Latinos didn’t vote in large numbers because they were “lazy.” His legal training helped him identify voting systems that concentrated political power and access in well-heeled communities.
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Avila saw problems primarily with “at-large” elections, in which candidates with the most money and influence usually won. In at-large elections, it didn’t matter if candidates running for city councils, boards of supervisors or school boards all lived in the same neighborhood of a community. To the most connected went the spoils and the wins at the ballot box.
Sacramento used to have at-large elections, and there was a time when the city council was packed with representatives from Land Park or East Sacramento. What did that mean? The interests of Land Park and East Sacramento were always represented. Poor neighborhoods? Not so much.
Sacramento switched to district elections in the early 1970s, in which each council member represented one district of neighborhoods in the city. But hundreds of cities in California and Texas, where Avila performed his life’s work from the early '70s until last week, had to be forced into switching to district elections. That created more opportunities to connect disenfranchised voters with a representative who lived near where they lived.
“Many of us are in office today because of (Avila’s) landmark cases,” said Luis Alejo, a former mayor of Watsonville and a former state Assemblyman who is now on the Monterey County Board of Supervisors.
Avila argued two cases before the U.S. Supreme Court and won twice. The cases forced Monterey County communities to switch to district elections. Why? By the late 1980s, half the citizens of Watsonville were Latino and yet the city had never elected a Latino representative. It was the same on local school boards. In the Salinas Valley Memorial Health Care system, almost all the representatives lived in one neighborhood. According to the Santa Cruz Sentinel, eight Latinos sought positions on the Watsonville City Council between 1971 and 1985 — and all finished at the bottom of the ballot each time.
Avila sued and Watsonville fought back. The case got national attention at the time. Avila won. Said U.S District Court Judge Dorothy Nelson in 1988: “Low voter registration and turnout levels are indicative of lingering effects of past discrimination. Discrimination against Hispanics in California and the Southwest has pervaded nearly all aspects of public and private life."
Avila’s win paved the way for the first Latinos on the Watsonville City Council and succession of Latino mayors, including Alejo.
It was the same in Los Angeles, where — despite a massive Latino population — there had never been a single Latino on the powerful Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors until the early 1990s. It was during this time, as a stalwart with the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund, that Avila fundamentally changed politics in California.
He sued Los Angeles County and won, forcing the county to redraw gerrymandered voting districts. Despite the fact that board of supervisors had never had a Latino member in a county with the largest Latino population in the nation, L.A. had refused to acknowledge a history of gerrymandering districts that diminished Latino voting power.
"Power isn't just handed over," Avila once said. "You have to take it."
In 1991, Los Angeles County agreed to pay $6.3 million in an out-of-court settlement. But even more importantly, after district elections were instituted, Gloria Molina was elected to the L.A. County Board of Supervisors that same year. Today, if you look at a picture of the L.A. Board of Supervisors, the board is as diverse as Los Angeles itself.
“Over the last generation, Joaquin has had more impact on voting rights in California than anyone else,” said Morgan Kousser, a professor of history and social science at the California Institute of Technology.
In 1996, Avila was awarded a “genius grant” by the MacArthur Foundation, which said of him: “Avila has devoted his career to a vision of voting rights advocacy that is premised on the conviction that government functions best if it is reflective and representative of the range of its constituents."
In his legal battles, Avila often was accused of being a carpetbagger, or a judgment chaser. His opponents claimed his work showed disdain for American institutions. In truth, it was the opposite. Avila loved America so much he dedicated his life to laying the legal groundwork for great participation in American democracy.
Avila was quiet by nature. He was not small in stature, but he was not a large man physically or by personality. He had a salt-and-pepper beard that gave him the appearance of rumpled college professor. His eyes always had a tinge of sadness to them. When he went to court, he often was underestimated by many powerful interests.
Before his health began to deteriorate — he suffered a stroke in 2010 — Avila was the principal architect of the California Voting Rights Act. Essentially, the act makes it easier for plaintiffs to prove racially polarized voting.
Civil rights lawyers are now using the CVRA to continue Avila’s work in suing cities and counties to switch to district elections. Earlier this month, Sacramento Bee reporter Ellen Garrison wrote that Elk Grove may be facing a legal challenge because it elects its council members through at-large elections. Woodland voluntarily switched to district elections in 2014 and by 2016, a majority of its city council members were Latinos.
“There is a new group of Latino elected officials who owe a debt of gratitude to Joaquin’s work,” said Luis Cespedes, a Sacramento attorney.
Some have argued that district elections have done relatively little to increase the number of Latino elected officials in California. But Kousser said it is too early to judge. He said it only has been since 2007, that CVRA has been utilized by civil rights lawyers. Avila had to work for 30 years, spending countless hours compiling cases and losing many of them, before CVRA made it state law that at-large elections could be struck down if plaintiffs proved voters were disenfranchised.
“CVRA simplified winning voting-rights cases,” Kousser said. “In federal law, there are great many factors you need to prove before filing a voter rights case. With CVRA, you only need to show racially polarized voting and that minority candidates usually lose.” If CVRA is challenged, the cities and counties that lose pay big judgments.
Since 2007, school boards across California have seen a significant number of Latinos elected, Kousser said. Those school board members are likely to become future city council members, mayors, state legislators or more.
“Joaquin worked to integrate Latinos into the power structure and to give Latino voters a sense that government was responsive to them,” Kousser said. “We’ve already seen the effects of his work, and in 10 more years, we will see even more effects.”
Hopefully in 10 years, 50 years or 100 years, a more diverse electorate, and healthier communities represented by officials responsive to their needs, will remember the quiet, unassuming lawyer who dedicated his life to making democracy live up to its ideals of inclusion. Avila was a warrior in the best sense of the word. Rest in peace.