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Herhold: Redistricting exposes the fault lines of elitism in San Jose

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A couple weeks ago, I attended a meeting of San Jose's redistricting commission at the Willow Glen Community Center, a converted school on Lincoln Avenue. It didn't promise to be a barnburner. At its previous meeting, on the East Side, the commission drew only about 20 people.

I knew how wrong I was when I saw the line snaking down the hall. This was fire marshal time: At least 300 people were crammed into a smallish auditorium to deal with the esoteric issue of where their council district lines should be drawn.

I took a seat on the floor not far from the microphone, where speaker after speaker -- a rabbi, a pioneer descendant, a teacher -- urged the 10 commissioners not to tamper with District 6, now represented by Councilman Pierluigi Oliverio.

"I don't think you need to do anything to Willow Glen," said one resident, Bill Dok. "We have a history and a heritage. Don't mess with it."

San Jose is engaged in its once-a-decade redrawing of the political map. And a commission largely composed of insiders -- it includes two lobbyists, two ex-council members and an aide to a supervisor -- is expected to make its recommendations to the council this week. While the commission is not expected to propose dramatic changes, its hearings have spurred unusually heated controversy on the boundary between District 6 and Cambrian District 9.

Through the years, the city's population has grown in uneven ways, like weight on a 50-year-old man with an undisciplined diet. With 10 districts in a city of nearly a million, each should have about 100,000 people. But West Side District 1 has only 88,645. At the other extreme, Berryessa District 4 has 102,999.

The commission needs to perform discreet liposuction. It has to find neighborhoods to add to smaller districts and neighborhoods to subtract from the bigger ones.

But tinkering around the edges unnerves people, particularly in Willow Glen, which was its own city at the dawn of the last Depression.

One suggestion would move the southern boundaries of District 6 as far north as Dry Creek Road or Curtner Avenue, which would mean that traditional anchors of Willow Glen like St. Christopher School or Presentation High would end up in District 9.

Property values

And though a boundary adjustment would do nothing to change school districts or ZIP codes or the real-estate agents' expansive definition of Willow Glen, the people at the meeting were worried about their property values.

"It sounded like we were proposing putting the whole neighborhood on a big truck and moving to a different planet. And we're not," Commissioner Dave Fadness said.

The identification with a district reflects a good thing: When district elections arrived three decades ago, the idea was to enable neighborhood activists to run for council on affordable and identifiable turf.

For better or for worse, the council districts have emerged as mini-fiefdoms in San Jose. If a land-use dispute breaks out in your council district, the council member will probably be the arbiter. The others defer because they want to protect their own authority in similar battles.

Elitism exposed

Where the line is drawn makes relatively little difference to neighborhoods. As commission Chairman Rich De La Rosa said, you could draw a line down the middle of Lincoln Avenue and people on both sides would still live in Willow Glen.

The boundary debates, however, expose the fault lines of elitism. Willow Glen is considered desirable; Cambrian, not so much. Evergreen District 8 is enviable. But not so Madison Nguyen's District 7.

The commission is debating just how much change it should embrace. Some members, like Fadness, believe that it's possible to get the districts within 5 percent of each other. Others, like Willow Glen's Chris Schumb, have suggested the differences could go as large as 17.5 percent.

The strange thing about all this is a majority of San Jose residents would probably be hard-pressed to name their council member, or the number of their district.

"People can be passionate about where they live," says Fadness. "In our neighborhood, we have a real identity. But if I ask my neighbors who their council member is, they couldn't really be sure."

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