The year 2020 has been challenging and it has affected our lives in many ways. Candidates who are running for election have faced their own set of challenges. In Imperial Beach district based voting will take place for the first time. The city was split into districts and only two of them are up for council elections. In addition, COVID has changed the way candidates campaign.
Current Councilman Mark West is running again for his seat and is challenged by candidate John Fisher for District 2 and Matthew Leyba-Gonzalez and Will Nimmo are the candidates for District 4. Council seats for Districts 1 and 3 will be up for election in 2022. Councilmembers elected for their district both represent the district itself and the city in its entirety. The mayoral position will also continue to represent the entire city and voters from all district will vote for that seat.
The council adopted the ordinance for district based elections on Dec. 5, 2018. District based elections were the result of a letter to the city threatening a lawsuit based on the California Voting Rights Act of 2002 sent by Shenkman & Hughes received on Aug. 6, 2018. The letter claims that Latino votes are diluted in the city because of the “at large election” system used. The city was forced to switch to district based elections to avoid a lawsuit and spending a large amount of its funds to fight it. Many cities in California have faced the same issue and those who challenged it have not prevailed so far. A demographics company was hired by the city to draw the lines of the districts with the input of the community.
When Fisher first heard about district based elections he was not happy about it. “We are a small town and this was forced on us. Once I started campaigning I loved the idea. It gives the local residents representation in the city council,” he said.
He points out that most of the council lives by the beach area and that districting is positive because it’s going to give attention to the other neighborhoods. Fisher said during the campaign he has spent time in his neighborhood talking to people and finding out their concerns. “It’s really a positive change for the residents of Imperial Beach… residents can now go to a councilmember and expect results and get answers,” he said.
Because of COVID, Fisher has used online platforms like Zoom to let his message known. He has also done some campaigning door to door, wearing masks and maintain social distancing.
Councilmember West said that although the city adopted district based elections due to the threat of a lawsuit by an outside organization, he believes the community as a whole was represented but acknowledged that some areas may have been underrepresented because current council members live near the beach. “When you are running in that district you are representing that area and you’re more accountable for that region. We didn’t expect it but it is positive in the long term,” he said.
West said it came as a surprise to some voters not to see his name on the ballot because of the new districts. “It has taken some time to educate people as to what district they are in, but they’ll definitely figure it out once they get their ballot,” explained West.
West has definitely seen a difference between his last campaign and the current one because of COVID. “I can’t talk to people at their door because of the risk issue. I have resisted knocking on doors and have done more mailers which come at an expense… the phone bank will be the primary method of talking to people,” he said. West has dropped flyers at people’s doors. “It’s been a bummer. I’m touchy feely. I give persons a hug… those things mean a lot to me,” he said.
Leyba-Gonzalez’s district 4 is in the most southeast corner of the city. “Previously we didn’t have anyone from the district on the city council and we were underrepresented. Now someone from the area will be able to sit on the council and bring concerns. It’s immensely important,” he said.
Leyba-Gonzalez, who describes his district as working class and high density, is happy with the new districting rules. He feels he is able to relate to each and every person because he is part of the working class himself.
Because of COVID, Leyba-Gonzalez has not been able to speak to everyone he wanted to, but he has dropped off door hangers; if residents were out he talked to them. He also has done more campaigning via social media. Leyba-Gonzalez said the residents he spoke to were motivated to vote because now they have someone from their area running for council and representing them.
During his campaign, Nimmo found that residents he spoke to outside his district were disappointed they do not get to vote during this election. Nimmo is excited to be able to represent his district while at the same time making decisions for the entire city. “District elections are a good thing for the city,” he said. “I go to city events because it’s important for me to hear from everybody and for them to hear my opinion.”
Nimmo has walked the streets outside of his area and talked to people because as a councilmember his decisions will affect everyone, not just people in his district, he said.
Nimmo grew up in District 4 and still lives there. “I know the area like the back of my hand. I rode my bike, went all over, went to Oneonta. It’s cool to have district elections. It’s more convenient when you fundraise, you have a small area.”
COVID has somewhat affected his campaign. “I knock on almost every door and leave flyers and hope to have a conversation,” he said. Because of COVID he has not been able to fundraise and hold meet and greet events with residents but he feels positive.
“The city is in a good place, numbers are looking good, the vibe hasn’t died. You go down to the beach, people are in the water, surfing…life continues,” he said.