The Crestone Eagle, June 2003:

Voting rights case heard in Federal Court; outcome could affect us

by David Nicholas

A lawsuit, which supported the premise that a County Commissioner being elected solely from the district he/she represents within the county went before a Federal Judge in mid-May.

The suit was brought by the US Department of Justice in 2001, when a number of Alamosa residents claimed that the present system for electing County Commissioners “illegally diluted the voting rights of Hispanics.” Under the present system in Alamosa, as well as in Saguache County, Commissioners are elected by a countywide vote. The system is mandated by state law and is used by many Colorado counties.

The Department of Justice, which oversees the Voting Rights Act of 1965, the law under which the case was brought, alleged that the voting rights of the county’s Hispanics are violated by the election system.

Testimony in the case was completed on Thursday, May 16, before US District Judge Marcia Krieger with witnesses testifying in favor of the existing arrangement.

Alamosa County residents, who opposed the current system, testified on Monday and Tuesday as Justice Department witnesses.

Witnesses included Al Kelly, who lost a primary bid for a BOCC seat in 1988, and Charles Griego, who lost to Charlotte Bobicki in the 1996 primary election. Art Ortiz, who once considered running, took the stand, along with: Arnold Salazar, husband of Marguerite Salazar; Alamosa County Democratic Party Chair Pete Gomez; Alamosa School Superintendent Henry Herrera; Lillian Gomez, wife of Pete Gomez; and former Alamosa city councilman Quentin Garcia.

Thursday’s witnesses were: Daisy Ortega, a small business owner; Anna May Rael-Lindsey, a community college administrator and former Democratic activist; Tony Cantu, a bank vice president; and Benjamin Duarte, state district court administrator. They testified that they do not believe Hispanics are discriminated against in the county. They also testified they oppose the Justice Department’s attempt to have an election district for commissioners in which there would be a majority of Hispanic voters.

“Hispanic candidates can stand on their own two feet” and win elections if they are the right candidates running at the right time, Duarte told the judge. He said he does not want a gerrymandered district for Hispanics because “it would be divisive.”

However, the sitting members on the Alamosa Board of County Commissioners and other officials spoke in support of keeping things as they are. They were Republican Frank Mestas, Democrat Bobicki and Republican Darius Allen, plus two former commissioners, Bob Zimmerman and Republican Tim Gallagher. Zimmerman was a Democrat who switched this year to the Republican Party. Mr. Mestas was elected in 2002, the first Hispanic elected since 1984. The lawsuit said 37.6 percent of the voting-age population of 10,898 is Hispanic.

Saguache County voting implications
The claims made by the opponents of the current electoral system have merit, particularly for Saguache County, because of the diverse and different groups residing in one of the largest counties in the state. However, Mr. Mestas’ election, as part of the Republican sweep at the polls last year, supports the position of those wanting to keep the electoral system as it is. A decision in the suit is expected in the near future.

Why does this matter to us? During the last two elections the preferred candidate for the County’s District 1, the Crestone/Baca area, despite receiving a majority vote here, was defeated by the countywide vote supporting another candidate who was not District 1’s candidate of choice. As it stands the candidate with a majority vote in District 1 loses.

If the decision rules in favor of the US Department of Justice, it could change the way candidates are elected throughout Colorado, and maybe, finally, each district can have true representation.