Sitting in the almost deserted administrative offices of the Petaluma Health Center one Monday morning, Pedro Toledo enjoyed a rare moment of calm in a busy life that revolves around his family, work, and public service.
Toledo, the son of a farm laborer, has long advocated Latin American causes and granted marginalized groups access to institutions of power. At 42, he is an influential player in Sonoma County’s political circles who is often sought for advice or assistance.
Now he is bringing his life’s work to a much larger stage. Toledo is one of 14 Californians – only four of whom are Latinos – appointed to the powerful Citizens Redistricting Commission, which meets every ten years to re-define the boundaries for local, state, and federal office based on population and other factors draw, including fair representation for underrepresented groups.
It’s a job most Californians have never heard of, and yet it affects how and where they vote, who represents them in public office, and whether their interests are ultimately represented in town halls, county boardrooms, and convention halls .
If the past is a guide, the work of the commission is likely to spark hearings, lawsuits and other investigations. Controversy is already revolving around the pandemic-induced delay in submitting critical census data to the group, which could mean that the district boundaries won’t be finalized until well into the medium-term election cycle in 2022.
California also appears poised to lose a seat in the US House of Representatives for the first time in history, shrinking the state delegation to 52 representatives.
“Comfortable with Conflicts”
In the administrative offices of the health center on North McDowell Avenue, Toledo seemed unimpressed by the glowing gaze of public scrutiny. Toledo is no stranger to politics and has four university degrees, including a law degree from Stanford University.
“I’m comfortable with conflict,” he said with a chuckle.
Toledo is the primary administrative officer of the health center, and that morning he was just moving back to the corner office he had to leave during the pandemic.
Numerous awards for public service were displayed in a cabinet. The walls have been adorned with paintings by Mexico-born artist and immigration activist Maria de Los Angeles, who grew up in Santa Rosa. When Toledo was president of Sonoma County’s Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, the agency made a grant to de Los Angeles, which now costs thousands of dollars to work.
Toledo has dedicated its life to uplifting the Latino community. He said his late father, who came to the United States as part of the Bracero fieldwork program, preached the importance of public service. Toledo’s work at the health center, on the redistribution commission, and for numerous other civic purposes reflects these values.
While Toledo is quick to point out that the role of commissioners is to represent all Californians regardless of race, political affiliation, or position in life, he recognizes the unique opportunity to involve Latinos in a process that is most likely alien or irrelevant in their lives is.
“Only when they are reflected in the commissioners will they believe that their voice, their needs and the unique characteristics of their community matter and that they have the power, through their active participation, to help steer some of the restructuring outcomes,” said Toledo.
California’s county boundaries are drawn by an independent commission, not by lawmakers. This process is intended to curb political wandering and the unfair advantage for the incumbent operators. But leaving the hard work to the citizens is not without controversy, not even about the composition of the board.
In addition to four Latinos, four Asian Americans, three whites and three blacks belong to the commission. This did not satisfy some critics, who said the commission did not fit the demographic makeup of California and was specifically underrepresented. The largest ethnic group in the state makes up 39% of the population but only 29% of the commission.
The commission must comply with federal electoral laws that generally prohibit discrimination in any election practice. The law has been successfully applied in cases filed against the redistribution of plans in the Los Angeles and Kern counties, according to the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials.