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Meet the Malibu lawyer who is upending power and politics in the Morongo Valley

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The California Journal 
March 14, 2017
By Robin Abcarian

Meet the Malibu lawyer who is upending California’s political system, one town at a time

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Kevin Shenkman, who is tall and bookish, does not look like the aspiring light heavyweight boxer he once was.

Clearly, though, he still relishes a good fight.

For the past several years, Shenkman, 38, who lives and practices law in Malibu, has been suing, or threatening to sue, cities all over Southern California, demanding they change the way they elect members of their city councils in order to increase the numbers of African-American and Latino representatives.

Many have agreed to do so, though some have resisted before capitulating.

Shenkman’s legal cudgel is the California Voter Rights Act, which for 15 years has made it easier for minority groups to prove that they are disenfranchised by at-large elections, where all voters of a city vote for all members of a city council.

Many believe this practice has institutionalized racial discrimination, allowing blocs of white voters to overwhelm the choices of blacks and Latinos. Until Shenkman sued Palmdale, for instance, where about two-thirds of residents are minorities, only one Latino, a Republican, had ever been elected to office.

“Obviously, the leadership did not represent the people they served,” said Darren Parker, who serves as chairman of the California Democratic Party’s African-American Caucus. “I’ve lived in the Antelope Valley for over 30 years, and had been trying to obtain some sort of equity or diversity in the leadership.”

In 2012, Parker decided the only way to change things was to sue the city for violating the California Voter Rights Act. He did some research and found a story about a young attorney who had sued Panda Express for failing to disclose that it put chicken broth in its steamed vegetables. Something about that appealed to Parker, who had once worked for McDonald’s, so he phoned Shenkman.

“When he called, I told Darren I had no idea what he was talking about, but I thought, ‘I’m a Democrat, and this sounds important, I’ll look into it,’” Shenkman told me. He asked his law partner, Mary Hughes, who happens to be his wife, what she thought. “She said, ‘You are crazy.’ I said, ‘Yeah, let’s do this.’ ”

He contacted three voting-rights experts — constitutional law professor Justin Levitt of Loyola Law school, Cal Tech history professor Morgan Kousser and demographer David Ely — who helped him figure out how to approach the case, and then brought in two experienced trial lawyers, R. Rex Parris (who happens to be the mayor of Lancaster) and Milton Grimes, perhaps best-known as the late Rodney King’s attorney.

Shenkman expected the Palmdale case to resolve quickly, but the city fought back. In 2013, the case went to trial. Palmdale lost. A judge ordered new, by-district elections.

In November, Palmdale elected its first Democratic Latino City Councilman, Juan Carillo, from a new district on the city’s east side, “one of our first success stories,” as Parker told me.

“I think Kevin was heaven-sent,” Parker said. “He is dedicated to serving others in spite of himself sometimes. I think he is so zealous that he forgets to eat and sleep.”

As the Voting Rights Act requires, Palmdale had to reimburse Shenkman’s legal costs, which were about $4.6 million.

Even if other cities didn’t see the benefit in switching to district elections for the right reasons, it soon became clear that moving to district elections was a sure way to avoid sky-high legal fees. Because they were probably going to lose.

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Shenkman first came to my attention last week because he was the subject of a meandering profile on the Breitbart website, “the platform for the alt-right,” as its former executive chairman Steve Bannon so memorably described it. I like to read Breitbart to keep an eye on how the far right filters the news.

I got a chuckle out of the original headline, which has since been changed: “Meet the Malibu Lawyer Playing the Race Card — and Making Millions — All Over California.”

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With loaded language like that, imagine my surprise when the first paragraph praised Shenkman as “one of the most prolific and successful civil rights lawyers of his generation.”

Of course, this being Breitbart, there was also a line about how some consider Shenkman “a villain, a do-gooder from Malibu who is creating racial divisions where they do not exist.”

Shenkman, a father of four girls, said he didn’t mind the story but was taken aback by some of the anti-Semitic comments from Breitbart readers. “I’m Jewish,” he said, “and there were a number of comments like, ‘Look at his last name, that explains it all.’”

When it comes to civil rights activists, this kind of garbage goes with the territory.

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After he won in Palmdale, Shenkman was contacted by the Southwest Voter Registration Education Project, a Lincoln Heights-based group with a decades-long history in “the voting rights business,” as its president Antonio Gonzalez put it. He considers district elections “a paramount tool in the voting rights toolbox.”

“Palmdale created a new conventional wisdom for cities, which is, ‘We are not going to win, so let’s work it out,’” Gonzales said. “We just sent another 15 demand letters, so we are up to 25 jurisdictions.”

Before the year is out, he said, “We’re going to do 100.”

As my colleague Phil Willon reported last month, out of California’s 482 cities, only 59 hold district elections, and no city that holds at-large elections has ever prevailed in a California Voting Rights Act lawsuit.

Some critics have carped that the promised changes have not occurred, that despite all the letters and lawsuits, relatively few Latinos have been elected to traditionally white city councils.

“Listen, I’ve been doing this for 30 years,” Gonzalez said. “If you create a viable district, minority voters will elect their candidate. It takes several years to marshal forces.”

Last year, Shenkman sent demand letters to Hemet, Wildomar, Hesperia, Upland and Costa Mesa, among others. All adopted district elections for no later than 2018. Other cities that have recently made the switch include Oceanside, Carlsbad, Vista, Fremont and Anaheim.

He also filed lawsuits against San Juan Capistrano, West Covina, Rancho Cucamonga and Santa Monica. All but the liberal bastion of Santa Monica have either settled or are in the process of doing so. In court papers, Santa Monica city attorneys say that the city’s at-large system does not deprive minorities of representation and that two of seven City Council seats are occupied by “presumed Latinos.”

Santa Monica,” said Shenkman, “has vowed to fight to the death.” A trial in that case is scheduled for Oct. 30.

On Friday, I reached Juan Carillo, Palmdale’s first elected Democratic councilman. He represents District 4, in Palmdale’s heavily Latino east side.

“If it wasn’t because of the Voter Rights Act lawsuit,” he said, “I am sure we would still have all five council members, including the mayor, residing on the west side.”

Some of the things he’d like to bring to his constituents: free wi-fi for children whose parents can’t afford it, better parks, more commercial development and perhaps a nice restaurant or two.

Palmdale spent about $7 million defending its losing position. What a waste. Imagine how many kids could be getting better parks and free wi-fi with that kind of money.

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