Petaluma’s Pedro Toledo is one of 14 Californians who decide the state’s voting districts
Sitting in the nearly deserted administration offices at Petaluma Health Center on a Monday morning, Pedro Toledo enjoyed a rare moment of quiet in a busy life that revolves around his family, work and public service.
The son of a farmworker, Toledo has long championed Latino causes and giving marginalized groups access to institutions of power. At 42, he’s an influential player in Sonoma County’s political circles, often sought out for his counsel or support.
Now, he’s bringing his life’s work to a much grander stage. Toledo is one of 14 Californians — only four of whom are Latino — appointed to the powerful Citizens Redistricting Commission, which reconvenes every decade to redraw boundary lines for local, state and federal offices based on population and other factors, including fair representation for underrepresented groups.
It’s a job most Californians have never heard of and yet one that influences how and where they vote, who represents them in public office and, ultimately, whether their interests are served in town halls, county boardrooms and the halls of Congress.
If the past is a guide, the commission’s work is likely to spark hearings, lawsuits and other investigations. Already, controversy swirls around the pandemic-related delay in getting critical census data to the group, which could mean district lines won’t be finalized until well into the midterm election cycle in 2022.
California also appears set to lose one seat in the U.S. House of Representatives for the first time in history, shrinking the state’s delegation to 52 representatives.
‘Comfortable with conflict’
At the administration offices of the health center on North McDowell Avenue, Toledo appeared unfazed by the white-hot glare of public scrutiny. No stranger to rough-and-tumble politics, Toledo also is armed with four university degrees, including in law from Stanford University.
“I’m comfortable with conflict,” he said with a chuckle.
Toledo is the health center’s chief administrative officer, and on this morning he was in the process of moving back into the corner office he had to vacate during the pandemic.
Numerous awards for public service were displayed in a cabinet. The walls were adorned with paintings by Mexican-born artist and immigration activist Maria de Los Angeles, who grew up in Santa Rosa. When Toledo was president of the Sonoma County Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, the agency awarded a scholarship to de Los Angeles, whose work now commands thousands of dollars.
Toledo has devoted his life to uplifting the Latino community. He said his late father, who came to the United States on the Bracero program for labor in the fields, preached the importance of public service. Toledo’s work at the health center, on the redistricting commission and for numerous other civic-minded causes reflects those values.
While Toledo is quick to point out the role of commissioners is to represent all Californians regardless of race, political affiliation or station in life, he acknowledges the unique opportunity he has to engage Latinos in a process most probably find foreign or irrelevant in their lives.
“Only by seeing themselves reflected in the commissioners will they believe that their voice, their needs and their community’s unique characteristics matter, and that they have the power to help guide some of the redistricting outcomes through their active participation,” Toledo said.
California’s district lines are drawn by an independent commission rather than the state legislature, a process intended to staunch political gerrymandering and unfair advantage for incumbents. But leaving the hard work to citizens isn’t without controversy, including over the board’s composition.
In addition to four Latinos, the commission includes four Asian Americans, three white people and three Black people. That has not satisfied some critics, who said the commission failed to match California’s demographic makeup and specifically underrepresented Latinos. The state’s largest ethnic group accounts for 39% of the population but just 29% of the commission.
The commission must comply with federal voting laws, which generally prohibit discrimination in any voting practice. The law was used successfully in cases brought against redistricting plans in Los Angeles and Kern counties, according to the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials.