As in most voting rights cases, the trial was contentious, divisive and exposed the underbelly of an ugly, racially tinged politics in the village. The district court found that in 10 trustee contests between 2001-05, the choice of the Hispanic community was defeated nine times. In fact, prior to the election of June 2010, only one Hispanic had been nominated to run for the position of village trustee by any political party in the history of Port Chester. The court found that during the 2007 mayoral election, a blatant racial appeal was made in an anonymous flier — subsequently learned to have been authored by Bart Didden, now a trustee and Republican candidate for mayor — distributed to more than 1,000 homes in the village.
In the flier, former trustee and current Mayor Dennis Pilla was called a sellout because of his apparent support of issues of concern to the Hispanic community. In fact, the flier charged that "The Hispanics are running the show already." The court found that the political process leading to nomination was essentially a closed club that allowed limited access to outsiders or upstart candidates. At the time of the trial, no Hispanic had ever been elected to any public office in the village. The court also considered a videotape of two public hearings regarding a proposal by the Justice Department to establish districts. At one public hearing, attorney Aldo Vitigliano, who was later appointed to serve as special counsel to the newly formed Voting Rights Commission in the village, suggested that the village's congressional delegation should introduce legislation to exempt the village from the Voting Rights Act.
After 11 days of trial on both the liability and remedy phases, the court issued its opinion declaring that the at-large system violated the Voting Rights Act. The suit was filed by the Justice Department; Port Chester resident Cesar Ruiz, the first Hispanic to run for trustee, was permitted by the court to intervene as a plaintiff. Both sides presented plans to remedy the violation found. The plaintiffs offered a traditional district plan, wherein the village would be divided into separate districts with each district electing one candidate. The village proposed a cumulative voting remedy, wherein the elections would be held on an at-large basis. Under the cumulative voting method, each voter could cast all their votes for one candidate or spread the votes among the candidates. After the court approved the cumulative voting system, all parties worked to create an educational program to explain the new system to the voters. Education forums were to be held throughout the village in English and Spanish where the voters would have an opportunity to use sample ballots.
On June 15, the first election under the cumulative voting method was held. As a result of the election, a Hispanic, an African-American and an independent candidate were elected to the board. Throughout the day, the attorneys, and village officials, toured the village to observe the process, and whatever problems were found, were quickly addressed. An exit poll conducted during the election found that the voters understood the process and used their votes to support the candidates of their choice. The board that was elected reflected the political, racial and ethnic diversity of the village.
It is unfortunate that despite the outcome, there has been support among the trustees elected under the cumulative-voting system to have the judge's decision overturned. It had been hoped that a new day was dawning in the village, that perhaps the tensions that had come to the surface during the trial had abated after the June election. However, with the pending resolution those hopes may soon be dashed. Rather than focus on the serious issues facing the village in these challenging economic times, some may prefer to refight battles lost. Nevertheless, the quest of the Hispanic community for inclusion in the politics of the village will continue unabated, and, eventually, their voices will be heard and they will win.
Randolph M. McLaughlin
The author is a professor of law at Pace University School of Law
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