Kevin Shenkman is a Malibu-based, Tesla-driving father of four young girls, a kid from Michigan who moved out to Southern California, “as quickly as I could.”
He’s a liberal who speaks with a tinge of shame in his voice when he reveals a law firm he previously worked at represented George W. Bush.
But he’s perhaps best known as a controversial lawyer who is almost single-handedly forcing changes to municipal elections across California.
Shenkman has sent letters to dozens of jurisdictions – most recently Temecula and Murrieta – alleging they are in violation of the California Voting Rights Act by electing their representatives at-large.
The CVRA, signed into law in 2001, supplements the federal Voting Rights Act of 1965 and is designed to protect minorities from having their interests overridden by the white majority.
Under the federal VRA, election systems that serve to prevent minority candidates from being elected are prohibited. But the bar is much lower under the California law – plaintiffs suing under the CVRA must only prove election systems are diluting minority influence, however small that influence may be.
Shenkman says the city council election systems in Temecula and Murrieta are doing just that.
In both towns, along with many other small California cities, city councilmembers are elected at-large by voters in the entire jurisdiction. This means every councilmember answers to every voting-age citizen. It also means that minority votes are being shut out for every single council seat, Shenkman says.
Shenkman has threatened to sue the cities of Temecula and Murrieta unless they move their five-member city councils to district elections – the only way for cities to avoid a lawsuit under the CVRA, though there is still room for a suit if it can be proven their district boundaries “divide and conquer” minority groups.
Both city councils have moved forward with the districting process, approving a resolution to move to districts and holding a series of public hearings before making a final decision. There’s much to lose if they put up a fight, as cities are required to the legal fees of the plaintiffs in a CVRA suit, in addition to their own legal costs.
A cause is found
Shenkman has a degree from Rice University in mechanical engineering, of all things.
“I don’t know why,” he says.
After earning a law degree from Columbia University, he found himself in patent litigation, mostly because his engineering degree happens to be necessary in this field. But he’s glad he got out of there.
“You can quote me on it, that’s some really boring (stuff).”
It was partly by happenstance that he found himself suing cities over voting rights laws.
Once upon a time, Shenkman was involved with a push to form a separate Malibu school district out of what is currently the Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School District – California’s only non-contiguous school district.
This was how he heard of the CVRA for the very first time.
“It was just a very vague discussion at a presentation about the school district,” he says.
It was brought up in relation to the Santa Monica-Malibu school district because historically, most district elected officials have been from Santa Monica, leaving wealthier but smaller Malibu out of the loop.
However, the law only applies in cases where there’s a traditional racial or ethnic minority involved; Malibu and Santa Monica are both mostly white, and the geographic minority of Malibu residents in the school district don’t count as something to start a lawsuit over.
So Shenkman forgot about the law. Then, close to two years later, he says he got a call out of the blue from Darren Parker, the African-American caucus chair for the California Democratic party. Parker, Shenkman says, asked him to sue the city of Palmdale for violating the CVRA.
“I still to this day have no idea how he came to find us,” Shenkman says.
By this time, he had started his own private practice with his wife, and had more freedom to pursue the cases that he was interested in.
And that’s where it all started. Shenkman filed the case in early 2012. After nearly three years, the city settled for around $4 million.
Since then, he’s sent letters to, by his estimation, 25 to 30 cities across California, getting most them to change their election laws before it was ever necessary to file a suit.
“I think we’ll do it until there are no more violations of this law,” Shenkman says. “And I don’t know how long that will take.”
Shenkman says that his experience growing up in the Detroit suburbs drew him to civil rights work.
And it’s what drew him to the Palmdale case. It seemed to him there was a clear disparity in the standards of living across different areas of the city.
“They looked like a reunion photo of the California Highway Patrol.”
Local city resists
There has been resistance to the idea of acquiescing to Shenkman’s demands in, especially in Murrieta.
Though the council there approved a resolution May 8 to study districts, the city attorney’s office was also directed at the June 6 council meeting to contact other cities’ legal teams to gather information regarding defensibility.
“I think it is in our benefit to reach out to the cities that surround us, to reach out to the people who want to stand up and fight this, and that we need to take a stern look at how we can accomplish that,” said Murrieta Mayor Pro-Tem Jonathan Ingram.
One of the cities contacted was Huntington Beach, which has made obvious its desire to fight Shenkman in court. However, Huntington Beach’s city charter expressly requires its council to be elected at-large, and any change must go to the voters. Murrieta lacks a charter, and so does not have the same legal defenses as Huntington Beach.
Murrieta continues to study districts ahead of an August deadline to impose them, any later than which they will leave themselves open to a suit.
“If somebody wants to drop $5 million in our legal coffers to do that, then we’d be more than happy to use it,” Murrieta councilman Kelly Seyarto said June 6. “But I don’t know if that’s going to happen.”
Even so, it’s clear what direction the city’s most vocal residents want the council to take.
“Don’t run from this fight,” said Murrieta resident Guillermo Hermosillo said at the same meeting.
Setting sights on Murrieta
Should the city decide to fight, Shenkman will be more than happy to oblige.
“If there’s a city that we have to go to court over, I would really like it to be Murrieta,” Shenkman says. “One, because of the stark racially polarized voting in Murrieta. And two, because Murrieta is a racist, racist place.”
Shenkman cites the 2014 Border Patrol incident, when protesters in the city forced busloads of women and children immigrants to turn back, as an example of this racism. And he says councilman Alan Long, mayor at the time of the 2014 incident, was an instigator of the protests.
“You had a couple buses with some women and children, who – politics aside, these are kids who made an incredibly dangerous trip from Central America at the risk of being attacked, raped, killed, along the way, all to get to a place that they thought was safe,” he says. “To see the, at the time, mayor and current councilmember publicize where the buses are going to be, knowing that the group in Murrieta was going to assault those buses and attack those kids on those buses, that was just horrible.”
This is a characterization Long disagrees with.
“Never did I encourage anyone to turn around buses,” Long said. “The press conference that we had was to dispel the rumors and the phone calls and the emails that we were getting, of people who already knew about buses coming here before the council.”
Many in Murrieta also contest the allegations of racially polarized voting, saying there is little of this to be found in the town, and that their neighborhoods can be quite diverse. Indeed, data presented during Murrieta’s June 20 council meeting suggests that few, if any, neighborhoods deviate significantly from the city’s average racial makeup.
In both Temecula and Murrieta, non-Hispanic whites make up around 70 percent of the population, according to census data.
“(Minorities) are scattered throughout our city, which is really the model for everyone to follow, by the way,” Long said.
“That has nothing to do with racially polarized voting,” Shenkman says in response to this argument. “I’m not saying that there’s de jure segregation or you know, housing discrimination. There might be, there might not be. But what we’re saying is that the Latino community votes one way and the non-Hispanic white community votes the polar opposite.”
The result of this, he says, is that whites get their way with 100 percent of the council, and there’s nothing Latinos or any other minority group can do about it.
“And frankly, we only need to show that it happens most of the time,” he says. “And I don’t think it should come as a surprise to people in Murrieta that the non-Hispanic white community and the Latino community are politically very different.”
Some, though, argue that districting will only make the situation worse for minorities, as at least in Murrieta’s case, there is no way to create a district with a majority-minority population. The highest percentage of Latinos in any one of the districts currently proposed is just 28 percent, only a bit higher than the 26 percent of residents of the entire city who are Latino.
“The likelihood of them electing a councilmember if they can vote for just one, even at 28 percent, is far less than at 26 percent voting for five,” Long said.
Shenkman has also been criticized by some Murrietans because they say even as he targets their city, he is ignoring his own backyard – Shenkman’s home city of Malibu, too, elects its city council at large, and yet has attracted little of his attention.
But Shenkman says Malibu, which, according to census data, has a 91 percent white majority and a Hispanic population of less than 6 percent, would not be “the greatest CVRA case in the world.”
Murrieta and Temecula have Hispanic populations close to four times that of Malibu.
“I have, however, advocated for Malibu to move to district elections for reasons that have nothing to do with race,” Shenkman says. “I actually do think it would be good for the city of Malibu to do so. And I believe there is at least some support for that on the city council, and I hope they do take that up at some point in the near future.”
“It’s about the green”
Shenkman’s critics say he’s only in the CVRA game for the money. The settlement in the Palmdale case was, after all, over $4 million.
“When they started getting bad court rulings and lost a trial, the line was: ‘It’s not about white, black or brown, it’s about the green,’” he says.
This simply isn’t true, Shenkman says, though, admitted to posting a picture of the Palmdale check to Facebook with the caption: “Picture me rollin’, bitches.”
But most of the money wasn’t actually his; several other law firms joined the Palmdale case at times, meaning much of the award went elsewhere, he says. And regardless, he the larger point of the picture was not the income he personally received from the case.
“It was probably juvenile, because I’m not very mature, but aside from that, I think it’s important that cities understand what the consequences of fighting against the voting rights of the minority constituents are,” Shenkman says. “If that was not communicated effectively to city councilmembers, then we would probably have a lot more cities fighting and making the same mistakes as Palmdale and expecting taxpayer dollars to protect their own seats. So was my choice of words all that tactful? Probably not. But that’s the purpose behind it.”
For those still concerned about Shenkman’s income, he says: “Change the elections. I won’t make that much money.”
In January, an amendment to the CVRA went into effect establishing some steps before a lawsuit can take place and stipulating that plaintiffs are entitled to no more than $30,000 if a city changes its elections in a timely fashion.
“That generally does not even cover our costs, but it’s something,” Shenkman says. “And so, you know, we’ll take it.”
It’s something he thinks should be an easy choice.
“Compare that to $4.6 million. If I’m a city councilmember, that decision’s pretty simple.”
In some cases, he says he’s even lost money.
For example, he says the city of Buena Park changed to districts about a week before Shenkman was going to file a lawsuit.
“We had spent probably at least $80,000 or $90,000 in out-of-pocket expenses doing our racially polarized voting study and investigation. They switch and we make $0.”
He says while he’s made decent money so far, there’s a lot of risk involved in CVRA suits.
“It’s very easy to say, ‘Look at all that money,’” he says. “And I can understand that. It’s more money than I’ve ever made in my life. And I’m not going to complain about the end result. But people forget what it takes to get there.”
The problem, he says, is that his personal law firm is funding these lawsuits, endangering his finances if he loses.
“If I lose that case, I have spent a couple hundred thousand dollars,” he says. “I haven’t paid the mortgage on my house. I lose my house. My firm goes under, and I’ve wasted the last three years of my life.”
For now, though, he’s still driving that Tesla.