An overlooked aspect of Los Angeles’ fight over drawing new City Council district lines is whether the city power brokers—Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa and council members—will stir up racial animosity and discriminate against Latinos with their redistricting proposal.
There are other issues involved in the redistricting fight. But none of them are more important to L.A. in the long run as this dispute over ethnic representation, which touches on the racial tension that is always part of politics—and life—in this city.
The ethnicity issue a has been raised in a letter to the Los Angeles City Council Redistricting Commission by Steven Ochoa, national redistricting coordinator of the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund. It has also been brought up by Alan Clayton, a noted redistricting expert and advocate for Latino representation in several conversations with commission and City Council officials.
At issue is a plan drawing new boundaries for the 15 City Council districts as required every 10 years to account for population changes. The lines were drawn by a citizens commission appointed by the mayor, council members and other city elected officials. Villaraigosa and his council allies, who include Council President Herb Wesson, an African American, plus Latinos, seem to be calling the shots.
The redistricting commission plan, Ochoa said, would reduce Latino representation and “will directly put Latino and African American communities in electoral conflict throughout the coming decade.” If Latino representation is reduced, the city could conceivably be found in violation of the Voting Rights Act, which is designed to assure equal representation for minorities.
A perceptive reader might ask why a Latino mayor and his multi-ethnic allies favor a plan that could discriminate against Latinos and heat up always-delicate race relations. There are many theories but as of now I’ll write it off as another example of the murkiness of Los Angeles politics.
Ochoa and Clayton have particularly objected to the lines the commission has drawn for the 9th and 13th Districts. The 9th District is represented by Jan Perry, who is African American, as have been her immediate predecessors. She is also Jewish. The 13th is represented by Eric Garcetti, whose ancestry is a rich L.A. mix of Latino, Jewish and Italian forebears. Both are candidates for mayor in 2013.
The Perry 9th District would include much of South Los Angeles, as it does now, but would lose a big business portion of downtown, source of major campaign contributions. The Garcetti 13th District would continue to be Hollywood based but would lose Latino constituents while gaining more affluent white residents in parts of Silver Lake and around Griffith Park and Atwater.
Clayton said the commission plan, to be considered by the City Council, would reduce Latino representation on the council, from the present five to four because of the new boundaries in the 13th District, The new district could be whiter and with a demographic mix more favorable to an Asian or a gay or lesbian candidate than it is now under Garcetti.
Advocates of the commission plan disagree. While conceding that the proposed lines for the 13th District would make it harder for a Latino to win there, they say that the new boundaries for Perry’s 9th District would make up for this by giving a Latino a better chance to win in that constituency.
Ochoa denied this. Instead, he said, the commission has recommended a 9th District that is 46.3 percent Latino and 45.8 percent African America. This is not enough to help assure election of a Latino candidate and would create strife between the two ethnic groups fighting it out in an election.
His organization, MALDEF, recommends making the 9th District solidly African American while drawing lines for the l3th District that would include 50 percent Latino registered voters, enough for a Latino to win. In that way, there would be no ethnic battles, he said, while continuing the present number of five Latino council members and three African Americans.
Years ago, the city government was found guilty of violating the Voting Rights Act by denying Latinos representation on the City Council. As a result, Gloria Molina, now a county supervisor, won a council seat. If MALDEF feels the current commission plan violates the Voting Rights Act by costing Latinos a council seat, this one could also end up in court.