The Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors election will bring new faces to the powerful body. But it’s unlikely to change the board’s opposition to creating a district where a second Latino could be elected to the board.
Although Latinos comprise more than 48 percent of Los Angeles County’s 10 million residents, there is only one Hispanic on the five-person board. Yet the five supervisors oversee services important to the Latino community, including health care, child welfare and other social services heavily used by the poor. Latinos and African Americans have a much higher poverty rate than whites.
Over the years, county supervisors have steadfastly refused to grant Latinos a chance for greater voting power on the board. They are being challenged by Latino lawyers, reapportionment experts and academics, who say the supervisors have violated the federal Voting Rights Act.
The recent elections didn’t improve the challengers’ situation. Gloria Molina, a Latina who represents the heavily Hispanic 1st District, is being replaced by another Latina, Hilda Solis. In the 3rd District, including largely white areas extending from the San Fernando Valley through West Los Angeles and part of the coast, there will be a November runoff between the top two candidates, former state legislator Sheila Kuehl and Bobby Shriver, who was a member of the Santa Monica City Council and mayor of the city. The winner replaces Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky, forced out of office by term limits. Yaroslavsky joined with other supervisors in supporting the current district boundaries. But even if the winner of the Kuehl-Shriver contest favors creating another Latino district, backers of such a move would still likely be short a majority on the five member board because they probably wouldn’t have the support of Supervisors Don Knabe and Mike Antonovich. It takes four of the five votes to adopt new district boundary lines.
That is why Latino redistricting activists, with the election behind them, are stepping up their efforts. They want the U.S. Justice Department to take the supervisors to court and force the county to draw new lines. Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas, who is the only African American on the board, favors such a move. He proposed a plan that would have made possible the election of a Latino in the 4th, coastal, district now represented by Knabe. It would have also realigned Antonovich’s district to improve chances of an Asian American being elected to the board.
The Latino reapportionment experts who are pushing for the new district rely on a concept known as “polarized voting.” In this case, it means that Latinos generally vote for Latinos and whites vote for whites. By looking at voting patterns, they intend to prove that present lines put most Latinos on one district—Molina’s—and a majority of whites everywhere else. Latinos not in the Molina district, they said, are a scattered minority in the majority white districts.
Saaed Ali, a retired city and state legislative aide working with Latino redistricting advocates, said he thinks voting patterns in the last election will reinforce the idea that polarized voting is hurting Latinos. He is especially interested in the vote for Latino John Duran, the West Hollywood city council member and former mayor, who finished third in the supervisorial race. "Based on analyses of actual voting patterns in LA County in the past twelve years, the race will support our case (for another Latino-heavy district) because we will most likely show that Duran's votes are mostly Latino votes," he told me in e-mail.
Although reading and writing about this issue is often heavy going, even for politics fanatics like me, it is one of the most important matters facing the county and other local governments around the state. The final result could mean a more representative Board of Supervisors and better care for the county’s needy.