Parsing the downtown L.A. divide

PoliticsBusinessElectionsJan PerryWhite HouseJose HuizarHerb Wesson

Downtown Los Angeles today is divided between two City Council districts, with Jose Huizar representing one part of the city center and Jan Perry representing the other. Despite maneuverings and tweaks, when a city commission and the council finish redrawing the council district boundaries, Huizar will still represent one part and Perry will still represent another.

So what's the fuss? Why has Perry accused the city Redistricting Commission — a citizens panel named by the council and citywide elected officials that has been drafting new lines that then go to the council, which will finalize the map — of engaging in a "power grab" to transfer real estate from her to Huizar? And why is Huizar touting the benefits of unified downtown leadership when he knows that even if he gets his way, he won't get all the land bounded by the 110 Freeway to the west, the 10 Freeway to the south and the L.A. River to the east?

It's about politics, of course — the prestige and potential money that come from representing what passes for the center of this sprawling set of suburbs famously in search of a city.

Map: L.A. City Council redistricting, before and after

Downtown has long oscillated between council districts, which are huge given the size of Los Angeles and its relatively small council. One consequence is that downtown is too small to be a district by itself, so it's been joined to one of the neighboring areas. Years ago, it was connected to Boyle Heights and the Eastside; more recently, it's been tied to South Los Angeles.

The racial implications of that connection are obvious: Today, downtown's orientation is toward historically African American Los Angeles, with its roots along Central Avenue. If connected to Boyle Heights, it would take on a more Latino cast. Not coincidentally, the two council members vying for the area reflect that distinction. Huizar is Latino. Perry is black.

That's part of what has made redistricting dicey in past years, and race enters the debate in other ways too. Take the battle over Koreatown, where merchants and residents want to be consolidated in a single district to maximize their clout. Curiously, though, the tussle for downtown this time isn't drawing much racial fire. (Both Perry's district and Huizar's are heavily Latino.) Rather, it's personal.

Perry spies the hand of City Council President Herb Wesson at work in the move to strip her of much of her downtown base. In a recent column for the Downtown News, she did not name Wesson but alluded to "political interests" taking precedence "over the pragmatic process of drawing district lines." Perry and Wesson don't get along, and Perry's suspicions about the president's influence were heightened when the citizens commission taking the lead in the process picked a former Wesson staff member as its executive director. Wesson also is closely allied with the mayor, as is Huizar.

For his part, Huizar recognizes that the power is on his side, so he's sticking with the high road. He lavishly praises Perry for her representation of downtown but stresses that some of the existing boundaries create confusion. Along one stretch of Spring Street, for instance, Huizar represents one side of the street while Perry has the other. Unifying the area, he says, will make it easier for residents and businesses to get city services. Moreover, Huizar's district needs to grow a bit to equalize the council districts, and he can't expand to the east because he's at the city limit. At the northern edge of his district, he bumps up against two other districts that need to grow. The leaves him looking south, which is downtown.

But Huizar knows this is about more than numbers. A council member's district defines his base, and downtown makes for an appealing one. It means votes, of course, and in the case of downtown — with its hotels, developers and burgeoning businesses — the potential for campaign contributions. Huizar vehemently protests that he's not in this for the money, but there's no denying there's money on the table.

Finally, there's one more curiosity in this debate, which is that despite all the talk of keeping downtown together (from Perry) or unifying it at last (from Huizar), the tentative lines would do neither. That's because the map as it stands turns over much of downtown to Huizar but allows Perry to hold on to the neighborhoods that include L.A. Live, Staples Center and the proposed football stadium.

Why peel off L.A. Live from the rest of downtown? Again, it's hard not to see politics in that. Keeping L.A. Live in Perry's district raises the district's median income and provides it with a solid job base, not to mention a core component of Perry's argument for her mayoral candidacy. Put another way: If Perry is this upset about losing part of downtown, imagine how frosted she'd be to lose it all. And there's this: Moving L.A. Live to Huizar would risk annoying AEG and its chief, Tim Leiweke, who works closely with Perry; the council doesn't pick too many fights with Leiweke.

The debates over redistricting already are contentious and personal. They'll get more so before this process is over.

Jim Newton’s column appears Mondays. His latest book is "Eisenhower: The White House Years." Reach him at jim.newton@latimes.com or follow him on Twitter: @newton_jim.

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