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Walking a Fine Line : Alatorre Must Balance Varied Interests While Drawing New Council Boundaries

Times Staff Writer

Seated before the panel of visiting Los Angeles City Council members, the speaker in the Sun Valley gymnasium carefully delivered his arguments on how to proceed with the complicated task of reapportioning the city’s political boundaries.

As a sparse audience listened, the auto worker addressing the meeting paused to look directly at the head of the council’s Charter and Elections Committee. Smiling, he reminded the chairman that the successful redrawing of City Council district lines may depend largely on the political skills of one man.

“I don’t know how you got stuck with this job,” he told Richard Alatorre, “but this can either make you or break you.”

That vignette--in a predominantly Latino section of the east San Fernando Valley that could change dramatically through reapportionment--reflects the stature of, and the challenge facing, the chief architect of the city’s redistricting plan.

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As a former state assemblyman in charge of the last such exercise at the state level, Alatorre is no stranger to the political perils or peculiarities of redistricting. Along with the late Rep. Philip Burton, widely acknowledged as California’s past master of the artful gerrymander, Alatorre once drew the boundaries of congressional districts on a restaurant tablecloth that was later sold at a political auction.

Now, as a freshman council member tackling his first major issue, Alatorre again finds himself dealing with reapportionment--that complicated and potentially volatile task of shaping district boundaries. And his fellow council members, some of them potential rivals for higher office, find their immediate fortunes tied to Alatorre and his computer. The repositioning of voting districts can bring about not only new power alignments within the electorate but also the downfall of incumbents who become victims of constituencies pulled out from under them.

Already there are grumbles and signs of discord. Voters who reside in those new districts and council members who will run in them are pressing to find out what those borders will entail. Latinos, who applauded the election of one of their own to the City Council five months ago, are now questioning whether Alatorre can uphold their interests and, at the same time, avoid gerrymandering his council colleagues into political oblivion.

Black voters are voicing concerns that a new redistricting plan could undercut their own political strength, and Asians--an emerging power base in local government--are moving quickly to ensure that they are not left out of any shift in council alignments.

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Meanwhile, looming in the background are the courts and he U.S. Justice Department, which kindled the latest reapportionment controversy by filing a lawsuit against the City of Los Angeles, accusing local officials of discriminating against Latinos when they redrew council district boundaries in 1982.

“I knew it was going to be a challenge and it is,” Alatorre said. “Most people don’t realize just how important reapportionment is. It determines the quality and type of representation that people are going to have.”

In a city as ethnically diverse as Los Angeles--where the population is more than 51% black, Asian and Latino--the council makeup has failed to keep pace with the burgeoning racial minorities. There are three blacks, one Latino and one Asian on the 15-member council, and the aim of the new reapportionment is to help ensure that targeted ethnic groups have a fair shot at representation beginning with the 1987 elections.

In practical terms, drawing new boundaries can mean not only a different cast of incumbents but also different priorities when it comes to apportioning public services, ranging from street cleaning and crime to housing and recreation. The changes can also tilt the council’s political balance on key issues, affecting overall city policy.

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If the importance of reapportionment is lost on most people, the process itself is equally obscure.

“It’s not glamorous. It’s frustrating. It’s tedious. It’s long, and it’s hard to do because you have to balance so many interests,” Alatorre said in an interview. “You have to balance the interests of the people versus the interests of politicians, and you have to balance this group against that group.”

Alatorre and his fellow council committee members--Michael Woo and Hal Bernson--have embarked on that balancing act with a promise to produce a new reapportionment plan by July 31, a proposal that will need at least eight votes on the council for approval and then probably face a legal challenge.

The remapping will affect all 15 council districts, but it is expected to touch primarily on the downtown core of the city, as well as Northeast Los Angeles and portions of the San Fernando Valley, where Latino voters are found in large numbers.

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The Justice Department, in its lawsuit filed last November, charged that the city violated the 1965 Voting Rights Act by slicing up the Latino community into seven different council districts and deliberately diluting its voting strength. Scattering Latino voters over various districts has made it difficult for them to influence city elections, according to the federal government.

Although city officials steadfastly deny any wrongdoing, the council decided to redraw the lines--which divide the city into individual districts of about 200,000 residents--in an effort to avert a divisive court battle.

Council President Pat Russell, who headed the earlier redistricting effort, chose Alatorre to lead the latest attempt, and said his experience with the state redistricting and his political skills made him “a natural” for the city job.

Accusations Deflected

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It also did not hurt that the new chairman was a Latino whose visibility could deflect the accusation that the city has engaged in historic discrimination against Hispanics.

“I don’t want my plan to be thrown out by the Justice Department, so that means I have to make substantial changes,” Alatorre said when asked about the plan. “How dramatic I think that is going to be will be in the eyes of the beholder. Any change could be dramatic.”

Alatorre, who helped draw political boundaries for legislative and congressional districts in 1982, said no prospective new lines have been drawn for the city yet, and will not be until public hearings are concluded.

Those public meetings, which began nearly two weeks ago, will continue today with an afternoon and evening session at downtown City Hall. Earlier meetings were held in South-Central Los Angeles, as well as the San Fernando Valley, and another meeting is slated next week in the mid-Wilshire area.

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But today’s hearings are expected to attract residents from the downtown and East Los Angeles neighborhoods, where some of the largest concentrations of minority groups live. “That will be the battleground,” Alatorre said of a possible clash between competing interests groups.

Own Redistricting Plan

Latinos, for example, have long chafed at their lack of council seats despite representing 27.5% of the city’s population. After the Justice Department filed its lawsuit, a major Latino organization--the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund--joined as a co-plaintiff and proposed its own redistricting plan to the city.

That plan, summarily rejected by the council, suggested radically altering council lines to create another district more favorable to Latinos in addition to the 14th District represented by Alatorre. That realignment would have cut deeply into the districts of several incumbents, eroding their chances for reelection and threatening the council’s political alliances.

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The National Assn. for the Advancement of Colored People also expressed alarm at the plan to switch the downtown business district from a largely black district into a new and predominantly Latino one. And it questioned the wresting of the Crenshaw District from Council President Russell, who is white but enjoys strong support from blacks.

Join in Lawsuit

The NAACP asked the court to join in the lawsuit to protect the interests of black voters. Lawyers for Chinese-American residents and businesses quickly did the same. Both requests were granted last week by U.S. District Judge James Ideman, who said that the Justice Department could not be expected to protect the interests of all groups in pursuing a new reapportionment plan.

Stewart Kwoh, director of the Asian Pacific American Legal Center, said an ad hoc group representing other segments of the Asian community is also prepared to enter the legal fray.

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“We feel that the Latinos have a valid claim and we support the (reapportionment) process,” Kwoh said, “but since this is going to be a very political process, unless we have a voice in all the compromising and negotiating, our interests may be ignored.”

Some of Alatorre’s own colleagues also are uneasy about exactly what kind of plan his committee will produce.

“Keep in mind that redistricting comes down to every councilman and councilwoman for themselves,” said one City Hall staff member who asked not to be identified. “This where it gets to be fun watching the 15 members scramble to protect themselves.”

Increased Attendance

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That growing interest--at least among council members--has meant increased attendance at community hearings. Staff members have begun shuttling back and forth with proposals. Some council members have already met with Alatorre in his office to talk about their individual districts and what they feel is important to retain or what they are willing to lose in any redistricting plan.

Alatorre reiterated that he does not think any incumbents will be ousted--much to the dismay of some Latino groups.

At the first public hearing in Sun Valley, about a dozen Latinos picketed the sessions as a “sham” and boycotted the meeting. Others participated but remained skeptical.

“We really don’t believe that the council can put aside all its political concerns and meet our community needs,” said Richard Alarcon, president of the San Fernando Valley chapter of the Mexican American Political Assn., who said the solution may rest with the courts.

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But Alatorre remains unperturbed, and scoffs at those who worry about back room deals and who refuse to compromise on a workable plan.

“I’m sure everybody is not going to be happy with the plan,” Alatorre said. “If everybody’s happy then you know something is wrong. I’ll be very honest with you, I don’t see getting 15 (council) votes for this plan. There’s no way.

“But if it can be done, I will come up with a plan, and get the votes to pass it,” he said. Then, waving to the array of maps in his office, he added, “If they don’t like it, they start again with somebody else.”


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