Analysis : Alatorre Council Proposal--How He Pulled It Off

Times Staff Writer

Councilman Richard Alatorre brought together the unlikely coalition of blacks and moderate white council members, along with a heavy dose of political horse-trading, to ensure the first-round passage of his controversial redistricting proposal for the Los Angeles City Council.

Under the plan, political boundary lines would be redrawn so that the council's only Asian, Mike Woo, would be moved eastward, out of Hollywood, and--much against his will--into a district that is two-thirds Latino.

Alatorre's plan, which was given preliminary approval by the council Tuesday, was in response to a federal lawsuit filed last year. The lawsuit alleged that the City of Los Angeles discriminated against Latinos in 1982 when political boundaries were drawn that diluted the voting strength of the Latino population.

Alatorre, the council's only Latino, was charged by Council President Pat Russell to come up with a new map for council boundaries that would satisfy the Justice Department's concerns.

Woo and his supporters, saying the Alatorre plan would create racial rivalry between Asians and Latinos, denounced the proposal and are still working to defeat it when the plan comes before the council for a final vote next week.

Alatorre's victory this week was the payoff of a two-pronged strategy: Win the backing of three council members by putting to rest their fears that a new Latino district would be created at their expense; then, make only the smallest changes in most other districts, assuring the support of most of the rest of the council and resulting in only one clear loser--Woo.

In his 13 years in the state Assembly, Alatorre gained a reputation as a hard-nosed "deal maker." Along with the late Rep. Philip Burton, Alatorre once drew what would be the the boundaries of the California congressional delegation on a now-fabled tablecloth.

He thus gained valuable experience in the redistricting process, learning to recognize, for example, which council member wanted what, paying attention to such details as which office buildings fell within whose districts.

Woo, who also had Sacramento experience as an aide to Senate President Pro Tem David Roberti (D-Los Angeles), mobilized the Hollywood and Asian communities to attack the Alatorre plan, although even those close to him say he did not get started soon enough to head off Alatorre before the more experienced politician could pin down early commitments. Before Woo could counter with his own redistricting proposal, Alatorre ally Councilman Dave Cunningham had arranged a press conference of several black leaders endorsing the Alatorre plan.

His Strategy

In his pursuit to shore up votes, Alatorre aide Tom Sullivan said that in talking to some council members, "Richard would basically tell people, 'I'm willing to move lines if you're willing to give me your vote' . . . as long as it didn't interfere with the integrity of the maps."

For example, he said, Councilman Joel Wachs wanted to keep affluent Sherman Oaks, an area Alatorre had originally given to Councilman Zev Yaroslavsky, and Councilman Gilbert Lindsay wanted the downtown high-rise Citicorp building, which originally had been in Ferraro's district in Alatorre's original draft of the plan. The wishes of both were accommodated, and both Wachs and Lindsay ended up voting for the Alatorre plan.

"Hey, I like to win," Alatorre said in a recent interview. Part of winning, he said, meant "not going after the black districts. I decided I wasn't going to do that because then we could be accused of doing to blacks what the Justice Department says we did to Hispanics."

Taken Away Black Areas

Any big changes in majority black districts, critics of this option said, also would have realigned the southern part of the city that would have taken away black areas now in the district of Council President Russell.

While the mostly black Crenshaw section of Russell's district is smaller than most of the rest of the Westchester-Venice area of that district, it has a strong base of voter support for Russell.

Asked why he took pains to retain for Russell, a white, the black sections of her district, Alatorre said: "Because she represents a multi-cultural district, blacks are a significant part of her constituency. . . ." Then his voice trailed off, he grinned and added with significantly more conviction: "She also is president of the City Council."

Felt the Heat

Russell, eventually feeling the heat over the Asian-Latino controversy affecting Woo's district, came up with an alternative plan that placed Woo and Ferraro in the same district, leaving a northeast district open for a new Latino council member. Under that plan, Woo was seen has having at least a 50-50 chance to continue to represent Hollywood.

But the plan was proposed the day the council met to vote, and most members "felt more familiar with the Alatorre plan because he had walked each of them through it. To quote Phil Burton, 'They were in their mothers' arms,' " said one source close to the council.

That, coupled with lawyers' advice that the Alatorre plan currently has the best chance of gaining the approval of the plaintiffs in the lawsuit, gave it the edge with most council incumbents, who also were uneasy with the Russell plan by which one councilman's district would have been yanked from under him.

Not Trouble-Free

Alatorre's course was far from trouble-free. He had to weather a barrage of criticism from the public at hearings set to discuss his plan. It was a long way from the insulated legislative hearings he had been used to in the state Capitol. At council public hearings "you spend 6, 7, 8 hours . . . being called a racist," Alatorre said. "It wasn't pleasant but I understood."

Woo, Russell and other opponents warn that the Alatorre plan could lose support by the time it comes up for a final vote next week. Councilmen Lindsay and Robert Farrell made it clear Tuesday that their commitment to Alatorre may not extend into next week. And if the plan is approved a second time, Mayor Tom Bradley may be the one to decide the issue, either with his approval or his veto. Russell has said that a Bradley veto is a "good possibility."

In council Tuesday, the jockeying to hold onto votes or change them was evident. Councilman Hal Bernson, a supporter of the Alatorre plan, asked Lindsay: "You're not going to bail out when the mayor twists your arm?"

"Not this time," Lindsay was overheard saying. But Lindsay is one of the few members of the council old enough to remember hearing the phrase that sometimes best describes council politics, coined by the late former Councilman Don Allen: "I'm with you--all the way to the roll call."

Times staff writer Richard Simon contributed to this article.

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