For Latinos, a Representative Case : To Retain Seats, Supervisors Have Long Ignored Their Gains

Back in 1981 the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors appointed a committee to redraw the board's district boundaries according to the 1980 census. Anxiously waiting for the redistricting process to begin was a collection of Latino organizations, the Los Angeles County Coalition of Californios for Fair Representation, fresh from fighting successful congressional and state legislative redistricting battles in Sacramento.

But the board made it clear to us, through the appointment of the all-white District Boundary Committee, that there would be no meaningful dialogue with our coalition and that we should expect nothing from the redistricting process.

As a result of our protests, the Board of Supervisors did expand the boundary committee to include members of minorities. But it was still obvious that the supervisors had no intention of seriously considering our proposals. This was borne out when the committee, dominated by Republican appointees, recommended a gerrymandered plan that would have reduced the Latino population in the 1st District, generally covering the San Gabriel Valley and other eastern parts of the county, from 36% to 32% while putting the bulk of the county's remaining Latino population in the 3rd District, which generally covers the central part of the city of Los Angeles. By concentrating most Latinos in one district, the committee ignored the population gains that Latinos were making throughout the county, most notably the eastern part.

As an alternative, our coalition presented a redistricting plan that would have concentrated Latino voters in both the 1st and 3rd districts. The 1st District had experienced dramatic growth in Latino population, and this growth was going to continue into the 1990s. We sought to increase Latino strength in that district from 36% to 42%. The 3rd District had a population then that was 43% Latino and that also was experiencing tremendous growth. With a slight modification, we drew a district that was 50% Latino.

Our plan met every legal test. It honored community of interests. The lines were cohesive, continuous and as compact as one could draw them, given the vast territory covered by Los Angeles County. Also, the plan honored city and community boundary lines whenever it was feasible to do so.

Expert testimony was presented at all of the redistricting hearings in 1981 that attested to the growth in Latino population between 1970 and 1980 and in the heavy participation of Latino voters in local City Council and school board elections. Yet, when it came time to draw up the final plan, the supervisors merely shifted district boundaries to meet technical requirements. This served the incumbents well by guaranteeing that they would continue to be elected at the expense of the Latino community.

Now the U.S. Department of Justice has indicated that a lawsuit may be filed if Los Angeles County does not redraw the district boundary lines in a way that will recognize the strength of Latino voters and give them a chance to elect a Latino to the Board of Supervisors.

The city of Los Angeles, faced with a similar suit, redrew its lines last year, and Gloria Molina was elected to the City Council. Much of the success of that redistricting effort can be credited to Councilman Richard Alatorre. His expertise, political skills and sensitivity to the issue helped create the opportunity to increase Latino representation on the council. Because we do not have similar representation on the Board of Supervisors, the prospects for a new county redistricting plan that will reflect the hopes and aspirations of the Latino community still do not seem good.

The politics of the redistricting issue cannot be ignored. All five of the current supervisors are white males who voted for the 1981 redistricting plan. Incumbency was the primary factor then, and--judging from the board's action on Tuesday, when it rejected a proposal to put an expansion of the board to a countywide vote--there is every reason to believe that it still is now.

The three supervisors who voted no on an expansion referendum are obviously concerned with preserving their own jobs. The two who voted for it are driven more by the desire to avoid a lawsuit--they know that without the enthusiastic support of the entire board, voters would never approve a charter change to accommodate expansion.

Californios for Fair Representation has always maintained that the only way to provide adequate representation to the Latino community is by expanding the number of districts. Any new redistricting plan or board expansion plan should be negotiated between the county counsel, the Department of Justice, the Latino community (represented by a group like the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund) and the federal judge assigned to supervise the resolution of the lawsuit.

We have waited seven years to have this issue addressed by the Justice Department, and we welcome its involvement. The federal courts have been unanimous in ruling that the political interests of incumbents are not part of the legal redistricting criteria, and incumbency should not be the deciding factor in determining the political future of the Latino community here in Los Angeles County.

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