L.A. County Supervisors' Folly: Resisting a Majority Latino District

Frank del Olmo is a Times editorial writer

There was a time when the Snyder Syndrome got Latino political activists thinking fuzzy. Now some powerful Anglo politicians are showing the same symptoms.

That's the only charitable explanation I can come up with for the dumb decision that the five white men on the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors made last week. They are going to waste thousands of dollars fighting a lawsuit they are bound to lose--a Voting Rights Act suit filed by the Reagan Administration on behalf of the county's more than 2 million Latinos.

There has never been a Latino on the county board, which was founded almost 140 years ago--this despite the fact Mexican-Americans have always been the largest ethnic group in this region and remain one of its fastest-growing minorities. The federal government says that is evidence of discrimination, and I'll bet my county taxes that it will prove its case.

We're all wagering on this matter, in fact, since our taxes will pay for the supervisors' legal folly. The board hired a $235-an-hour lawyer to fight the Justice Department lawsuit and a companion suit filed by Latino civil-rights advocates. Their petulant stance is a disappointing contrast to the decision made two years ago by the Los Angeles City Council when it faced a similar suit. The city wisely settled out of court and reapportioned its 15 council districts to enhance the possibility that Latinos could be elected.

Possibility is the key word, by the way. The Voting Rights Act does not require that a Latino be elected in a Latino-majority district. In fact, it doesn't always happen. That's the origin of the term "Snyder Syndrome."

Until a few years ago, the most heavily Latino city council district in Los Angeles, on the Eastside, was represented by a colorful Anglo pol named Arthur K. Snyder. As councilmen go, Snyder was reasonably effective in getting things done for his district. But that did not matter to the ardent Chicano activists who spent years trying to unseat him, not just in four regular elections but also in two rugged recall votes. That happened because, quite apart from his merits as a politician, Snyder was a symbol. In the minds of Latino activists, his very presence on the council was a sign of Chicano political weakness. Snyder finally wearied of the constant battles and resigned from the council in 1985.

Now, like the Latino activists who felt that they had to challenge Snyder "because he's there," county supervisors are feverishly obsessed with symbolism rather than facts. If they were more cool-headed about their situation, the five men on the board would realize that creating a majority Latino district would not necessarily mean that any of them is going to lose his powerful position (each supervisor has more constituents and a bigger budget than many members of Congress and even some governors).

The reason is clearly implied in one of the arguments they are using to attack the federal lawsuit: that a majority Latino district cannot be created because many of the Latinos in the county don't vote, either because they are not U.S. citizens or because they are too young. No one who has studied census data will dispute either point. But that raises the question of why the board won't redraw its district lines as the federal government wants. If the supervisors' reasoning holds, they would still have a chance at being elected in Latino-majority districts. Snyder proved time and again it can be done. Maybe the real problem is that nobody on the county board has Snyder's gumption and guts.

Supervisor Ed Edelman already has the largest number of Latino constituents in a district that includes East Los Angeles. He's popular with Latino voters, maybe popular enough to beat a Latino challenger.

Kenneth Hahn has ably and passionately represented the heavily black South-Central area for more than 20 years, and has beaten back challenges from several black politicians.

Both Deane Dana, who represents the beach cities and the harbor area, and Mike Antonovich, whose district sprawls from the San Fernando Valley to the north county deserts, have pockets of Latino voters as constituents. But none of those barrios is big enough to pose a serious electoral challenge to either of them.

Which leaves Pete Schabarum as the only supervisor with a potential problem. The communities of the San Gabriel Valley are the heart of his district. In the last decade that part of the county has become increasingly Latino as upwardly mobile Chicanos who grew up in and around East L.A. move to suburbs like Whittier and El Monte. Like most suburbanites, these Latinos vote in larger numbers than their inner-city cousins. But it should encourage a conservative Republican like Schabarum that their vote has a distinct conservative cast.

In fact, the supervisors are making a bigger problem out of the federal lawsuit than they have to. Of course new district lines will open them up to new and perhaps tougher electoral challenges. But that's what big-city politics is supposed to be about. Their real problem is that they've gotten fat and lazy. They're used to getting easily reelected in districts they carefully draw for themselves, and the federal government wants to tamper with their cozy little setup. So they're in a snit, and we have to pay for it.

It's enough to make me miss good old Art Snyder.

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