As a decennial mandate to redraw political boundaries based on the 1990 census approaches, Latino leaders predict the numbers will require creation of a history-making, predominantly Latino Los Angeles City Council district in the San Fernando Valley.
If such a district were drawn and it resulted in the election of a Latino to the council, it would be a milestone in the Valley's transformation from lily-white suburbia into urban melting pot.
An estimated 22.5% of the Valley's 1.14 million residents are Latino and 69.5% are white, according to the city Planning Department. Since 1980, the Latino share of the Valley's population has grown by 26.7%, while the white share has declined 11.5%.
The most likely area for establishing what would be the city's third predominantly Latino council district is the East Valley, said Richard Fajardo, an attorney for the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund.
Fajardo is a key player in litigation to force the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors to redraw its districts to favor the first-ever election of a Latino. The first election in a district created to such specifications is scheduled for Jan. 22.
MALDEF will make it a top priority to build a Latino majority district out of the city's 7th District, now represented by Councilman Ernani Bernardi. The current district includes the communities of Sylmar, Arleta, Pacoima, Lake View Terrace, Sun Valley, Panorama City and Van Nuys.
Councilman Richard Alatorre said he does not expect Bernardi, who is 79 years old and the council's most veteran member, to fight creation of such a district. He would be up for reelection in 1993, the first year that redrawn districts are expected to be used in council elections.
Alatorre said recently that Bernardi, during a desperate fight to win a tough 1989 reelection campaign, had secretly agreed to a deal to facilitate a Latino ascension to power in the East Valley. Bernardi refused to discuss the issue.
Four council districts, including Bernardi's, now lie entirely within the Valley. Portions of four other districts lap over into the Valley from the area south of Mulholland Drive. But six of the eight lawmakers representing those districts are white men. The other two are Councilwoman Joy Picus and Councilman Michael Woo, who is the city's first Asian-American council member.
Of the council's 15 districts, two have a majority Latino population. These districts--the 1st and the 14th--are in the central city and are represented by Gloria Molina and Alatorre, respectively.
If necessary, MALDEF, the legal arm of the Latino civil rights movement, will go to court to win creation of a district favoring the election of a Latino in the Valley, Fajardo said.
In fact, the outlines of Bernardi's current district were fathered by a 1986 lawsuit filed against the city by the U.S. Department of Justice and MALDEF. That litigation alleged that the redistricting plan adopted in the early 1980s by the City Council, based on the 1980 census, had been designed to dilute Latino voting power.
When the suit was filed, the city had one predominantly Latino district, the Eastside 14th District. The city settled with the plaintiffs out of court and created a second Latino-dominated district, to which Molina was promptly elected.
But while the focus of the 1986 controversy was primarily on establishing a new inner-city district, Latino activists also quietly pressed for Valley districts to be revised. As a result, Bernardi's district ended up with the bulk of the Valley's burgeoning Latino community.
When the activists, such as Al Avila, an aide to Alatorre, who chaired the council's redistricting panel, were done, the 7th District was 43.7% Latino.
Although the reapportionment process will not begin until next spring at the earliest, the plan should be ready for the 1993 municipal elections. Leo Estrada, a professor of urban planning at UCLA and a redistricting consultant, said that the most dramatic changes in the city's Latino population since 1980 have occurred in the northeast Valley.
Estimates of population growth have for several years identified the northeast Valley communities of Sylmar and Arleta-Pacoima as two of the city's fastest growing areas and many of the new residents are Latino.
Councilwoman Ruth Galanter, who chairs the council's Rules and Elections Committee, which held its first hearing on City Council reapportionment earlier this month, said the census numbers will so clearly support creation of a predominantly Latino district in the East Valley that it won't require a political struggle to achieve it.
"There are enough Hispanics in the Valley now" to warrant a Latino seat, Galanter said. "They may be able to take Bernardi's seat when he retires without any major changes in its current configuration."
Even so, the stakes in the reapportionment process are high, and the outcome is often unpredictable. "This council has shown it's willing to do anything when it comes to reapportionment," said Councilman Joel Wachs, who also represents portions of the East Valley.
Wachs said his own "dragon-shaped" district makes no sense because its boundaries split communities and stretch from Sunland-Tujunga in the east to Studio City in the south and even to west of the San Diego Freeway. He said he hopes the 1990 reapportionment process will promote community integrity.
Fajardo acknowledged the value of drawing districts to preserve community integrity, but he said the first priority of reapportionment should be to promote representation for minorities.
Bernardi has refused to discuss the Latino influx into his 7th District and its implications for the upcoming reapportionment debate. "Wait until the new numbers are out" from the census, Bernardi said.
Bernardi also refused to discuss a political deal he allegedly made with Latino leaders as he struggled in 1989 to hold on to his council seat. That year, Bernardi was forced into a runoff election with Lyle Hall, a Los Angeles city Fire Department captain, after Bernardi got only 42% of the vote in the primary. Although he eventually beat Hall, it was Bernardi's most trying reelection season in nearly three decades on the council.
According to Alatorre, Bernardi promised him at the time that he would not run for reelection in 1993 and that he would support the election of a Latino to succeed him. In addition, Alatorre said, Bernardi said he would not interfere in the creation of a Latino-dominant council district during the 1990 reapportionment.
Alatorre mentioned the commitments allegedly made by Bernardi during an interview broadcast yesterday morning on "Straight Answers," a Channel 9 public affairs show. Alatorre also said he would hold Bernardi to his pledges.
Asked about Alatorre's remarks, Bernardi gruffly dismissed a reporter and said: "The 1989 election is over. I'm not talking about it anymore."
Several Latino sources said Alatorre was instrumental in helping bring Latinos into the Bernardi reelection drive.
"He brokered the Latino involvement for Bernardi," one source said. "There were a lot of Latino faces among the ranks of the volunteers in Bernardi's campaign, working the phone banks, walking precincts," another source said.
Alatorre originally told a reporter for The Times that he helped Bernardi's reelection campaign only in return for the embattled lawmaker's pledge to smooth the way for Latino empowerment. Later, however, he denied that he supported Bernardi in exchange for such a promise.
Councilwoman Molina said she had heard reports that some Latinos helped Bernardi because they believed that he--simply because of his age--would give way sooner than Hall, who is much younger.
But Molina said her support for Bernardi's reelection was based on their shared concerns about city housing policies. Molina, now a candidate in the newly created Latino-majority county supervisor's district, also walked precincts in Pacoima to drum up votes for Bernardi in 1989.
Earlier this year, black ministers accused Bernardi of failing to fulfill a pledge they said he made to them during his 1989 reelection campaign. The ministers, led by the Rev. James Lyles, claimed they gave Bernardi their support after he vowed to put a black adviser on his City Hall staff.
Although Bernardi did pick a black deputy, the ministers claimed their own candidates for the post were ignored.