Political, Legal Battle on Redistricting Looms


The handful of California legislators nodded sagely as Armando Navarro stood before them arguing for creation of a new Latino-majority state Assembly district that would slice more than 100 miles north to south through the hearts of Riverside and Imperial counties.

Members of the state Senate Elections and Reapportionment Committee who gathered in Riverside for one in a series of hearings this summer were getting still another grass-roots lesson in the complexity of legislative redistricting in 1991--and the difficulty that incumbents face in trying to hold onto friendly voting districts.

The district proposed by Navarro would arch through the Coachella and Imperial valleys to the Mexican border and incorporate 368,400 Californians, of whom more than half would be Latino. The district is long and skinny and resembles the original gerrymander--a salamander-shaped voting unit sculpted to give political advantage to one party or another--in this case Latinos.


This year, academics and good-government groups talk of an idealized, computer-driven process that would produce compact districts following logical lines such as city and county boundaries or rivers and mountain ridges. But in reality gerrymandered districts snaking this way and that across the map may not only be acceptable in 1991, but mandated by federal law.

The federal Voting Rights Act, as amended and interpreted since the last redistricting, requires state legislatures to create racial- and ethnic-majority voting districts wherever they logically can be forged. The act also outlaws any attempt to fragment minority populations among neighboring districts in order to keep incumbents in office.

At the same time, the California Constitution requires that as the Legislature drafts new Assembly, Senate and congressional district boundaries, lawmakers try to avoid splitting cities and counties into separate districts.

The problem is that by creating minority districts, lawmakers may well have to split some cities and counties and lump others with communities with which they have little in common. The balancing between minority representation and “communities of interest” is certain to make it more difficult for lawmakers to protect their own seats--traditionally the concern that has driven the redistricting process.

As illustrated by the hearing in Riverside, groups already are lining up on both sides of the question.

Navarro, who represents the Coalition for Fair Representation, argued that by linking the Latino populations of the Riverside and Imperial midlands, his plan would create a logical community of interest while empowering Latinos with the political clout to which they are entitled.


But William K. Smith, a community activist in the Coachella Valley, countered that the valley has more in common with eastern Riverside County and the High Desert region of San Bernardino County to the north than it does with Imperial County.

Almost any arrangement would be better than the Legislature’s 1982 map that split the Coachella into three Assembly districts, Smith added.

“We have such a bizarre arrangement out there that it is difficult for people to participate in the political process,” he said. “It is extremely difficult to get people to register to vote.”

Sometimes, however, splitting communities can make sense. Ray Strait of Hemet, a member of the local Democratic Central Committee, noted that Riverside County is naturally divided east and west by the San Bernardino Mountains. “On the one side is Palm Springs to the Colorado River at the Arizona border; on the other, a sprawling urbanization overflowing from Los Angeles and Orange counties,” Strait said. “In many ways, they live in different worlds.”

The most basic rule of redistricting is that new districts must have equal populations. After that, the law empowering ethnic and racial populations takes precedence over any other consideration. Minority groups have served notice that getting districts they can win is more important than keeping counties, or even cities, intact.

At a Senate hearing in Los Angeles, Richard Farjado of the Mexican-American Legal Defense and Education Fund argued for the joining of Latino concentrations around Santa Fe Springs in Los Angeles County with those in neighboring Orange County to form a new Latino-dominated state Senate district.


“Even if it means splitting cities?” asked Sen. Herschel Rosenthal of Los Angeles.

“Even if it means splitting cities,” Farjado replied.

From the point of view of the outsider trying to crack the power structure, redistricting looks far different than it does from inside lawmakers’ offices in Sacramento. In the Capitol, the focus is on political survival--incumbents trying to keep their seats and the Democratic Party trying to maintain control of legislative and congressional delegations.

The Bush Administration’s Justice Department already has demonstrated that redistricting in 1991 will not be the insider’s game it used to be. Redistricting plans in Mississippi and New York City have been rejected by the department because they cheated blacks and Latinos of proper representation. Any California plan must get Justice Department clearance because some California communities have been accused of voting rights discrimination.

Another major change from the 1980s is that any legislative plan is subject to a veto by Republican Gov. Pete Wilson. A decade ago, the Democrats’ scheme was signed into law by a Democratic governor, Edmund G. Brown Jr. Moreover, virtually every party involved in redistricting this year has acknowledged that any plan adopted by the Legislature will be challenged in the courts.

Between 1980 and 1990, California’s Latino population increased by 69% to nearly 7.7 million. But the state had seven Latino lawmakers in 1980 and still had seven in 1990. The Asian-American population exploded by 127%, to 2.7 million, but there are no Asian-American legislators.

One irony of redistricting is that the representation of all Californians in the state Legislature will erode when the new plans are adopted. The population keeps growing, but the number of seats is static: 80 in the Assembly and 40 in the Senate. A senator represented about 590,000 constituents a decade ago. Each new Senate district will contain about 750,000.

The result is evident to Republican Sen. Marian Bergeson of Newport Beach, whose 37th Senate District rambles across four counties from the Pacific Ocean to the Colorado River and is larger than New Jersey.


“It’s an exciting district,” Bergeson said during the Riverside hearing, referring to her region’s diversity of geography and people. “But is that fair?”

While institutions and businesses have potent lobbies in Sacramento, the voice of individual constituents is getting ever more remote, Bergeson said. This trend has accelerated with the closing of legislative district offices because of budget cuts, she added. “You lose the access, the communications linkage.”

One remedy is to enlarge the membership of the Legislature. So far, Sacramento has not given that idea serious consideration.

Proposed Assembly District

Area in white represents the boundaries of a state Assembly district proposed by Armando Navarro of the Coalition for Fair Representation during hearings by the Senate Elections and Reapportionment Committee.

* Navarro said the district would link Latino populations in the Coachella and Imperial valleys in Riverside and Imperial counties, thus giving Latinos the opportunity for representation to which they are entitled under the U.S. Voting Rights Act.

* The district would have a population of 368,400, of which 158,700 would be Latino and 188,260 Anglo.


* Under the current plan in effect since 1983, the Coachella Valley is split into three Assembly districts.