The surge in California's Latino population has offered state lawmakers now drawing new congressional districts a ripe opportunity to boost the number of Latinos representing the state in Congress.
On the north and south ends of Los Angeles, in the San Joaquin Valley and along the Mexican border, in particular, Latino advocates contend that their sheer numbers should result in new seats where Latinos are a dominant force.
But their aspirations are colliding with a powerful group of Democrats: non-Latino incumbents whose continued success could be thwarted by Latino challengers.
The conflict has put Democrats who control the Legislature in a bind.
As they redraw California's political maps in the next month, should they offer Latinos, one of the party's core constituencies, a chance to strengthen their clout in Washington? Or should they carve districts primarily to get Democrats reelected regardless of ethnicity?
Party leaders have left little doubt that incumbent protection will prevail. But with California gaining a House seat this year, raising its delegation to 53 members, Latino groups are pushing for districts that give Latinos a greater voice in electing members of Congress, if not a seat outright.
"We expect incumbents to accommodate the growing population of Latinos as much as possible," said Amadis Raul Velez, a redistricting specialist at the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund. "The reason California has a 53rd District is because the Latino community has grown so large. Given that as a starting point, you have to have greater representation."
The redistricting of congressional and legislative districts occurs every 10 years, flowing from the once-a-decade census.
Lines must be redrawn so that each member of Congress or the two branches of the statehouse represent roughly the same number of people. But how to do it is left, in California, to the very legislators whose careers--or ability to advance--are on the line.
In California, Democrats will maintain their overall hold on the two houses and the congressional delegation because they control both the Legislature which draws the lines and the governor's office, which signs off on the new map.
But exactly which Democrats will be given an advantage is still up in the air, and is prompting behind-the-scenes tussles among demographic groups loyal to the party.
Complicating the process, a patchwork of court rulings has made race and ethnicity a legal minefield for legislatures around the country as they reshape their maps. Lawmakers have been careful to cast their map-making as driven mainly by partisan interests rather than race.
Latinos, census figures show, comprise 32% of California's population, up from 26% in 1990. But many are immigrants ineligible to vote, and others are too young to vote, factors which historically have lessened their clout. About 16% of the state's registered voters are Latino.
In the Legislature, Latinos gained ground during the 1990s, thanks in large part to term limits, which swept incumbents out of office and cleared the way for newcomers. Latinos hold 17% of the state Senate seats, and 24% of the Assembly seats.
In Congress, where there are no term limits, the proportion is lower: Latinos hold just 12% of the state's House seats, or six out of 52. Even in districts that have become predominantly Latino, Anglo incumbents like Rep. Howard L. Berman (D-Mission Hills) have stayed in office for a decade or more.
"Latinos have been prevented from moving in on those seats," said Tony Quinn, a GOP redistricting expert.
Berman provides an example of the tension between incumbents and Latino hopes, and for Latino advocates the future boundaries of his San Fernando Valley district are a top concern. It currently includes Sylmar, San Fernando, Pacoima, Panorama City and the northern reaches of Van Nuys and North Hollywood.
Incumbent Protection May Take Precedence
As it stands, two out of three of Berman's constituents are Latino. Two out of five registered voters in the district are Latino. The area has elected two Latinos to the Legislature: state Sen. Richard Alarcon and Assemblyman Tony Cardenas.
The district is heavily Democratic--so much so that no Republican bothered to oppose Berman's reelection bid last year.
Yet Berman is clearly mindful of a potential Latino primary challenger, because he has raised $1 million for his 2002 campaign. Alarcon and Cardenas, both Sylmar Democrats, would be tough contenders, but they have pledged to support Berman for reelection.
When Berman, now 60, was first elected to Congress in 1983, his district stretched across the Valley floor into white enclaves of the Hollywood Hills; just 20% of his constituents were Latino. When Berman's current district lines took effect in 1992, Latinos became the majority.
Now Latino groups fear that lawmakers will shift the boundaries to dilute the Latino vote and protect Berman from a primary challenge. Xavier Flores, a leader of the San Fernando Valley chapter of the Mexican American Political Assn., warned of a political backlash if lawmakers "water it down so we have less influence."
"We'll have a problem with that," he said.
Berman has more protection than most incumbents: The congressman's brother, Michael Berman, is the chief redistricting consultant to both the state Senate and California's House Democratic delegation.
"I don't think Howard will be in any danger when Michael's done," Quinn said. Both Bermans declined to comment.
The congressman, a champion of immigrant rights, has wide support among Latino politicians and advocates. But Latino groups are pushing to increase the number of Latinos in the district and have threatened to file a Voting Rights Act lawsuit if the number drops.
"You change it at your peril," said Alan Clayton, research director of the California Latino Redistricting Commission, a private advocacy group.
The stakes in Berman's district lines are high, but not just for the incumbent. Along its eastern edge is the district of Rep. Adam B. Schiff (D-Burbank), who ousted GOP incumbent James E. Rogan of Glendale last year in the most expensive House race in history. Democratic leaders in Washington hope to transform swing districts like Schiff's into safe bets for Democrats so they can seize control of the House from the GOP majority.
Where might they find more Democratic voters for Schiff?
"The temptation is to come into Howard Berman's district and take those Democrats," said Alarcon, who is urging fellow lawmakers to resist the impulse because it might harm Latinos who run in the future.
For Latino advocates, perhaps the best shot at a new district is at the southern end of Los Angeles County, where the chance to craft a Latino seat dovetails with the desire of Democrats to weaken a Republican incumbent.
Two congressional districts in the area became majority Latino during the 1990s. But the incumbents, Reps. Maxine Waters and Juanita Millender-McDonald, are African American. And Latino groups have tried to avoid the suggestion that Latino gains come at the expense of African Americans who battled for decades to get districts drawn for them. The Legislature is all but certain to protect the black incumbents.
"It is a foregone conclusion that the African American seats are going to be retained," Waters said.
Latino Seat Proposed for Southeast L.A. County
Under congressional maps proposed by MALDEF and the William C. Velasquez Institute, a Latino think tank, a new Latino district would be squeezed in between the black districts and the Republican strongholds of Orange County. It would cover South Gate, Lynwood, Bellflower and other communities ranging from South Los Angeles to north Long Beach.
The loser would be the GOP incumbent, Rep. Steve Horn of Long Beach, whose district is already a tough one for Republican candidates. Velez, the MALDEF redistricting specialist, chuckled when asked what would become of Horn.
"Horn would no longer live in the district," he said. "Tough decisions have to be made."
In other parts of the state, Anglo Democrats represent districts that have become majority Latino, and their seats are prime targets for Latino successors. But until the lines are drawn it is unclear how successful the challengers might be.
Among the incumbents is Rep. Bob Filner of San Diego. Assemblyman Juan Vargas (D-San Diego) tried to unseat Filner in the 1996 Democratic primary, but failed. This year, Vargas is urging fellow lawmakers to stretch Filner's district eastward along the Mexican border to bring in tens of thousands of Latinos in Imperial County.
In the San Joaquin Valley, Rep. Calvin M. Dooley's district became nearly two-thirds Latino during the 1990s. A Latino Republican, Rich Rodriguez, challenged Dooley last year but lost. The new borders of Dooley's district appear to hinge less on ethnicity than on whether Democrats need to draw lines that strengthen the party's base in the adjacent district of Rep. Gary Condit.
Condit's reelection prospects have been tossed into doubt by the scandal over missing intern Chandra Levy. He has maintained that he will run for reelection, but it remains to be seen whether party map makers will feel moved to buttress his chances.
Anywhere lawmakers try to create a new Latino district, there is the threat that other ethnic groups will face unwelcome consequences.
Under MALDEF's proposal, the Asian American communities of the San Gabriel Valley would be split into two districts. Community leaders want to keep them together.
"As the Asian American population grows, there might be a chance that an Asian American 10 years from now would be elected to Congress," said John Wong, president of the Chinese American Citizens Alliance.
Whatever the impact, Latino state legislators expect that ultimately two to five new districts will offer Latino communities a dominant voice in electing members of Congress, said Saeed M. Ali, chief consultant to the Latino caucus.
But Kam Kuwata, a redistricting consultant to Assembly leaders, said no congressional districts would be drawn specifically for any ethnic group, and he declined to say whether any new ones would be majority Latino.
Latino members of Congress acknowledge that protection of Democratic incumbents is their paramount concern nationwide.
"We want to make sure the Democratic Party is in the majority," said Rep. Charles A. Gonzalez (D-Texas), who oversees redistricting issues for the Congressional Hispanic Caucus.
"It's not simply having a brown face. That doesn't do it. If a Republican happens to be Hispanic and has a horrible record, we're not doing anyone any favors."
Expectations are low among some Latino scholars and advocates.
David Diaz, a Chicano and urban studies professor at Cal State Northridge, expects California Latinos to remain "grossly underrepresented" in Congress.
"The Democratic Party is not going to sacrifice incumbency for minority representation," he said.