IS AN INFORMAL COMPACT that has helped keep racial tensions from boiling over in Los Angeles about to end? Are Latinos on the verge of displacing the region’s black elected officials?
On Tuesday, voters in the Southern part of Los Angeles County will decide a special election that may mark an end to the delicate balance of power between L.A.'s black and Latino political elites. In the race to succeed Juanita Millender-McDonald, an African American member of Congress who died of cancer in April, the leading candidates are state Sen. Jenny Oropeza (D-Long Beach), a Latina, and Assemblywoman Laura Richardson (D-Long Beach), an African American. (Millender-McDonald’s daughter, Valerie McDonald, is also running.) Because Oropeza and Richardson essentially hold the same positions on major issues, their matchup is significant chiefly for its racial implications.
The contest in the 37th Congressional District, which includes most of Long Beach, Carson and Compton, could be an exception to an unwritten political rule in Los Angeles: Growing Latino political clout doesn’t come at the expense of black political power.
In a city like L.A., one would expect the city’s black and Latino political communities to have clashed more frequently than they have. Liberalism may be their common ideology, but the economic interests of the black and Latino working classes have at times come into conflict as the Latino presence in the city grew. For example, Latinos have largely taken the janitorial and hotel jobs that blacks held 25 years ago. In the poorest quadrants of the city, violence between black and Latino gangs rages.
And yet L.A.'s black and Latino political elites have tended to avoid conflict more often than not. In the 2005 mayoral election, for example, both groups largely supported the candidacy of Antonio Villaraigosa. Multiracial coalitions have been, if not the norm, at least frequent in city politics -- surprisingly frequent. Generally, as once heavily black parts of the city have become plurality or majority Latino, the elites have worked together to limit the possibility of Latino candidates winning elections in districts historically represented by blacks.
So the implications of an Oropeza victory in a longtime black seat may at first glance seem stark. Historically black South L.A. is now sufficiently Latino that, in theory, black political representation could be threatened. In the 2000 Census, Millender-McDonald’s district was just 25% black and 43% Latino, though many of those Latinos were not registered voters or American citizens. The Latino population also exceeds the black population in the other two L.A. congressional districts represented by African Americans (Maxine Waters and Diane Watson), though again, many of the Latinos are noncitizens.
In the zero-sum game of electoral politics, that could augur the eventual extinction of L.A.'s black political leadership, not only at the federal level but at the state, county and city levels as well. Such a move could imperil the majority center-left coalition that dominates L.A. politics, and destabilize the city more generally. And because African Americans, like the Irish a century ago, have used political power to attain public sector jobs (a logical response to the employment discrimination they’ve long encountered in the private sector), any reduction in political clout could also foretell a reduction in economic prospects.
So far, though, no one is playing the zero-sum game. For one thing, a multiracial coalition is still the key to victory in Tuesday’s election. In the 2006 Democratic primary election in Millender-McDonald’s district, the turnout was estimated to have been 28% African American, 22% Latino, 6% Asian and 44% white. Because the winner of this week’s race will need to win more than 50% of the vote (either in the primary or in a runoff), he or she will presumably need the support of a racial rainbow to prevail -- and that’s the case in a large number of electoral districts across Los Angeles.
Second, the black and Latino political communities have a long-term commitment to preserving black political representation. Up to now, that hasn’t really hindered the growth of Latino representation -- there are five Latino members of Congress from L.A. County. In the reapportionment that followed the 2000 census, attorneys Connie Rice, then of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, and Antonia Hernandez, then of the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, worked together to ensure that the newly drawn districts didn’t come at the expense of blacks.
“Over the years,” says Antonio Gonzalez, the president of the Southwest Voter Registration Education Project, which registers Latino voters, “there’s been a prudent consensus that you try to work it out so that everybody has what they perceive as a critical mass of representation. It’s in everyone’s interest that communities be represented.”
Rice is more explicit: “Latinos have bent over backward not to take African American districts.”
Another significant player in keeping L.A. politics less racialized than they could be is the labor movement, which has been a dominant force in many L.A. district elections. Over the last decade, union leaders have compiled a remarkable track record of persuading their members to vote economics rather than race.
Still, a demographic tide is a demographic tide. So it’s particularly important that candidates of all races in the L.A. area have begun to win districts that aren’t racially “theirs.” The Assembly seat that Richardson won in November was held by Oropeza, just as the Senate seat that Oropeza captured then was occupied by the term-limited Alan Lowenthal, a white Jew. In San Bernardino in November, African American Democrat Wilmer Carter was an upset victor in an Assembly district that isn’t heavily black and had been represented by a Latino.
The future political clout of the African American community may, in fact, partly depend on the ability of its candidates to win outside historically black areas because the number of predominantly black districts will continue to shrink. Carter’s victory, and the early successes of the presidential campaign of Barack Obama, are provisionally hopeful signs.
As far as Rice is concerned, it’s about time. “We [the African American community] have had 20 years’ notice that we need to move from having our power derive from [district-based] political clout to having a more universal appeal,” she says. “In more diverse districts, we should be able to play.”