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Power lines

Tony Quinn is co-editor of the California Target Book, a nonpartisan analysis of California legislative and congressional elections.

Will minority representation in the Legislature decrease if Proposition 11, the redistricting reform initiative on the November ballot, passes? The measure would take away the Legislature’s power to draw its own political map and give the job to an independent, bipartisan citizens commission made up of 14 members, whom the state auditor would randomly select from registered voters who apply for the positions.

Such groups as the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund and the William C. Velasquez Institute contend that such a change would imperil seats held by minorities or possibly pit African Americans against Latinos in some districts. Alan Clayton, a redistricting expert with the L.A. County Chicano Employees Assn., says the measure, if approved, “could take the clock back in terms of political power in the Legislature that Latinos and African Americans have secured.” Clayton and other critics principally cite the directions the commission would use to draw the districts.

But history shows exactly the opposite. Minority representation has never significantly grown when legislators have drawn the district lines. Indeed, the huge increase in black and Latino legislators in the last two decades, and especially the rise in the number of Latino legislators, came about when the Legislature was not involved in reapportionment.

Minority representation in the Legislature dates to the 1950s and 1960s, when the growth of the black population in South-Central Los Angeles led to the election of several African Americans to the Assembly. By 1974, blacks represented four Assembly districts in southern and western Los Angeles County, a number that has not changed since. African Americans also held a state Senate seat and two South-Central congressional districts.

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In 1973, the Democratic-controlled Legislature and Gov. Ronald Reagan could not agree on a political map, which is redrawn every 10 years. The issue then went to the state Supreme Court, which appointed three retired judges to draw district lines. It was the first time in California history that state lawmakers did not do the job.

The court-supervised reapportionment plan boosted minority representation. It protected the four African American Assembly districts by ensuring black majority populations in each, added a second black state Senate district by combining areas of African American growth and carved out a third black congressional district in the Baldwin Hills-Ladera Heights area. In their report to the Supreme Court, the ex-judges said they had taken special steps to create opportunities to increase black and Latino representation.

Black politicians have held on to these seats for decades, whether the Legislature or the courts drew the state’s political map. And there is no evidence to suggest that this pattern would change if an independent citizens commission took over the redistricting job. According to the California Target Book, this part of Los Angeles includes a sufficient number of African American voters to assure the reelection of these black representatives. In addition, Proposition 11 specifically states that the federal Voting Rights Act -- which prohibits any retreat in minority representation in a county as heavily minority as Los Angeles -- must be followed.

The big issue in minority representation these days is not black representation but California’s growing population of Latinos, who make up about 19% of the state’s voters. For decades, Latinos complained that they were cut out of legislative seats by gerrymanders that diluted Latino voting strength to keep Anglo incumbents in office.

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A look at the numbers of Latinos elected in Los Angeles (which has the largest concentration of Latino voters in the state) under redistricting plans drawn up by lawmakers shows that they had cause to complain. The 1973 plan drawn by the former judges established four Latino Assembly districts in eastern Los Angeles. But when the Legislature redrew the political lines in 1981, it diluted the Latino count in one of the four districts held by an Anglo incumbent to ensure there would no longer be a Latino challenger in the primary. Throughout the 1980s, when the Latino population in Los Angeles swelled from 2.1 million to 3.3 million, no additional Latino legislators were elected to Sacramento or Congress.

In 1991, the Legislature’s redistricting plan was solely designed to protect incumbents, and Gov. Pete Wilson vetoed it. Then the issue went to the state Supreme Court, which again appointed three retired judges to redraw the map. In the report to the court justifying their political map, the former judges said they had not only protected existing minority districts but had combined minority neighborhoods to give black and Latino candidates an opportunity to win election even where they were not the majority of voters.

The results were dramatic. The map carved out three Latino state Senate districts in eastern parts of L.A. County and, within them, six Latino Assembly districts. The number of Latinos elected to the Assembly exploded from four in 1990 to 17 in 2000, the last year of the court’s redistricting plan. Nesting Assembly seats within the Senate districts kept minority neighborhoods intact and assured the election of Latinos to seats formerly held by Anglos. The number of Latinos in the state Senate grew from three to seven, and in the congressional delegation from three to six. Latinos also began winning in districts where they were not the majority, something that had not happened before. The non-legislative 1991 plan did more to expand minority representation in the Legislature than any redistricting in history.

How have Latinos fared so far this decade under the map drawn by legislators in 2001, which was another protect-the-incumbents plan? In the Assembly, the number of Latino legislators is exactly where it was eight years ago. The number of Latino state senators has risen, from seven to 10, but that’s not because of new districts drawn in the reapportionment. Rather, several Latino Assembly members elected under the 1991 plan have been able to move to the upper chamber.

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One additional Latino has joined the state’s congressional delegation, but there would have been two if redistricting hadn’t favored an incumbent. The Legislature’s 2001 congressional map made it tougher for a Latino to challenge Rep. Howard Berman (D-Valley Village) in the primary by dispersing Latino voters into other districts.

That is precisely the problem with allowing legislators to draw the lines. Minorities that already have districts are taken care of, but opportunities for additional gains (because of changes in the population) are stunted because of the need to protect incumbents.

What would happen to minority representation if Proposition 11 passed and citizens drew the lines? Judging by history, the number of minority-held seats would grow.


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