Suit seeks to open Compton to Latino voters

Determined to become Compton's first elected Latino representative at City Hall, Elias "Elijah" Acevedo ran for city clerk in 2001 and 2005. He also ran for City Council last year.

He lost all three elections.

"It's going to happen sooner or later," Acevedo, 36, said of his belief that a Latino will eventually win office. "President Obama made a big milestone. I think a Latino could do the same in Compton. I hope it will be soon, very soon."

Although Compton has gone from a predominantly African American community to a city that is two-thirds Latino over the last two decades, no Latino candidate has ever been elected to the City Council or any other city office. Since 2000, six Latino candidates have waged unsuccessful campaigns.

But that may be about to change.

Earlier this month, three Latina residents sued the city under the 2001 California Voting Rights Act, contending that its at-large council elections violate Latinos' civil rights by diluting their voting power.

City officials did not respond to requests for comment about the lawsuit.

The plaintiffs seek to halt the city's scheduled April 2011 primary and June 2011 general election until the suit is resolved, according to their attorneys.

Those behind the lawsuit are Felicitas Gonzalez, a fourth-grade Compton Unified School District teacher; Flora Ruiz, graduate coordinator of student affairs in USC's English department; and 19-year-old Santa Monica College student Karmen Grimaldi.

The women either declined to or were unavailable for comment. Although it is unclear who is financing the suit, it appears to have the backing of a large number of Latinos, including community leaders and business owners.

Compton has a mayor and four council members. The council members represent separate districts but are elected by voters throughout the city. In a by-district system, voters would elect representatives in their specific districts. The court would ultimately decide whether to adopt district lines to be proposed by the plaintiffs, said Joaquin Avila, attorney for the women. Avila is a Seattle-based lawyer with expertise in voting rights cases.

"If you [vote] district by district, your representative has to be more accountable," said Arnold Alatorre, 49, who runs the family-owned Alatorre Market and grew up in Compton but now lives in Downey. "Once they get voted in at-large, they figure they are already in, so they feel they don't have to answer to anybody."

It would be possible to create at least one district in Compton where Latinos would make up a majority of potential voters, according to a statistical analysis included in court documents. That would probably result in the election of at least one Latino to the City Council.

But there is no guarantee.

Although Latinos make up a numerical majority in Compton, a city of roughly 94,000 residents, they still are only 43% of eligible voters, according to U.S. Census estimates. A little more than half of voting-age Latinos residents are not citizens.

"Politically, Latinos definitely need to be better represented, when you look at the population numbers," said Martin D. Chavez, 51, a third-generation resident of Compton who ran unsuccessfully for a council seat in 1989. "However, we are in a democratic country, you have to be a citizen to run for office and to vote."

In the last decade, no Latino candidate in Compton has advanced from a primary to a general election. There are also no Latinos on the Compton Unified School District's board, even though Latinos make up at least 75% of the district's student body, according to the state Department of Education.

When Diana Sanchez, once an outspoken critic of City Hall, ran for City Council in April 2009, she became the only Latino candidate to receive more than 20% of the vote in the last decade.

Sanchez was appointed by Mayor Eric Perrodin in July to represent the city on the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California. She did not respond to requests for comment for this article.

Al Camarillo, a history professor at Stanford University and a Compton native, said the issue of Latino representation has been complicated by the history of African Americans' struggle for civil rights. Black voters and officials who had fought to get representation a generation ago are not likely to give up power easily, Camarillo said.

And some African Americans don't feel they should have to.

They point to municipalities including Maywood, Huntington Park, Bell Gardens and South Gate, all of which have Latino-majority councils.

"No one's going over there and complaining that there's no African Americans on their council," said Royce Esters, 73, an African American businessman and Compton resident since 1956, when the city was predominantly white and there were no blacks at City Hall. "African Americans are not just going to give [Latinos] the seats. They've got to go out and campaign, and come out to vote. That's how they might get in. You have to win your seat."

Benjamin L. Holifield, a veteran African American civic activist who moved to Compton more than 40 years ago, said history is repeating itself — only now blacks dominate City Hall. Latinos, he said, are hankering for representation from their own community, just as African Americans once did.

"It could have been improved then, and it could be improved now," said Holifield, who ran for mayor in 2005 and favors by-district elections because "it's the right thing to do" given the city's percentage of Latino residents.

"I'm an advocate for everybody having a chance to run and win," he said, "regardless of who they are."

There have been relatively few lawsuits filed under the California Voting Rights Act, which was enacted in 2002 and declared constitutional by the U.S. Supreme Court in 2007 after an appeal by the city of Modesto.

In response to a letter from the plaintiffs' attorneys before the suit was filed, Compton City Atty. Craig Cornwell said the city's charter and municipal code dictated that the elections be held at-large. To change that would require a vote of the residents.

He also pointed out that election results show that even if voting had been by-district in the April 2009 primary — in which two Latino candidates ran and lost — the outcome would have been the same if current council district boundaries had been used.

Compton briefly held by-district elections after voters approved a charter change in 1976. But the next year, voters switched back to at-large elections. Then-City Clerk Charles Davis, who retired in 2003, said incumbents preferred the at-large system in part because it made recalls more difficult.

"There was some political motivation, but the motivation wasn't race," Davis said.

Compton, like other largely immigrant cities in southeast Los Angeles County, has had a recent history of elections decided by a tiny minority of the residents. In the 2009 primary election in which two Latino candidates were defeated, just 7% of the city's voting-age population participated, according to a Times analysis.

Providing a bridge between Compton's Latinos and City Hall is what spurred Acevedo to run for elected office on three occasions. He attributed his defeats largely to Latinos' poor showing at the polls.

"There needs to be better communication between the city and Latino residents," Acevedo said. "Many people don't read or speak English. There is a big language barrier."

Maria Villa Real, president of the Latino Chamber of Commerce, cited other perceived inequities in the community. She and other community leaders said the city spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on a gospel festival and Juneteenth celebrations targeted at black residents, while spending roughly $90,000 on September's Latino Heritage Festival.

Villa Real contended that the city's Spanish-speaking population simply wants fair treatment.

"Latinos don't want to take over Compton," she said. "All we want is respect, equal opportunity, and to be treated right."

ann.simmons@latimes.com

abby.sewell@latimes.com

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