An epic redistricting battle is shaping up at the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors that could result in the first nonwhite board majority in modern history and further reduce the clout of Republicans in county politics.
Latino activists are pushing for the county to create a second Latino-majority district, saying demographic shifts in the last decade demand it. Latinos now make up 48% of the county population, up from 45% in 2000, census data show. And Latinos constitute a third of the county’s potential voters, up from a little more than one in four a decade ago.
“I hope the board is going to recognize the demographic changes in this county,” said Gloria Molina, the county’s first nonwhite and first person of Latino heritage to be elected supervisor in more than a century. Molina won her seat two decades ago after civil rights groups prevailed in a legal fight that went to the U.S. Supreme Court. Latino representatives successfully argued that supervisors had drawn boundaries since the 1950s to protect white incumbents and dilute the Latino vote.
Before Molina’s election, no Spanish-surnamed person had served on the board since 1875.
“After a while, it comes down to fairness,” said Steven A. Ochoa, national redistricting coordinator for the Los Angeles-based Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund.
A plan backed by Molina and Latino activists would radically overhaul the districts of Republican Don Knabe of Cerritos and Democrat Zev Yaroslavsky of the Westside. Knabe’s largely white district, which hugs the county’s western and southern coastal edges, would be redrawn as the new majority Latino district, shifting deeply into Molina’s current district toward the eastern San Gabriel Valley.
Yaroslavsky would be forced to give up large swaths of the San Fernando Valley to Molina’s new Central L.A. district, which would take in areas as far north as Sylmar and as far west as Canoga Park. Yaroslavsky would pick up the western and southern parts of Knabe’s district, including Long Beach, the South Bay and Republican-friendly territory on the Palos Verdes Peninsula.
Yaroslavsky, a possible Los Angeles mayoral candidate, is termed out of his county office in 2014. But Knabe, a Republican, is eligible for one more term and, under the Molina-backed plan, would reside in a more heavily Democratic district where 52% of adult U.S. citizens are Latino, compared with just 32% in the area he now represents. In terms of total population, Knabe’s district would be 62% Latino.
A second Latino district could also increase the liberal majority on the board. If four votes went to Democrats, they would suddenly gain a four-fifths majority, a critical threshold for decisions such as allocating money for competing programs.
The first hint of where supervisors’ interests lie came in the votes of their appointees to a redistricting commission. Last month, representatives of Molina and Mark Ridley-Thomas, who is black, supported creating the new Latino-majority district. Delegates of the white supervisors, Yaroslavsky, Knabe and Republican Supervisor Michael D. Antonovich, backed district boundaries largely preserving the status quo.
Public hearing set
The recommendation now goes to the Board of Supervisors, which will hold an initial public hearing on the issue Tuesday.
Knabe spokeswoman Cheryl Burnett said the plan adding a new Latino-majority district would be disruptive to constituents who have grown familiar with their supervisors over the last two decades. “The supervisors and their offices know the issues ... and know what their constituents expect and need,” she wrote in an email response to The Times.
Burnett pointed to the success of Latino politicians such as L.A. Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa. “There’s nothing that currently prevents a Latino from running for, and being elected as, supervisor of any of the five county supervisorial seats,” Burnett wrote.
But Molina and MALDEF suggested that the county may be inviting another federal voting rights lawsuit if it chooses a status quo option.
To protect the rights of minority voters, the Supreme Court has ruled that, in certain circumstances, electoral bodies must draw districts that ensure a minority group “has the effective opportunity to elect ... candidates of [its] choice,” said Loyola Law School professor Justin Levitt.
Latino political power is weakened because there are stark differences in voting patterns among different ethnic groups in L.A. County, Levitt said. Research shows that Latinos generally coalesce around a candidate and other groups often vote to defeat that candidate, he said. That is particularly pronounced in lower-profile local elections, he said.
Advocates of two Latino-majority districts note that L.A. County has a history of drawing districts that discriminate against Latino voters. A federal court in 1990 found that there was intentional discrimination against Latino voters in supervisorial redistricting in 1959, 1965, 1971, 1981 and 1990, which, according to the court decision, was designed “at least in part to avoid enhancing Latino voting strength.”
In that case, 9th Circuit Court of Appeals Judge Alex Kozinski cited a lower court finding that there had been a pattern of splitting Latino neighborhoods “to prevent the emergence of a strong Hispanic challenger who might provide meaningful competition to the incumbent supervisors.”
“This case will be remembered for its lucid demonstration that elected officials engaged in the single-minded pursuit of incumbency can run roughshod over the rights of protected minorities,” Kozinski wrote.
Ochoa, the MALDEF official, said approval of something akin to the current districts could violate federal law because it would reduce the voting power of Latinos by packing them into a single district -- Molina’s.
“Is it worth the cost of a potential lawsuit to dilute the Latino vote in L.A. County?” Ochoa said. “Is one more election cycle worth it to Don Knabe?”
And in a not-so-subtle dig at Yaroslavsky, Ochoa said, “Is it worth it for some of these termed-out elected officials who want to run for other things -- is it worth it for them for one of their last acts to be to disenfranchise Latino voters?”
A big question will be whether a compromise map can be drawn that could withstand a legal challenge. Legally, new districts must be drawn every decade to equalize population counts and it takes four of the five supervisors to approve a new map. If that doesn’t happen by Oct. 31, a panel of Dist. Atty. Steve Cooley, Sheriff Lee Baca and Assessor John R. Noguez will draw the new boundaries.
Allan Hoffenblum, Antonovich’s appointee to the redistricting committee, said the plan to create a second Latino-majority district is too radical and would result in Knabe’s district being “decimated.” “I said, ‘Let’s be practical. Why would you disrupt the district of someone who is seeking his final term?’ ”
He said the proposal is “basically a racial gerrymander that’s not in the best interests of the county as a whole.”
In addition to minority group status, other factors should be considered, including keeping communities together and protecting incumbents who understand their districts, he said.
Splitting the Valley
One community that would be cleaved in two is the San Fernando Valley, which would diminish the chance that Yaroslavsky’s successor would be a Valley resident, said Stuart Waldman, president of the Valley Industry and Commerce Assn. “We are a group of people who have similar needs and wants,” Waldman said. When politicians “don’t live in your area ... you’re not being as represented as best as you could,” he said.
Yaroslavsky said he wanted to follow federal law while avoiding tearing apart communities of interest. “I think there are different ways of doing that than are suggested in these two plans,” he said.