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California Politics: Some communities get lots of redistricting attention

There is a sense of calm on the Long Beach shoreline.
(Mark Boster / For The Times)

Just north of downtown Fresno lies a small region, comprising a couple of smaller communities, that has become something of a cause célèbre in California’s redistricting effort as it heads into the final stretch.

For weeks, the 14-member California Citizens Redistricting Commission has talked a lot about a community called Old Fig Garden.

“Which is higher?” Andre Levesque, a GOP political consultant, asked in a tweet on Monday that includes the commission’s Twitter handle. “Number of times @WeDrawTheLines has mentioned Old Fig Garden or Population of Old Fig Garden?

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The small Fresno County enclave isn’t the only place in California that’s received what some might view as an abundance of recognition in the drawing of new legislative and congressional districts.

Commissioners have also spent hours discussing — and trying to honor — requests for where the political lines should be drawn around Long Beach and the nearby city of Signal Hill. And there’s also been noticeable attention paid to Orange County’s Little Saigon community, areas around Camp Pendleton, Simi Valley and Sacramento County’s unincorporated community of Vineyard.

More than 30,000 public comments have been submitted to the commission, asking for a favorable drawing of the new lines. But the more a handful of communities are discussed, the greater the possibility that some will see it as preferential treatment. And the obvious follow-up question: Why are some communities hardly discussed at all?

#OFGForever

Redistricting commissioners aren’t oblivious to the social media critiques of their frequent mentions of Old Fig Garden, a Fresno County community with a census count of 5,477 people.

“I’ll miss all the snarky tweets,” wrote Commissioner Sara Sadhwani on Tuesday in response to another proposal to rethink the lines around Old Fig Garden. She added “#OFGForever” as a Twitter hashtag to her post.

In broad strokes, there’s good reason for the redistricting panel to spend a lot of time on drawing lines in and around Fresno County. Along with the nearby Central Valley counties of Kings, Tulare and Kern, there’s a long history of concerns about maps that might dilute the political strength of the area’s Latino voters.

The commission’s legal consultants have said that districts for the state Senate, Assembly and the U.S. House of Representatives in these Central Valley communities should be drawn to ensure electoral opportunities for Latinos under provisions of the federal Voting Rights Act.

Here’s where things get confusing.

Old Fig Garden, an unincorporated area surrounded on all sides by the city of Fresno, has mostly been discussed with regard to the need to protect the rights of Black voters. But census data show the community is overwhelmingly white.

Meanwhile, the neighborhood of Fig Garden Loop — home to one of Fresno’s highest concentrations of Black residents — is a few miles away.

Is it possible this is a case of mistaken identity?

“Just wait til you guys learn Fig Garden Fig Garden Loop Fig Garden Village Fig Garden Elementary …are all different things; and most likely won’t be in the same district as Old Fig Garden,” tweeted Justin Mendes, a former Hanford City Council member, on Thursday.

Advocates point out that there’s an emerging Black community in Fresno that’s just a few blocks from the predominantly white Old Fig Garden. But even then, the proposed boundary lines don’t reflect that, even after commissioners have expressed support for changes to that effect.

“In Fresno, at all levels, the commission has split natural Fresno [communities] that should be kept together due to shared interests and demographics,” Kristin Nimmers, a spokesperson for the Black Census and Redistricting Hub, told the commission on Nov. 20. “As we engaged community members during the [community of interest] stage, folks continually listed out the importance of ensuring that Black communities in this area are both united and not paired with Clovis, which has significantly different interests.”

While the maps remained in flux at week’s end, the area around Fig Garden Loop has remained in legislative and congressional districts with more agricultural communities such as Clovis. Old Fig Garden, on the other hand, looks to be on the other side of the lines.

‘A zero-sum game’

About 8% of all public comments submitted to the state panel have been about Long Beach, with few voices as effective at influencing the commission’s work as Equality California, a prominent LGBT advocacy group that’s been shining a spotlight on the lines drawn in and around the city.

“We’re at the point now where, to a certain extent, it’s a zero-sum game,” said Samuel Garrett-Pate, the organization’s director of external affairs. “In order to unite some communities of interest, you’ve got to divide others.”

The organization has submitted detailed maps offering ideas on alternatives to commission proposals that would split Long Beach into several political districts, arguing that doing so would weaken the political voice of a community that hasn’t had much of one in the past.

“It is ultimately the commission’s job to determine what communities have been put at a disadvantage,” Garrett-Pate said. “Long Beach is a very diverse city and has a lot of communities of interest that have been historically marginalized.”

Like a few other prominent groups, including the Black redistricting coalition and the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund (MALDEF), Equality California has expert mapping consultants who have been revising their requests as the commissioners’ preferences have become more clear during public meetings.

“Everything in our plan can be adjusted to fit their current lines and we can send you a shapefile tonight that better matches you [sic] internal lines in Los Angeles,” the group posted on Twitter last weekend, tagging the Twitter accounts of three commissioners — Sadhwani and Commissioners Pedro Toledo and Trena Turner — in offering GIS mapping documents made with the same tools as those used by the commission.

Garrett-Pate said that Equality California and other groups work together when their interests are aligned.

“Ultimately, the entire state benefits when there is a more diverse Legislature, a more diverse Congress,” he said. “I think the most anyone can ask for is for the commission to hear them out.”

The politics of Long Beach, as it turned out, made big news as the week came to a close. Rep. Alan Lowenthal announced Thursday that he will retire and on Friday morning, Long Beach Mayor Robert Garcia said he will run to succeed Lowenthal — even while it remains unclear whether the final maps will show the district is also home to longtime Rep. Lucille Roybal-Allard.

Lawsuit rejected as deadline nears

One hurdle was cleared easily this week for the commission courtesy of the California Supreme Court.

On Wednesday, the court refused to hear an emergency appeal filed by several Republican voters who wanted the commission’s legal counsel fired and more disclosure of documents related to racially polarized voting. There was no explanation from the justices for why they refused to hear the request.

Meanwhile, the commissioners — five Democrats, five Republicans and four unaffiliated voters — pretty much have their backs against the wall at this point.

“The number of hours that we have left is limited,” Commission Chairman J. Ray Kennedy said at the conclusion of Wednesday’s meeting.

They have substantial issues still left to resolve with congressional and state Senate districts. And no matter what, the California Supreme Court has set Dec. 27 as the deadline for all maps to be certified and submitted to Secretary of State Shirley Weber.

The commissioners say they intend to finalize the maps on Monday, ensuring there’s time before Christmas for public review and comment. But that probably means a long, grueling weekend lies ahead.

Approving the maps takes consensus. The California Constitution requires at least three commissioners from each political subgroup for ratification. But with only four seats on the commission, that means even greater agreement among the panel’s “no party preference” voters.

Notable absences for one member

One of the politically unaffiliated commissioners may end up voting on maps he’s largely not discussed during public meetings.

Antonio Le Mons, a Southern California member of the redistricting commission, has missed a number of key meetings in recent weeks. And when he’s marked absent, his camera often shows only a generic backdrop with a muted microphone.

The commission has no clear rules about attendance and, until The Times began making inquiries, did not offer clear information to the public about the attendance records of its members.

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California politics lightning round

— After a Republican-led effort to recall him plummeted to defeat in September, Gov. Gavin Newsom is all but alone on the public stage with just six months before the June statewide primary.

— Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti, testifying before a congressional panel weighing his nomination to be U.S. ambassador to India, said he never witnessed misconduct alleged by a former police bodyguard who claims in a lawsuit that an advisor to the mayor sexually harassed him.

— In the upcoming session, California legislators will push forward a plan to end to out-of-pocket costs paid by those seeking abortions in an effort to sharply expand access to services.

— The COVID-19 pandemic exposed deep, systemic problems with the quality of care at nursing homes. In California, the industry’s track record is spurring lawmakers to radically rethink how the state pays and oversees them.

— A coalition of housing advocates, labor unions and progressive activist groups has plans for a Los Angeles ballot measure that would increase taxes on local real estate transactions to fund permanent housing for homeless people and those at risk of ending up on the street.

A holiday hiatus

The California Politics newsletter will take Dec. 24 off for a brief Christmas pause. Join us Dec. 31 for one final newsletter of the year! Thank you, as always, for being a loyal reader and remember it’s not too late to add a digital subscription to The Times as a stocking stuffer.

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