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Asian American groups enter fight over L.A. County supervisor districts

A coalition of Asian Pacific Islander groups waded into the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors’ political redistricting fight Wednesday, backing a plan by member Don Knabe, a white Republican from Cerritos they say has supported them.

By siding with Knabe, the groups joined opponents of two proposals seeking to create a second Latino-majority district on the five-member board. Such plans would undercut Asian American influence in county government, they argued.

“You can entertain a majority district for Latinos, but … it’s at our expense,” said Herb Hatanaka, a board member of the Asian Pacific Policy and Planning Council, a coalition of 40 nonprofit groups that provide health, job counseling and other social services. Many receive funding from the county board.

“If you create a majority district for any ethnic population, then for … the Asian Pacific Islanders, it dilutes our voting strength,” said Hatanaka, a Knabe appointee to a county redistricting panel.

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Although L.A. County is 14% Asian, no Asian has ever been elected to the Board of Supervisors. Asian neighborhoods aren’t large enough or close enough together to give them a dominant voice in any supervisorial district.

So Asian nonprofit organizations are weighing how best to ensure their voices are heard — and how to secure county funding.

Mark Masaoka, policy coordinator with the Asian policy council, said Asian Americans benefit when no one racial or ethnic group has a dominant majority. That’s the case in Knabe’s current southern and eastern county district, which, among eligible voters, is 42% white, 32% Latino and 17% Asian. Knabe’s area includes Asian neighborhoods in the South Bay, Hacienda Heights, Rowland Heights and the Diamond Bar area.

Knabe welcomed the group’s support, saying proposed Latino-majority districts should not be drawn “at the expense of every other ethnic group.”

Asian groups missed an opportunity earlier this year to submit their own redistricting proposal to the county. Activists said they were focused on crafting favorable boundaries for congressional and state legislative seats.

Beyond the Asian communities represented by Knabe, Supervisor Gloria Molina, a Latino, represents Chinatown, Little Tokyo and Historic Filipinotown. Koreatown is in the district of Mark Ridley-Thomas, who is black; and the heavily Asian western San Gabriel Valley cities of Alhambra and San Gabriel are represented by Michael D. Antonovich, who is white.

Some fear two proposed redistricting plans favoring Latinos could further fragment Asian voters. Under both scenarios, Chinatown would be shifted from a San Gabriel Valley district to a Latino-dominated district in the central area of the county. Lawrence J. Lue, chief executive of the Chinatown Service Center, said such changes could make it harder to lobby for crucial funding.

“We’re running into [an era of] tight resources,” Lue said.

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Chinatown is currently in a 63% Latino and 18% Asian district. But Lue said the two Latino-majority proposals would require his group to lobby three supervisors who would cover Chinatown and the San Gabriel Valley instead of two.

The news conference, in part, was a reflection of Knabe’s support among Asian service groups. Knabe said he has focused on Asian needs, including staffing county hospitals and welfare offices with more Asian interpreters.

“When we want to meet with a supervisor, quite often we meet with a staff member. With Don Knabe, we meet with him,” said Mariko Kahn, president of the Asian council. “Personal relationships count a great deal.”

Kahn also said both Ridley-Thomas and Molina were not as responsive to Asian needs. “I think there is room for improvement,” Kahn said.

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Both Molina and Ridley-Thomas said the proposed Latino maps would enhance Asian power.

“Arguably, it creates a scenario for more influence,” Ridley-Thomas said.

For example, proposals to create a second Latino majority district also would unify heavily Asian suburbs of Monterey Park and Rosemead in the same district as Alhambra, San Gabriel, San Marino and Arcadia. Both plans would give Asians a 19% share among eligible voters in a district that would be about 50% white and 23% Latino.

“We’re not trying to pit one community against another,” Molina said, reiterating that because L.A. County is 48% Latino, the Board of Supervisors ought to reflect that new demographic reality.

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The news conference came as supervisors are jockeying for support six days before the board is required to vote on new districts based on population changes recorded in the 2010 census. At this point, the board, which needs four votes to approve a plan, appears headed toward a deadlock. Molina and Ridley-Thomas are advocating for a second Latino district, while the other three supervisors appear poised to reject those plans.

ron.lin@latimes.com


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