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In historic vote, O.C. supervisors approve majority-Latino district for five-member board

Orange County Supervisor Katrina Foley listens during public comments
Orange County Supervisor Katrina Foley listens during public comments at a Board of Supervisors meeting in August.
(Kevin Chang / Staff Photographer)

In a historic vote, the Orange County Board of Supervisors on Monday created a majority-Latino district for the first time while also giving power to Asian voters.

The lines for the supervisors’ districts, redone once a decade after the national census, have long been drawn in a way that makes it hard for Latinos to be elected, despite the ethnic group’s rapid growth.

It has been 15 years since there was a Latino representative on the five-member board, which oversees a roughly $7.7-billion budget.

Many advocates celebrated the vote Monday afternoon, saying it was a seismic shift that could help Latinos elect candidates who can advocate for issues crucial to their communities, including housing and healthcare — needs that have been highlighted by the pandemic.

“This has been a long time coming,” said Thomas Saenz, president and general counsel for the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund.

The map keeps Costa Mesa in the same district as its neighbor, Newport Beach. Another map under consideration had separated the two cities with deep ties, including a shared school district, prompting allegations of gerrymandering to shut out Democrats.

That map would have put Supervisor Katrina Foley, a Democrat who lives in Costa Mesa, at a disadvantage.

Now, Foley, who is white, has a fair shot at winning reelection next year. Until then, she is in the odd situation of representing a majority Latino district that she does not live in.

Still, the final map makes three of five districts majority Republican, despite GOP registration in the county trending downward, said Julia Gomez, an ACLU staff attorney.

Gomez called the creation of a Latino-majority district “a huge victory” for the county. But she also alleges that the southern section of the county was gerrymandered in a way that reduces the influence of Democratic voters.

“So, it’s really a partial victory for community members,” she said.

This could open up Orange County to a legal challenge, Gomez said. She declined to say whether the ACLU was considering filing a lawsuit.

The final map, dubbed 5A1, was drawn by Supervisor Doug Chaffee, who with Foley is one of two Democrats on the majority-Republican board.

Chaffee, who is white, based his map on a proposal from the Orange County Civic Engagement Table, which aims to promote civic engagement in communities of color and includes Asian American, Pacific Islander, Latino, labor and environmental advocates.

The map, which was approved by a 3-2 vote with Republican Supervisors Andrew Do and Don Wagner dissenting, creates a district in which nearly 63% of voting-age residents are Latino. It includes Santa Ana and heavily Latino portions of Anaheim, Garden Grove, Tustin and Orange.

This district will be represented by Foley until next year’s election.

The map also creates a second district where 42% of voters are Latino.

Advocates say the two Latino-heavy districts may spur more political involvement and higher voter turnout from Latinos across the county.

“Groups that consistently see their candidates lose — sometimes folks within that group lose their interest in participating in elections, and it contributes to lower turnout,” Saenz said. “This will be a critical part of incorporating the Latino community fully in Orange County.”

In another district — which includes Fountain Valley, Midway City, Westminster and a portion of Garden Grove — 33% of voters are Asian American.

But the map splits voters in Irvine — one of the fastest-growing cities in the county and one with an increasing Asian American and Democratic electorate — between two districts.

Orange County hasn’t been majority white in nearly 20 years and has become increasingly politically diverse.

The county, once a bastion of conservatism, has turned purple, voting against Donald Trump twice and against the recall of Gov. Gavin Newsom in September. The population is 38% white, 34% Latino and 22% Asian, with more registered Democrats than Republicans.

But, as is often the case, political power for growing ethnic groups has lagged behind their demographic strength. The board currently has three white members and two Asian Americans. It has been majority Republican for decades.

Unlike in Los Angeles County, which has delegated this year’s redistricting to an independent commission, the Orange County supervisors themselves had final say on the outlines of the districts they will represent if they seek reelection.

Monday’s vote wrapped up nearly a month of meetings in which supervisors reviewed maps submitted by the public, made revisions to create a new set of maps and then made more changes to those.

Last week, the board whittled down its options to five proposals, based on two primary maps.

Do, who drew the other primary map under consideration, alleged that the competing option was drawn in a way to shift power away from Republicans.

He took issue with critics who accused him of drawing his map to protect a Republican majority.

“Do not come in here and put a map before us with this express desire and primary goals and then turn around and gaslight me by calling my thought process as being political,” said Do, who is Asian American.

Supervisor Lisa Bartlett, a Republican who is Asian American, supported the map that passed. She said it was not drawn in a way that favors any political party.

She supported it because it kept many south Orange County cities with similar populations and shared issues together. The map also kept more cities whole within a single district, she said.

Foley said the final map was the “lesser of two evils.” The other option would have placed her in a district that wasn’t up for reelection until 2024, essentially removing her from the board.

“I represent all of Orange County,” she said. “That’s what I’ve said from the beginning, and at this point, they’re giving me an opportunity to do that. I’m going to become the best supervisor Santa Ana ever had.”


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