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One Latino Councilman Isn't Enough : U.S. Suit Gives Impetus to Redressing Underrepresentation

December 13, 1985|STEVE URANGA | Steve Uranga, a grants administrator, headed the research committee of the Los Angeles County Coalition of Californios for Fair Representation

The recent Justice Department lawsuit against the City of Los Angeles' 1982 redistricting plan was welcome news. The task of drafting new lines should be considerably easier, now that the special election in the 14th District is over. For only the second time in this century the Latino community has a representative on the City Council, Richard Alatorre, who should provide a powerful voice in redistricting discussions.

As member of the Los Angeles County Coalition of Californios for Fair Representation, I, along with many others, fought to improve redistricting plans in the county. Although many Latinos active in that battle question the Justice Department's motives, considering its efforts to dilute the Voting Rights Act elsewhere, there is among them virtually unanimous support for the lawsuit.

The organizations that joined the coalition were from the civil-rights and feminist movements, education, government and social-service organizations. Our main purpose was to get involved in the redistricting process by educating the community and by presenting testimony and redistricting plans for the county Board of Supervisors, the City Council and the Board of Education.

The fact that the Justice Department's lawsuit does not include the predominantly Republican Board of Supervisors is not lost on Latino activists. (Is the suit against the city an attempt to embarrass Mayor Tom Bradley?)

In many ways the political situation for Latinos in the county is considerably worse than in the city. The 1981 redistricting plan approved by the Board of Supervisors did not take into account any of our proposed redistricting changes. With a population of 2.9 million Latinos and only five supervisors (all Anglo males), coupled with the unequitable district lines, the county situation also deserves the Justice Department's attention.

The 1982 redistricting plan for the Los Angeles school board is a perfect example of how the reapportionment process can be used to achieve equitable political participation. The 5th District was being challenged by Latino candidates who were attempting to unseat ultraconservative incumbent Richard Ferraro. It was an election that the Latino community could not afford to lose.

Ferraro accused the City Council of a "blatant political move" when the council and Bradley approved a reapportionment plan that removed the city of South Gate, a Ferraro stronghold, from the 5th District. The reapportionment plan approved by the council and the mayor was the same plan prepared by the Californios coalition. When the school board election results were in, Ferraro had lost by 5,000 votes to a Boyle Heights Latino, Larry Gonzalez. "The loss of South Gate cost me 5,000 votes," Ferraro said.

Yet when the City Council approved a redistricting plan that would affect its membership, the result can best be described as "protect the incumbent."

The 14th Council District lines are an example of selective redistricting: Latino areas of Highland Park in northeast Los Angeles were redrawn so that they would be part of the 2nd District, which primarily covers the San Fernando Valley. A Latino housing project in the southwest portion of the 14th District was placed in the 9th District. In the 14th District election, incumbent Art Snyder avoided a runoff with challenger Steve Rodriguez by a mere four votes. One can only speculate what the results might have been had those two areas remained in the district.

The City Council redistricting plan presented by the Californios coalition was doomed from the beginning, and we knew it. The plan was criticized by some Latino leaders as being too rigid and idealistic, but the only other alternative was to present a plan that would have resulted in token changes without any significant effect for Latinos throughout the city.

There are many areas of the city, not just the Eastside, that have significant numbers of Latinos. The northeast San Fernando Valley, Mar Vista and Venice in West Los Angeles, the central core of downtown Los Angeles and portions of the South-Central area all have growing Latino populations. That is the basic reason why the Californios coalition presented a plan that attempted to provide a stronger voice for all the city's Latinos. We knew that there was little chance that our plan would be approved, but we saw no other way to effectively publicize the inequities.

Now that the Justice Department has joined the redistricting effort, I hope that through a negotiated settlement, mediated by the courts, a process can be worked out whereby new City Council lines are drafted with the significant participation of representatives from the Latino community. Such a process can be made to work for two reasons: I have yet to talk with anyone who truly believes that the mayor and the council intentionally discriminated against Latinos in the redistricting plan, and, most important, the Latino community is eager to cooperate in seeking a successful solution to this issue.

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