While the Los Angeles City Council prepares to battle an unfounded charge by the Justice Department challenging the 1982 redistricting plan, Latino activists--their fires fueled by the suit--continue to distort the reapportionment action.
Any feeling that this suit is "poetic justice" does torture to the full and open participatory efforts of the council to fairly reapportion its districts. The suit charges the city with "diluting" its Latino population so that it would be significant in only one district rather than in several.
This charge doesn't make a lot of sense.
In 1972 the council's reapportionment created a 14th District that was almost two-thirds Latino. While this clear majority was assumed to be the formula for electing a Latino to the council, there were some activists then who thought that the council should have spread the Latino numbers through two districts, giving them a shot at even more seats. As it turned out, 14th District voters elected, and repeatedly reelected, a non-Latino to represent them.
Then in 1982 the lines were redrawn to create a 14th District that is 75% Latino. Again there were those who argued that there should be several districts "where Latinos could wield political clout." But by taking that kind of action the council would indeed seem to be diluting Latino voting strength. In other words, the argument of the lawsuit is convoluted. A district with a 75% majority gives the Latino population strength in numbers. By taking those voters and spreading them over two or more districts, their strength is diminished-- diluted !
Redistricting is one of the many "no win" issues that legislative bodies must periodically face. It is a difficult process that attempts to reach a balance among various competing factions that often have little in common other than being in the same city. With respect to the last two redistrictings, the council took all the factors into account in drafting the plans--not just those intended to further special interests. In fact, the council in 1982 held an unprecedented series of committee meetings throughout the city to solicit direct public input. The approved plan met all the city Charter requirements governing redistricting, and, in spite of the suit's allegations, was consistent with federal law as well.
This brings me to what a recent article in The Times referred to as the "Snyder syndrome," defined as "constant Latino pressure against (former 14th District Councilman Arthur K.) Snyder" in the form of challenges "by ambitious young Latino politicians." That syndrome was simply the result of the frustration that some felt because the Latino 14th District had an effective, hard-working council member who happened to be a non-Latino --and, to their chagrin, unbeatable as well.
There is another factor at work here that I'll call the "Them Against Us syndrome." It's the preoccupation with ethnic majority as an essential precondition for participation in the political process. It's the belief that a group must have numerical superiority before it can wield any power in government.
In Los Angeles that idea has been disproved over and over. How else do you explain a four-term black mayor in a city with less than 20% black population? Or repeated election of Snyder by a district that was 65% to 75% Latino? Or Michael Woo's election in a district that is less than 12% Asian? Or three black council members while there is only one predominantly black council district? Or 40% of the council members being Jewish while the city's Jewish population is less than 25%?
An interesting comparison can be made involving the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors. Like the City Council, the supervisors draw their own district boundaries. Yet unlike the City Council, which is being sued, there are no blacks, Asians, Latinos or women on the county board. It's puzzling that no one has commented on the "Hahn syndrome," which relates to the ability of a white (Supervisor Kenneth Hahn) to be continuously reelected in a largely black district.
This lawsuit against the council's redistricting plan ignores a basic reality of politics in Los Angeles. The people of this city do not vote because of a candidate's ethnicity; they vote regardless of it. The voters look at the candidate, not at the candidate's race. When it gets right down to it, people pick the person who they feel is best for the job regardless of race. Statistics don't vote. People do. That's what democracy is all about.
I disagree with those who feel that the city will be viewed as "anti-Latino" if we fight the suit. People are more intelligent than that, and will see that Los Angeles is fighting simply because the suit is wrong. I am proud that my city has seen fit to make democracy work in spite of one's race, creed, ethnic or religious origins.