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Larger L.A. Council Could Avert Ethnic Turf Battles

August 01, 1986|FRANK del OLMO | Frank del Olmo is a Times editorial writer

The compromise that Los Angeles' city fathers came up with to calm the divisive battle between Latinos and Asians over redistricting the City Council is good--as far as it goes. But if more ethnic political conflicts are to be averted in the future, they'll have to do better.

In order to settle a federal lawsuit out of court, the council had to came up with a redistricting plan that would increase Latino population--currently jammed into the Eastside's 14th District--in at least one other district. The council at first accepted a plan devised by 14th District Councilman Richard Alatorre, the only Latino member, which was politically expedient but symbolically explosive. Alatorre wanted to put more Latinos into the neighboring 13th District, which is represented by Councilman Michael Woo, a Chinese-American.

The reaction was immediate and bitter. Woo accused Alatorre of trying to sacrifice the only Asian on the council in order to protect the "old-boy network" in City Hall, where 10 of 15 council members are white. The local Asian community rallied to Woo's support and persuaded Mayor Tom Bradley to veto Alatorre's plan. Wisely, the mayor said that he wanted no part of a proposal that caused conflict between the city's two fastest-growing ethnic groups.

Rebuffed, the council came up with a compromise that satisfied Woo. Under the new plan there still would be more Latinos in the 13th District. But the boundaries of Councilman John Ferraro's adjacent 4th District would be changed to include Woo's residence, and his base of financial support, in Hollywood. That would give Woo the chance of staying on the council if he defeated Ferraro for reelection next year. And that would open Woo's 13th District seat for a Latino candidate.

But just because this flap was settled does not mean that it won't happen again. Another ethnic turf battle is almost guaranteed when the council reapportions itself again after the 1990 census, if the city's Asian and Latino populations continue to grow while the numbers of blacks and whites further decline. That's why something dramatic must be done now, and the best idea around is the expanding of the council.

Some people have gone so far as to suggest tripling the council's size; even with 45 members it would be smaller than the 50-member Board of Aldermen in Chicago, which has 25,000 fewer people than Los Angeles has. San Fernando Valley resident Dan Shapiro has a good idea: He would double the council to 30 members, then cut the council's current staff and budget in half, distributing the money to new council members.

Council expansion should appeal to Latinos who did not like Alatorre's first redistricting plan--and it is worth noting that while some Latino groups rallied to Alatorre's defense during the Woo controversy, others refused to accept political advancement at the expense of Asians.

Then there are the 150,000 or so Latinos, mostly Mexican-Americans, who live in the San Fernando Valley. There have always been small Mexican barrios in that otherwise largely Anglo enclave. But in recent years the valley's Latino population has grown dramatically, spreading from Pacoima, where I grew up, as far as Sylmar and North Hollywood.

The valley's Latinos were largely overlooked in Alatorre's reapportionment plan. He focused his redistricting effort on the large barrio that he knows best--on the Eastside. If the council were larger, future reapportionment plans would have to take smaller barrios like Pacoima, or Wilmington in the harbor area, into account. It would also benefit growing ethnic enclaves like Koreatown in the mid-Wilshire district, or east Hollywood, where many Armenians and Eastern European immigrants have settled recently.

Just as important, a new Latino district geographically distant from the Eastside would stimulate new Chicano political leadership, loosening the grip that Alatorre and his Eastside clique have on local Latino politics.

One can respect Alatorre's skills and achievements--I certainly do--and still be dubious about the way in which he and friends like state Sen. Art Torres (D-Los Angeles) keep a tight rein on Eastside politics. How tight? Word is out that Alatorre and Torres have already decided on the candidate who will run in the 13th District if Woo gives it up: Larry Gonzalez, the former Torres aide who is now serving on the city Board of Education.

Gonzalez may be an excellent choice for a council seat, but how long will it be before Alatorre and Torres run out of capable--as opposed to merely ambitious--Latinos who can step into new political openings as they become available?

Politics in this city needs an infusion of fresh blood. Doubling the size of the council would help energize it. And with new ethnic faces from neglected communities like the San Fernando Valley's barrios, the council would better represent the complex city that Los Angeles has become.

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