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Lawyer Views Remap Case as Only 1st Step


To attorney Richard P. Fajardo, the Los Angeles County redistricting case involves much more than putting a Latino on the Board of Supervisors for the first time in this century.

Fajardo, who represents the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund in a Voting Rights Act suit against the county, said victory for his side will spur Latino political organization throughout California.

"What I think we're going to do with the suit is to open opportunities here," Fajardo said during an interview in the MALDEF office in downtown Los Angeles. Near him were 10 volumes, each with a red cover, containing the transcript of the landmark trial in U.S. District Court in Los Angeles.

Federal District Judge David V. Kenyon ruled in June that the county had violated the Voting Rights Act by discriminating against Latinos in the drawing of the five supervisorial districts in 1981. In August, Kenyon threw out a newly proposed county plan, saying it contained "nonsensical distortion," and he accepted a district alignment proposed by MALDEF.

But that was just the first phase of the case, and Fajardo has a lot of work ahead of him. An appellate court is reviewing Kenyon's decision, which means more courtroom work for Fajardo and the other lawyers in the case. The plaintiffs also include the U.S. Justice Department and the American Civil Liberties Union. The case could go to the U.S. Supreme Court.

As Fajardo sees it, MALDEF's involvement in the suit is part of the organization's nationwide effort to put Latinos in elected office. In Texas, where MALDEF was involved in similar litigation, there are now 6,000 Latino elected officials, twice as many as in California.

Latinos make up a third of Los Angeles County's population, but no Latino has served on the powerful board since 1875. A Latino Los Angeles County supervisor, Fajardo said, would stimulate voting registration and applications for citizenship.

"Politicians will persuade people to become citizens so they can build a (political) base," he said. And, he said, in the high-visibility job of Los Angeles County supervisor, a Latino would be in a good position to run for statewide office.

Finally, he said, the lawsuit will alert politicians that MALDEF will not stand for discrimination against Latinos when the Legislature and cities and counties around the state reapportion districts next year.

In regard to Los Angeles County, he said, political leaders will begin to talk "about health problems in East Los Angeles . . . the alternatives to closing clinics. And you'll see more Latino businessmen dealing with the county."

Those are among the reasons for MALDEF's intensity in pursuing the lawsuit.

That is why it resisted demands by the supervisors that the suit be dropped and that both sides wait for completion of the 1990 U.S. Census to draw up new districts. Why push the suit, county attorneys argued, when the census will produce new population figures?

And MALDEF rejected the point made by Supervisors Mike Antonovich and Deane Dana that the fact that Latina Sarah Flores finished first in June's primary election for the 1st District shows that the boundaries drawn by the supervisors do not discriminate against Latinos.

Fajardo said the decision by Antonovich and Dana to back Flores was an attempt by the two conservatives to maintain power by trying to persuade the court that her strong showing proved the county was not guilty of a Voting Rights Act violation.

"The board looks on Flores as a way to derail the lawsuit," Fajardo said. "It's classic."

He said: "If Sarah Flores wants to run, fine, but in a Hispanic district. . . . If these Republicans really believe the Hispanic community is Republican, or about to become Republican, they shouldn't be afraid to put her up in that district and test her ideas."

For Fajardo, his work on the suit is part of a commitment to helping his community that began when he was a student at Garfield High School and was turned toward activism by the East Los Angeles school walkouts in 1968 to protest inadequate education. "I didn't participate," he said, "but it had a great impact on me."

Fajardo's grandparents left Mexico for East Los Angeles in the 1920s. Like thousand of other Mexican families, they were fleeing from the turmoil that accompanied years of revolution in their country.

His father was born in East Los Angeles. He worked for the post office and, later, as a food stamp program inspector for the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

"Dad had a great impact on me," said Fajardo, 38. "He said I had to graduate from high school, and he encouraged me to go to college."

First sign-ups for college-preparatory courses are in the eighth grade. But on sign-up day, the counselor handed Fajardo a program with classes such as wood shop, plastics and physical education.

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