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Noncitizens on Sidelines as Hernandez Recall Sputters

City Council: Effort mirrors many 1st District issues, as majority of residents are excluded because they can't vote.

February 02, 1998|TED ROHRLICH | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The effort to recall Los Angeles City Councilman Mike Hernandez has floundered for many reasons, but they do not include what he would most like to hear--some expression of his voting constituents' desire to have him stay.

Months after Hernandez's no-contest plea to a drug-possession charge and enrollment in a court-supervised rehabilitation program, the voters he represents still have not been asked what they want.

That lack of consultation reflects a poorly coordinated recall campaign that has been run on a shoestring budget by amateurs who have spent a lot of energy fighting among themselves.

It also mirrors the more general state of politics in his 1st District, where a majority of residents are routinely excluded from having a say on matters of common concern because they are noncitizens who cannot vote and are on the lower rung of an electoral caste system that leaves a minority in charge.

The 1st District, which slices through the city's center from Mt. Washington to Pico-Union, was created as a "safe seat" for a Latino lawmaker in the late 1980s as part of the settlement of a voting rights lawsuit. But the district's adults vote at only half the rate of adults citywide.

That extraordinarily low voting rate, which limits the district's influence in city politics, is often attributed to a lack of interest in civic affairs by an impoverished population that is preoccupied with staying alive. The district vies for the title of the city's poorest and least educated area, with nearly half its adults having at most junior-high educations.

But a Times' analysis of the most recent census data and of voting patterns in last year's municipal elections shows that economic and educational factors do not explain the voting pattern: The 1st District's lower-than-average voting rate is entirely explained by lack of eligibility.

Because the district is home to a huge number of recent immigrants, two-thirds of its adults are noncitizens who cannot vote. Voting by eligible adults in Hernandez's district occurred at the same one-in-four rate as voting by eligible adults citywide, The Times found.

The inability to vote of a large majority of adults in Hernandez's district poses a question of fundamental fairness.

As Fernando Guerra, director of the Center for the Study of Los Angeles at Loyola Marymount University, frames the issue: "How democratic is a system that excludes by definition more than half of the population?"

The fairness question is likely to be considered as part of current efforts to rewrite the city charter. "Since these are individuals lawfully present and paying taxes in the city of Los Angeles, we need to evaluate whether it is proper to continue to exclude them from the process by which they are governed," said USC constitutional law professor Erwin Chemerinsky, who chairs the elected charter revision commission.

But given recent expressions of anti-immigrant sentiment, almost no one expects Los Angeles' politicians to put themselves at the cutting edge of pro-immigrant change and approve expanded suffrage. Only New York now allows noncitizens limited voting rights. There, parents of children in school are allowed to vote in school board races, even if the parents are illegal immigrants.

"Nobody [in Los Angeles] is thinking seriously at this point about giving voting rights to noncitizens," said Richard Fajardo, who served as lead counsel for the Mexican American Legal Defense Fund in the voting rights lawsuit that resulted in the redrawing of the 1st District.

One effect of excluding so many noncitizens, who are mainly Latinos, is inflation of white electoral influence citywide. Usually older and more prosperous on average than members of other ethnic groups, whites are a minority of the city's population but a majority of its voters. In the 1st District, where whites comprise less than 10% of the population, their influence is especially disproportionate.

They account for almost half the district's likely voters, said Hernandez's political consultant, Stephen Afriat.

Another effect of exclusion is that in some heavily immigrant areas, entire neighborhoods go virtually unrepresented in voting booths. In the area around MacArthur Park, one of the most densely populated urban neighborhoods in the country, entire families squeeze into $250-a-month apartments intended as bachelor units. Although many problems over which local government has authority are acute, only two adults out of 100 in the precincts around the park voted in municipal races last year.

For the small group of 1st District activists who mounted the drive to recall Hernandez last fall, the presence of so many noncitizens had an important tactical effect.

It ruled out what seemed to be the most straightforward method of collecting the 6,400 voter signatures they needed to force a recall vote--stationing volunteers with petitions in front of supermarkets.

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