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Latino Group Sues Over Redistricting

Politics: It says the boundaries for four congressional and two state Senate seats were designed to keep white incumbents in office. New maps are sought.

October 02, 2001|KENNETH REICH | TIMES STAFF WRITER

A statewide Latino political organization filed suit in federal court Monday, challenging redistricting boundaries in a bid to increase Latino representation in Sacramento and Washington.

Lawyers for the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund charged that new boundaries for four congressional districts and two state Senate districts were designed to keep white incumbents in power. They asked a three-judge panel to order the lines redrawn and to delay the 2002 primaries from March until June to provide time to do it.

Although only a few districts are involved in the lawsuit, agreement by the federal judges could conceivably force redistricting of all California districts in Congress and the state Senate because redrawing can cause a ripple effect.

None of the new Assembly district lines was challenged.

All the redistricting plans--adopted every 10 years after the U.S. Census--were approved by heavy, bipartisan majorities in both houses of the Legislature last month, and quickly signed by Gov. Gray Davis.

FOR THE RECORD
Los Angeles Times Saturday October 6, 2001 Home Edition Part A Part A Page 2 A2 Desk 1 inches; 30 words Type of Material: Correction
Latino organization--A story Tuesday incorrectly described the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund. The organization is nationwide, with offices in California, Texas and Washington, D.C.

Sixteen of 19 Latino members of the Assembly and all seven Latino state senators voted for them.

But Antonia Hernandez, MALDEF president and chief counsel, said Monday that legislators simply voted for the plans "because their interests [in their own reelections] were taken care of."

She said the boundaries that were challenged dilute the Latino vote in at least three districts. The net result, she contended, would be to reelect white incumbents.

The biggest controversy is in the San Fernando Valley, where redistricting removed many Latino voters from the district long represented in Congress by Howard L. Berman (D-Mission Hills) and put them in an adjacent district represented by Brad Sherman (D-Sherman Oaks).

Berman's district also was pushed farther south into predominantly white areas of the Hollywood Hills, while Sherman's district was moved north and wrapped around Berman's district, to include many Latinos living in Sylmar and some nearby areas.

MALDEF asserts that this would dilute Latino registered voters in Berman's district from 45% to 31% in next year's Democratic primary. The change would about double the number of Latino registered voters in Sherman's district, but still leave them far short of the numbers required to threaten the incumbent.

Other assertions in the suit are that the redistricting was designed to protect state Sen. Betty Karnette (D-Long Beach) and Rep. Bob Filner (D-San Diego) by reducing the Latino vote in their districts.

Berman's brother, longtime Democratic redistricting consultant Michael Berman, drew up the Senate and congressional redistricting plans approved this year, and many past redistricting plans as well.

However, the courts have occasionally stepped in to redraw his plans.

'Terribly Disappointed'

Howard Berman said Monday that he is "terribly disappointed" that MALDEF has filed its suit.

"For 30 years in public office, I have not merely voted for, but have led the legislative battles to enact issues of importance to the Latino community," he said. "I guess for MALDEF, it's more about skin color and ethnicity than the philosophy and the quality of representation."

Sherman said he did not much like the redistricting, because it is moving him away from substantial parts of his present district, including the 20% proportion now within Ventura County.

Michael Berman, breaking his usual silence in such matters, said that overall his plan "massively protected Latino voting power" statewide.

The redistricting plans would lead to Latinos adding one seat to the six California seats they now hold in Congress, one Assembly seat and two or three state Senate seats, he said.

Michael Berman acknowledged that the redistricting protected incumbents, Democratic and Republican, but he said this was necessary to avoid the long, bitter struggles of the past when partisan splits sent everything to the courts.

Strengthening marginal Democratic seats, protecting seats held by African Americans and adding voters to underpopulated Los Angeles County districts were also said to be important principles of the Berman plan.

Davis on Monday called MALDEF "a very creditable organization, which certainly is entitled to bring its views into court."

But "while no plan is perfect," he said, "I believe the maps are fair and balanced."

Sherry Bebitch Jeffe, a senior scholar with USC's School of Policy, Planning and Development, said there is nothing unusual about legislators protecting their own interests in redistricting plans.

She said she had no idea what the federal court panel will do. Monday, only one judge, District Judge Margaret Morrow, had yet been named. MALDEF lawyers said she will now name a second District Court judge, and the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals will name the third judge.

Jeffe said the Berman plan might protect black lawmakers only in the short term. Eventually, she said, they are apt to be replaced by Latinos, as the overall Latino proportion of the California population is expected to continue to grow well beyond the one-third in the 2000 census.

Waiting Until Last Moment

At MALDEF, Hernandez said: "It is unacceptable and illegal to jeopardize the voting rights of historically disenfranchised minority voters. The district lines compromised the basic principles of community and the electoral process."

In addition, said Antonio Gonzalez of the William C. Velasquez Institute, which is supporting the MALDEF suit, legislators waited until almost the last possible moment to unveil the redistricting maps--the Friday before Labor Day--and then held a hearing the day after Labor Day.

Such procedures left minority representatives outside the Legislature with little capacity to respond, he said.

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