SACRAMENTO — Latino activists attacked the proposed new boundaries of two San Fernando Valley congressional districts Tuesday, charging that the changes would weaken the political muscle of the area's fast-growing Latino community.
But at the first public hearing on state legislative and congressional redistricting plans, the chief sponsor, state Sen. Don Perata (D-Alameda), fired back, insisting that they offered a "major breakthrough" for strengthened Latino representation.
Representatives of the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund and the California Latino Redistricting Coalition voiced anger that some 250,000 Latinos would be moved out of Rep. Howard L. Berman's 26th District under the new plan.
As a result, the Latino population served by Berman (D-Mission Hills) would plunge from 65% to 41%. Those affected would become constituents of Rep. Brad Sherman (D-Sherman Oaks).
Map makers "have effectively diluted, diminished and decimated . . . the ability of the Latino community to elect someone of their choice," said Amadis Velez, a redistricting expert for the legal defense and educational fund.
Those sentiments extended beyond the Capitol.
"What was created there are two districts that the Latino community cannot win. We hate it," said Antonio Gonzalez, president of the William C. Velasquez Institute, a think tank in Southern California.
Perata, Democratic chairman of the Senate elections committee, said the reconfiguration of the Valley districts and the other redistricting plans "maximize Latino voting strength, increase representation and best reflect the interests of Latinos in California."
In the state Senate plan, Perata said, two and possibly three districts would receive additional Latino populations and thereby increase their political clout. Currently, there are seven Latino state senators.
Based on population growth in the past decade, the redistricting package also would create the state's newest congressional district--the 53rd--as a Democratic Latino seat in southeastern Los Angeles County, a move applauded by Latino activists.
The three redistricting plans were made public last week after months of behind-the-scenes line drawing and computer exercises. Changes are expected before they are voted on by the Legislature, but none will be radical, sources said.
Perata said that the House, state Senate and Assembly proposals represent a status quo program aimed at keeping Democrats in charge of the House delegation and full Legislature for the next 10 years.
Currently, the California partisan lineup in Congress is 32 Democrats and 20 Republicans. Democrats also heavily outnumber Republicans in both houses of the state Legislature.
In Los Angeles, campaign consultant Parke Skelton, a top advisor to Sherman, noted that in the current configuration of Berman's district, the congressman may have been vulnerable to a primary election challenge from a Latino candidate.
Skelton suggested that the plan, drawn by professional redistricting consultant Michael Berman, Howard's brother, would reduce Howard Berman's exposure to a Latino opponent and increase Sherman's.
Perata insisted that the shift of Latino community members to Sherman's district was intended to "encourage" Sherman to "take leadership on issues of concern to the Latino community as Howard Berman has done for the past 30 years."
He added, "Of course, if Mr. Sherman decides to [retire], the opportunities are palatable."
With a shrug, Perata said later that Sherman, first elected in 1997, had strongly opposed the shift because he feared a Latino candidate might run against him and win.
Times staff writer Michael Finnegan contributed to this report.