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No Consensus on Latino Vote Ruling

Politics: Some see court redistricting decision as sign of progress. Others fear it will halt gains.

June 14, 2002|MATEA GOLD and MICHAEL FINNEGAN | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

A federal court's dismissal of a challenge to part of California's new political map highlights the gains that Latinos have made in securing elected offices but threatens to inhibit further expansion of that influence, some scholars and advocates said Thursday.

At the same time, however, some voting rights experts said the ruling will help undermine the notion that voters support only candidates of their own ethnicity. While those experts argued that voters today are increasingly willing to back candidates of all ethnicities, others said California voting remains ethnically polarized--and therefore worried that the ruling presumes a racially neutral society that does not yet exist.

Armando Duron, counsel to the California Latino Redistricting Coalition, said the decision essentially "freezes the gains we've got so far in place."

"My fear is that what's going to happen is that in light of the ruling--and the rather selfish way Latino legislators looked at reapportionment in California--10 years from now, we may be just where we're at," he added. "We will not have made any more gains."

Still, some Latino leaders welcomed the ruling.

Labor official Miguel Contreras said it reflected the distance Latinos have come in gaining political power. "It shows that the Latino vote is beginning to develop some maturity," said Contreras, whose union organization supported the Legislature's new political maps.

"It used to be Latinos only represented the Eastside of Los Angeles.... Who would have thought a decade ago that we would have Latinos elected out of the San Joaquin Valley?"

A three-judge U.S. District Court panel dismissed a lawsuit Wednesday that challenged the maps of congressional and legislative districts drawn by state lawmakers after the 2000 census.

The suit by the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund argued that the maps diluted the power of Latinos to elect candidates of their choice by dispersing them among districts.

Although discrimination continues to motivate at least a portion of the electorate, the court found, "whites and other non-Latinos are currently far more willing to support Latino candidates for office than in the past."

In its ruling, the court noted that the portion of Latinos in the state Legislature has grown to 22.5%. The court also pointed out that 16 of 19 Latinos in the Assembly and all seven Latino state senators voted for the redistricting plan.

Some Latino lawmakers backed the measure only reluctantly. State Sen. Richard Alarcon (D-Sylmar), for instance, voted for the plan but said the "boundaries could have been done better." He welcomed the MALDEF court challenge.

"It's important to fight these battles sometimes, if only to clarify the law," he said.

Antonio Gonzalez, president of the Southwest Voter Registration and Education Project and a plaintiff in the suit, called the dismissal of the lawsuit "horrifically bad" for Latino voting rights.

"The notion that racially polarized voting no longer exists in Los Angeles County is so ludicrous on the face of it, you almost can't believe that somebody would actually say that with a straight face," said Gonzalez. "But the court did."

Among the districts challenged in the MALDEF lawsuit was that of Rep. Howard Berman (D-Mission Hills), who represents a large portion of the San Fernando Valley.

MALDEF argued that state lawmakers moved thousands of Latinos out of his district to protect him from the threat of a Latino challenger in a Democratic primary. The other two districts at issue in the suit were those of Rep. Bob Filner (D-San Diego) and Sen. Betty Karnette (D-Long Beach).

In each instance, critics of the redistricting charged that boundaries were redrawn to protect Democratic incumbents at the expense of Latino voters; the court's ruling, they argued, was therefore good for Democrats but bad for Latinos.

"We're deeply concerned about the ruling," said Rosalind Gold, senior director of policy research and advocacy for the National Assn. of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials.

"It is indeed true that Latinos have made political progress, but it's often at the point that minority groups are making progress that efforts to dilute their power intensify."

David Diaz, a professor of Chicano studies at Cal State Northridge, supported the court challenge, but said that in some respects the ruling was not a surprise.

"Because the Latino population is actually becoming the majority in L.A. County, and a substantial percentage in many other parts of the state, it's difficult now to prove they've been effectively gerrymandered out of districts to dilute their voting power," he said. "Courts are going to be a little more conservative."

State Sen. Don Perata (D-Alameda), who chairs the Senate Reapportionment Committee, called the ruling "an accurate reflection of what's going on" in California's changing political landscape.

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