An epic redistricting battle is shaping up at the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors that could result in the first nonwhite board majority in modern history and further reduce the clout of Republicans in county politics.
Latino activists are pushing for the county to create a second Latino-majority district, saying demographic shifts in the last decade demand it. Latinos now make up 48% of the county population, up from 45% in 2000, census data show. And Latinos constitute a third of the county's potential voters, up from a little more than one in four a decade ago.
"I hope the board is going to recognize the demographic changes in this county," said Gloria Molina, the county's first nonwhite and first person of Latino heritage to be elected supervisor in more than a century. Molina won her seat two decades ago after civil rights groups prevailed in a legal fight that went to the U.S. Supreme Court. Latino representatives successfully argued that supervisors had drawn boundaries since the 1950s to protect white incumbents and dilute the Latino vote.
Before Molina's election, no Spanish-surnamed person had served on the board since 1875.
"After a while, it comes down to fairness," said Steven A. Ochoa, national redistricting coordinator for the Los Angeles-based Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday, August 07, 2011 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 4 News Desk 1 inches; 54 words Type of Material: Correction
Supervisorial redistricting: In some copies of the Aug. 6 edition, the headline on an article in Section A about redrawing L.A. County supervisorial districts said that the county's three white supervisors were backing a plan that hews to the status quo. It is the supervisors' representatives on a redistricting committee who support that plan.
A plan backed by Molina and Latino activists would radically overhaul the districts of Republican Don Knabe of Cerritos and Democrat Zev Yaroslavsky of the Westside. Knabe's largely white district, which hugs the county's western and southern coastal edges, would be redrawn as the new majority Latino district, shifting deeply into Molina's current district toward the eastern San Gabriel Valley.
Yaroslavsky would be forced to give up large swaths of the San Fernando Valley to Molina's new Central L.A. district, which would take in areas as far north as Sylmar and as far west as Canoga Park. Yaroslavsky would pick up the western and southern parts of Knabe's district, including Long Beach, the South Bay and Republican-friendly territory on the Palos Verdes Peninsula.
Yaroslavsky, a possible Los Angeles mayoral candidate, is termed out of his county office in 2014. But Knabe, a Republican, is eligible for one more term and, under the Molina-backed plan, would reside in a more heavily Democratic district where 52% of adult U.S. citizens are Latino, compared with just 32% in the area he now represents. In terms of total population, Knabe's district would be 62% Latino.
A second Latino district could also increase the liberal majority on the board. If four votes went to Democrats, they would suddenly gain a four-fifths majority, a critical threshold for decisions such as allocating money for competing programs.
The first hint of where supervisors' interests lie came in the votes of their appointees to a redistricting commission. Last month, representatives of Molina and Mark Ridley-Thomas, who is black, supported creating the new Latino-majority district. Delegates of the white supervisors, Yaroslavsky, Knabe and Republican Supervisor Michael D. Antonovich, backed district boundaries largely preserving the status quo.
Public hearing set
The recommendation now goes to the Board of Supervisors, which will hold an initial public hearing on the issue Tuesday.
Knabe spokeswoman Cheryl Burnett said the plan adding a new Latino-majority district would be disruptive to constituents who have grown familiar with their supervisors over the last two decades. "The supervisors and their offices know the issues ... and know what their constituents expect and need," she wrote in an email response to The Times.
Burnett pointed to the success of Latino politicians such as L.A. Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa. "There's nothing that currently prevents a Latino from running for, and being elected as, supervisor of any of the five county supervisorial seats," Burnett wrote.
But Molina and MALDEF suggested that the county may be inviting another federal voting rights lawsuit if it chooses a status quo option.
To protect the rights of minority voters, the Supreme Court has ruled that, in certain circumstances, electoral bodies must draw districts that ensure a minority group "has the effective opportunity to elect ... candidates of [its] choice," said Loyola Law School professor Justin Levitt.
Latino political power is weakened because there are stark differences in voting patterns among different ethnic groups in L.A. County, Levitt said. Research shows that Latinos generally coalesce around a candidate and other groups often vote to defeat that candidate, he said. That is particularly pronounced in lower-profile local elections, he said.