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Redrawing council districts, with sharp elbows and arm-twisting

Lawmakers battle for downtown and South L.A while activists seek a unified Valley district and the possibility of a gay council member as a remapping panel prepares to announce revised boundaries.

January 25, 2012|By David Zahniser, Kate Linthicum and Stephen Ceasar, Los Angeles Times
  • Councilwoman Jan Perry is trying to keep the downtown business district as a panel redraws lawmakers' boundaries.
Councilwoman Jan Perry is trying to keep the downtown business district… (Francine Orr / Los Angeles…)

Los Angeles Councilwoman and mayoral hopeful Jan Perry is fighting to hang on to the downtown business district — a key base of support and generous source of campaign funds.

Councilman Bernard C. Parks doesn't want to lose Baldwin Hills, the upscale, predominantly African American neighborhood where he lives. And Councilman Bill Rosendahl, who represents a Westside district, is determined to keep Los Angeles International Airport under his purview.

Those are just a few of the behind-the-scenes City Hall battles brewing as part of the once in a decade process used to redraw the political districts of Los Angeles' 15 lawmakers. On Wednesday, the struggles could break into the open, as a 21-member redistricting panel unveils its proposed boundary changes.

The public will have five weeks to review the maps and comment before the panel's final vote and the selected plan goes to the City Council for consideration. But there has already been intense closed-door debate by three secret subcommittees not covered by the state's open-meetings law.

One panel has been reviewing a plan to shift Leimert Park — the cultural heart of black Los Angeles — from Parks' district to one represented by Council President Herb Wesson. The plan would leave Parks with just a sliver of Baldwin Hills — basically the street that he lives on, according to emails obtained by The Times.

Another group of commissioners is pushing for Councilman Jose Huizar's Eastside district to absorb a much larger part of downtown — including Bunker Hill and Little Tokyo. The Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, an advocacy group, has gone further, recommending that all of downtown go to Huizar's district.

Perry, who represents a district stretching from downtown to South L.A., said that would leave her district dominated by low-income neighborhoods.

"If you split downtown L.A. and South L.A., you condemn South L.A. to a form of economic apartheid," she said.

Redistricting commissioners contacted by The Times declined to comment, saying that they have been advised not to discuss their deliberations. But Steven Ochoa, redistricting coordinator for MALDEF, said his group's proposal would make it possible to preserve three African Americans seats — and avert a conflict between blacks and Latinos over political clout.

Changes in district boundaries, required to balance shifts in populations after each federal census, can have huge consequences for lawmakers, particularly those running for reelection or higher office. A decade ago, the council redrew the maps in a way that sent Councilwoman Ruth Galanter, a Venice resident, to represent Panorama City during her last year in office. The outcomes can also rearrange the voting power wielded by ethnic, religious and neighborhood groups.

Central to this year's debate is Koreatown, which community advocates complain has been spread across too many districts. Grace Yoo, executive director of the Korean American Coalition, said she thinks the debate has been too focused on council members' political interests.

Yoo's group is among dozens of ethnic, gay and neighborhood organizations that have submitted proposals for new district boundaries. The Los Angeles chapter of the Log Cabin Republicans wants Councilman Eric Garcetti's Echo Park-to-Hollywood district redrawn to increase the chances for a gay politician to win office.

Business leaders from the San Fernando Valley want a sixth council district located entirely in the Valley. But that could divide a concentration of Orthodox Jews that straddles the Valley and the Westside.

Over the last week, seven redistricting commissioners have privately debated the shape of the districts represented by Parks and Wesson — two African American councilmen who have had strained relations. Wesson's appointee, Christopher Ellison, backed a plan to give most of Baldwin Hills to Wesson. He complained in an email that a competing map, which would strip Wesson of Koreatown, was "disrespectful" to Wesson, leaving him with "scraps" from other districts.

Helen Kim, an appointee of City Controller Wendy Greuel, responded by saying that the two districts should have an equitable distribution of the "jewels" of South Los Angeles, including USC and Baldwin Hills Crenshaw Plaza.

MALDEF, the Mexican American advocacy group, called for LAX to be moved into Parks' district. That idea drew the anger of Rosendahl, who represents the airport area and has focused on aviation issues.

Taking LAX out of his district would be "democracy at its worst," Rosendahl said. "I would go ballistic if someone tried to take the airport."

david.zahniser@latimes.com

kate.linthicum@latimes.com

stephen.ceasar@latimes.com

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