April 8, 2011 | Bakersfield | Original Article

Latinos hope to strengthen their political power through redistricting

The shapes of California's political districts will change dramatically by August, altered by 2010 Census data showing demographic shifts and that much of the state's growth occurred in the Central Valley and Inland Empire.

Kern County grew by 177,986 residents -- a 27 percent jump, powered largely by increases in the Latino population.

In the political world, where more people means more representation, the growth in the Central Valley means counties here will likely see their share of seats in the state Assembly, state Senate and U.S. Congress grow.

But the critical question in many minds is who will capture the political power those seats represent?

Latino groups argue it is time for their representation to match their population.


The California Citizens Redistricting Commission is a panel of 14 citizens from all corners of California and all political ideologies that voters tasked with redrawing political districts based on the new Census numbers.

The commission will draw new congressional and state legislative districts based on strict federal and state rules that dictate what factors can be considered, and what factors take priority.

First and foremost, districts must be roughly the same size population-wise.

Second, the commission must attempt to, as much as possible, avoid cutting apart cities, counties and communities of interest. Thirdly, the commission should try to keep districts as contiguous as possible, avoiding chaotic-looking districts.

It's the "community of interest" phrase that advocacy groups will focus on when they present their case to the commission about what must be kept whole.


Steven Ochoa, national redistricting coordinator for the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, said the advocacy group is looking hard at Kern County and encouraging community leaders and residents to get involved and make sure their voice is heard.

"It's incumbent on the local residents to advocate for their communities of interest," Ochoa said.

On Thursday the Citizens Redistricting Commission will come to Bakersfield to hear how Kern County residents would like political lines here to look.

Hispanics and Latinos brought the extra political muscle to the Central Valley, their community leaders argue, and so deserve a better chance to elect representatives who understand and support issues important to them.

Lori de Leon of the Dolores Huerta Foundation, and Huerta's daughter, is working with the Greenlining Institute -- a national advocacy and leadership group that supports minorities and disadvantaged groups -- to ensure Latino voices are heard by the commission next week.

The group has scheduled a workshop for community members Wednesday where they will draw maps and talk about how to protect unique communities from being split by boundary lines or swallowed up in districts with very different socioeconomic and cultural backgrounds.


Hispanics and Latinos make up 49.2 percent of Kern County's population, according to 2010 Census numbers.

But de Leon said only one of the six major state and federal political districts in Kern County is held by a Latino -- the 16th State Senate seat filled by Michael Rubio, D-Bakersfield.

She doesn't count Rep. Jim Costa, D-Fresno, or Assemblyman David Valadao, R-Hanford, both farmers and the sons of Portuguese immigrant families, as representative of the majority of Latinos in the Central Valley.

They certainly don't have roots in the farmworker movement with which many Latinos have a connection, de Leon said.

Getting people involved in the Census and redistricting is not easy, she said.

"When I've been out in the community talking to people, a lot of people are not aware of the process. My goal was to target a lot of the community organizations that represent the public," she said.

More than 200 people turned out to an earlier workshop the Greenlining Institute hosted.

But the issue of redistricting goes beyond farmworker issues to the wider community, de Leon said. Issues like education, water quality and unemployment must be addressed by people voting in leaders who represent them.

"This is the time to start having a voice and some input," she said.


Ochoa of MALDEF acknowledged that it is very hard to get politics out of the redistricting process -- even though the process is not supposed to be influenced by the nation's political parties.

But the goal of his organization is to encourage people to speak up for themselves and make sure the people who draw lines know why their communities are special and should be protected.

If people don't get involved, he said, "I guarantee someone will define them rather than them defining themselves."

Dean Haddock, vice president of the Kern County Republican Party, said the group is not actively participating in the redistricting process.

"We plan to keep an eye on the commission itself," he said, to make sure groups don't hijack the process to craft political influence for themselves.

Tal Cloud, a Fresno businessman and Republican political consultant, said he believes much of the political change will take place in the northern portions of the Central Valley.

But there will likely be major changes in the Kern County landscape as well.

From his point of view, if the Redistricting Commission does it's job right, the district of Rep. Kevin McCarthy, R-Bakersfield, will shrink down to cover most of Kern County, making it more diverse and competitive.

Congressman Costa, who represents heavily Latino portions of Kern County, would move north to a district centered on his home in Fresno.

Assemblywoman Shannon Grove, R-Bakersfield, Cloud predicts, will probably take portions of Assemblyman Valadao's highly competitive, Latino-heavy district.

Cloud said he expects the current state of the valley, with heavily Latino and heavily white districts carved out to concentrate political power, will be made more diverse.

But that dilution of the Latino majority districts doesn't mean Latinos wouldn't have an impact on politics, he said.

"The sheer growth in the Hispanic population will give them political power," Cloud said.

Instead of having slam-dunk wins, he said, Republicans will have to fight for victory and reach out to Latinos.

"Somebody like Shannon Grove is going to have to be aware of what she's saying about Arizona-style immigration legislation," Cloud said.