September 28, 2011 | 89.3 KPCC | Original Article

LA County supervisors reject 2nd Latino district

After hearing six hours of sometimes racially charged testimony, the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors Tuesday decided against creating a second district with a majority of Latino voters. Latino civil rights activists indicated they would file a federal Voting Rights Act lawsuit in response, noting half the county’s population is now Latino but only one of the five supervisorial districts is majority Latino.

Supervisor Gloria Molina, the only Latina on the board and the leading force behind creating a second Latino majority district on the five-member panel, said in a statement that she wasn’t surprised by the vote.

“It was expected,” Molina said. “The last time major redistricting took place at this county in 1990, it was done by court order — not by the supervisors themselves. So I expected that might happen again.”

In 1990, a federal judge ordered the creation of Molina’s Latino-majority district.

Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas, an African-American, joined Molina in supporting the creation of another Latino district.

“My support of... stems from the experience of African-Americans, who know all too well the adverse impact of disenfranchisement,” Ridley-Thomas said. “I am proud to have stood in solidarity with those civil rights advocates who are merely seeking protection of the Latino community’s voting rights.”

But it takes four votes to approve new district boundaries required by the census, and the three white males on the board opposed creating another Latino district. They argued it would require moving more than 3 million people into new districts and joining distant communities with disparate interests.

“We maintain our long-established communities and avoid unnecessary shifts of millions of people to new districts,” Supervisor Don Knabe said of the plan the board approved that keeps the current district boundaries essentially intact. He said the plan also meets “the letter and spirit of the Voting Rights Act.”

Knabe and other opponents of a new Latino majority district noted that while nearly half the county’s population is Latino, one-third of the citizen voting age population is Latino. They also said Latinos have equal opportunity to win in at least one other district where they make up as much as a third of the electorate.

But Latino civil rights activists argued that because people tend to vote for candidates of their own race, it’s hard for Latinos to get elected in non-Latino-majority districts. University of Washington political science Professor Matt Baretto studies voting patterns in L.A. and testified during yesterday's hearing.

“In virtually no instance in Los Angeles County, do non-Latinos provide over 50 percent support for a Latino candidate or issue,” Baretto told the board. “This establishes a very clear pattern of racially polarized voting in Los Angeles.”

The county’s legal counsel disagreed that voting patterns were so polarized. Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky noted that L.A. voters have elected a Latino mayor and county sheriff.

Knabe, whose district would have nearly disappeared under one plan — and who faces re-election next year — said the premise of that plan offends him.

“The suggestion that I can only provide an outstanding level of service for the people who look like me is frankly insulting,” he said.

It’s worth noting that several Latino and Asian-American speakers praised Knabe’s work, and opposed slicing up his district.

To avoid having a three-member panel that includes the district attorney, sheriff and county assessor decide the new boundaries, Supervisor Ridley-Thomas ended up providing the needed fourth vote for the plan the board passed. He noted he expected it to be challenged in court.

More than a thousand people turned out at the meeting.

“I’m here to say there is racism at the board, because you are not ready to hear the Latino voice,” Rosalio Munoz of the Chicano Movimiento Resource Center said.

People who opposed the creation of another Latino majority seat also invoked the presence of ethnic tension.

“What bothers me the most are the race-baiting undertones being used by some to somehow justify the worst gerrymandering I’ve ever seen in my years as an average concerned middle class American voter,” Toby Keeler of Calabasas said.

Some Latinos also opposed the idea of another Latino majority district. Michael Leyva described himself as a 23-year-old college student and Democrat.

“I studied the Chicano rights movement. I identify myself as Latino. And I’m a supporter of many Latino causes,” Leyva said. “Nevertheless, for anybody to tell me I have to be drawn into a Latino district just so I can vote for a candidate that is the same race as I is insulting to people that are Latino.”

Some in the Asian Pacific Islander community said they were worried about any major changes to the current boundaries. Alex Holzheimer is with the Thai Community Development Center in Hollywood.

“We are completely sympathetic with the desire to creating another voting rights district, but not to the detriment and further political disillusion of the Asian Pacific Islander communities,” he said.

Molina maintained communities would be no more divided under her plan than they are now. She argued keeping the lines as they are packs Latinos in her district, and keeps them too small in other districts to be able to elect the candidate of their choice.

“Sadly the fragmentation of the Latino community proposed by the board is reminiscent of the strategy used by this board from the 1950s to the 1990s to dilute Latino empowerment," Molina said.