Jewish Journal

Latino Group Sues Over District Lines

by Mike Levy

Posted on Nov. 1, 2001 at 7:00 pm

If the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund (MALDEF) gets its way, state Senate elections scheduled for March will be postponed until June, and California's newly redrawn congressional districts will be re-redrawn.

MALDEF has filed a lawsuit challenging congressional and state Senate districts in the San Fernando Valley, Southeast Los Angeles and San Diego. The suit claims that lawmakers, in their attempt to create "safe" districts for incumbents, have divided Latino communities to prevent them from joining to elect new Latino representatives. According to MALDEF, this division of communities violates provisions of the 14th Amendment and the Voting Rights Act, which guarantees the right to representation for "communities of interest."

The congressional districts challenged in the lawsuit are held by two Jewish representatives, Howard Berman (D-Mission Hills) and Bob Filner (D-Chula Vista). Maria Blanco, an attorney for MALDEF, says, "I think this has been kept at the level of the Latino voters. Our focus isn't so much about who the incumbent is."

Some in the Jewish community see it differently.

"What MALDEF is essentially trying to do is remove two Jewish members of Congress and replace them with two Latino members. They're trying to shove all the Latinos in an area into one district so a Latino can win the primary. Berman's been a champion of Latino legislation for 30 years. They want to replace him with someone whose last name sounds like theirs," says Jewish community activist Howard Welinsky.

Rabbi Gary Greenebaum also takes issue with the claims underlying the redistricting challenge. "The district that Howard Berman serves is a very mixed area. He has shown himself to be an effective representative of a mixed community. The MALDEF lawsuit claims Berman is not an effective legislator because he's not Latino. I don't think a Jew can be represented only by a Jew, or that a Latino can be represented only by a Latino."

Dissenting voices in the Jewish community are careful, however, to distinguish between the MALDEF lawsuit and Latino leaders in general. As Welinsky says, "We can't paint this with one brush; virtually every Latino member of the Legislature voted for the reapportionment. Current Latino elected officials have been very supportive of Israel, as have African American elected officials, for that matter."

Gov. Gray Davis and Assembly Speaker Bob Hertzberg are among the state officials named in the suit, because of their roles in passing the new district lines. MALDEF is not challenging the Assembly districts, which Hertzberg attributes to "the meticulous and open procedures we used throughout the process" of redistricting. Unlike the state Senate and the congressional delegation, California's Assembly did not hire political consultant Michael Berman (brother of Rep. Howard Berman) to craft the new districts.

Amadis Velez says the lawsuit has nothing to do with potential rivalries between Jewish and Latino candidates. Asked about the goals behind the challenge to Berman's Valley district, MALDEF's redistricting coordinator answers with a question: "Let me ask you, do you see this conflict between Jews and Latinos? Because I really don't see a conflict. With few exceptions, I think Jews and Latinos have worked pretty steadily toward common goals.

"If you look at the district, it doesn't speak to the needs of Jews or Latinos. It speaks to the needs of incumbents. It's just not a matter of the ethnicity of the representatives."

MALDEF has asked that state Senate elections scheduled for March 2002 be postponed until June to allow potential candidates time to campaign, and that a panel of judges redraw the districts to include undivided Latino communities. The Central District Federal court in Los Angeles scheduled a temporary restraining-order hearing for Wednesday, Oct. 31, to determine if elections should be postponed. And if MALDEF loses? "There's always an appeals process," says Velez.

Though all involved are anxious to avoid the appearance of Jewish and Latino conflict, the issues raised by MALDEF's lawsuit hit a sore spot for some. "For a minority that's always been a minority, to say you shouldn't bother to serve your community unless you represent an area where you're in the majority basically says Jews should get out of politics," Greenbaum says.

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