The Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors, who govern the most populous county in America, are entering a critical debate over redistricting that pits Latino empowerment against the stability of district lines. The nature of the board’s majority is also at stake.
Los Angeles County’s redistricting process is governed by state law and the county charter. State law (the elections code) allows the board to establish an advisory commission on redistricting, which the board did. Each supervisor chose two members. Now that the commission’s report has been submitted, the Board of Supervisors has until Nov. 1 to approve a decennial redistricting plan. The county charter requires a two-thirds vote, meaning four out of five supervisors must agree on a plan.
If the board fails to approve a new redistricting plan by Nov. 1, the decision moves to a three-person panel of county elected officials — the district attorney (who chairs), the sheriff and the assessor — which must approve a plan by Dec. 31. At any stage, courts may rule on lawsuits to protect the interests of minority groups protected under the Voting Rights Act.
Democrats used to represent a minority on the nonpartisan board. Then, more than two decades ago, the courts forced Los Angeles County to create a seat that would be winnable by Latinos. In designing a Latino seat, the courts also created a Democratic majority. Since then, the five supervisors have settled into a stable pattern: one Latino/Latina, one African American, one white Democrat (who has been Jewish) and two Republicans, one a moderate and the other a conservative.
Zev Yaroslavsky, who represents the 3rd District in the West Los Angeles and San Fernando Valley regions, symbolizes the ambiguous role of white Democrats and Jews in the interracial politics of our region. The 3rd District seat sits at the nexus of the overlapping Democratic and white majorities. Ed Edelman won the seat in 1974, and Yaroslavsky succeeded him in 1994. Both had previously served as an L.A. city councilmember from the 5th District, the “Jewish seat.”
The commission appointed by the county supervisors has recommended a map that would leave existing districts largely unchanged. The motion passed 6-4, reflecting the patrons of the commissioners, the supervisors, who are split 3-2. The African American and Latina members, Mark Ridley-Thomas and Gloria Molina, are supporting a plan advanced by the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund (MALDEF) to create a second Latino/Latina seat by moving up to one-third of the county’s residents into different districts. There may be a stalemate on the board unless two members of the 3-2 majority change positions or unless one of the minority members does likewise.
The rise of the Latino population has reshaped politics throughout the Southland. Latinos now constitute nearly half of the county’s population and one-third of the voting-age population. Their dispersal has shaped movement in previously Jewish neighborhoods (see the conflict between Brad Sherman and Howard Berman over a new congressional district in the Valley), has generated concerns about declining African American influence in South Los Angeles and now is worrying county Republicans.
The coalition lines are intriguing. In the state redistricting there has been at times an alliance between Republicans and Latinos to prevent the creation of districts that would have enough Latinos to help elect Democrats but not enough to elect Latinos. But in L.A. County the addition of a Latino seat would come at the expense of a Republican seat, held by 4th District Supervisor Don Knabe, whose coastal base would be transferred to Yaroslavsky and whose district would have a Latino majority. Meanwhile, Yaroslavsky’s district would move west and south, losing portions of the San Fernando Valley.
A black-Latino alliance seemed very unlikely at one time, as African Americans feared that Latinos would take political seats in South Los Angeles. Little by little, the two groups have been edging toward alliance, and in this case they are definitely on the same side. Ridley-Thomas’ seat is largely preserved in either competing plan.
The supervisors have to find a way to get to four votes, possibly via a third plan that would increase the odds of a second Latino seat without moving as many communities as the MALDEF plan. The alternative is to have the decision kicked over to the unpredictable three-person committee of county elected officials. So, there is every incentive to reach a compromise before Nov. 1. And in any case, MALDEF may file a lawsuit if no compromise is reached. The odds of the lawsuit succeeding are unpredictable enough to provide further impetus for all sides to reach an agreement before the issue leaves the board.
Yaroslavsky is in an interesting position. He has a strong interest in maintaining his district in roughly its current form. While he is termed out in 2014, this is his base and has been for the years he has been on the board. There will be considerable lobbying of the supervisors by local officials and residents who do not want to be moved into another district.
Yaroslavsky may run for mayor in multiethnic Los Angeles in 2013. Does he help broker a compromise that avoids a lawsuit and wins one more vote for a compromise plan? Or does he hold the line for the majority position and hope, if it does not get a fourth vote, that the gang of three agrees and the county prevails in a lawsuit? Keeping his district together will help him in the mayoral primary; helping Latinos get a second seat might help him in the runoff.
If the decision goes to the group of three, another pair of overlapping majorities would emerge. The chair would be Steve Cooley, a moderate Republican who just lost a bid for state attorney general and is planning to step down as district attorney. The sheriff is a Latino Republican, Lee Baca, who endorsed Democrat Jerry Brown in 2010. The assessor is John R. Noguez, a rising Latino Democrat and former mayor of Huntington Park. So there is a 2-1 Republican majority and a 2-1 Latino majority. But as countywide elected officials who have to appeal to wide blocs of voters, they are less likely to be swayed by ethnic voting and will certainly hear from influential local officials. And don’t assume that either the Republicans or the Latinos will act as a bloc. Baca and Cooley, for instance, are on opposite sides of the battle for the next district attorney, with Baca backing L.A. City attorney Carmen Trutanich and Cooley supporting Jacquelyn Lacey.
Each supervisor has bargaining power. Knabe has the most at stake, with the possible loss of his seat, and the biggest changes in his neighborhoods. If either Molina or Ridley-Thomas endorses a compromise, the supervisors will have four votes. In any case, there is going to be a dicey set of negotiations that pit Latino empowerment against neighborhoods with longstanding ties to the existing district lines. Few politicians are going to want to get caught in the middle of this one.
Raphael J. Sonenshein is chair of the Division of Politics, Administration and Justice at California State University, Fullerton.