Los Angeles, CA – March 16, 2012 –
by David Zahniser
L.A. City Council members Jan Perry and Bernard C. Parks contend that the Redistricting Commission violated the Voting Rights Act by improperly making race the predominant factor in the process. After weeks of accusations about secret meetings, backroom deals and real estate grabs, Los Angeles’ push to draw new council district lines has returned to a well-known theme from previous remapping efforts: race.
With a vote set for Friday on the new outlines of 15 council districts, two black representatives of South Los Angeles, upset over their proposed new political territories, are pressing a legal challenge on the grounds that race was improperly the predominant factor in redrawing boundaries.
Council members Jan Perry and Bernard C. Parks said the 21-member Redistricting Commission violated the federal Voting Rights Act by failing to show discriminatory voting patterns that would justify five proposed districts with high concentrations of Latino voters. The same shortcomings apply to plans for two heavily African American districts, they contend.
Attorney Nathan Lowenstein, who represents both council members, said L.A. voters of different ethnic backgrounds have repeatedly elected Latinos, including Los Angeles County Sheriff Lee Baca, former City Atty. Rocky Delgadillo and Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa. “Los Angeles today is not the Deep South in the 1960s,” he wrote in a letter to City Atty. Carmen Trutanich. “The notion that … the Voting Rights Act requires the balkanization of voters into districts based upon race in Los Angeles is meritless and unbecoming of our city,” he wrote. Lowenstein said the Redistricting Commission needed to establish evidence of “racially polarized voting” before using race to carve up political turf. City lawyers sharply disagree, saying commissioners merely preserved voting districts with ethnic makeups similar to those that currently exist.
Dismantling such heavily minority districts would leave the city vulnerable to a legal challenge, said William Carter, Trutanich’s chief deputy.
Race can be a factor in redistricting, Carter said, as long as it is not the overriding one. In this year’s process, the commission tried to ensure that districts are geographically compact and that neighborhoods are not split between two districts, he said.
The complaint from Parks and Perry is one of several to surface during the redistricting process, which has dominated City Hall’s agenda for weeks. Korean American activists said they were not treated fairly and are willing to sue. Latino advocates said the proposal does too little to ensure that Latinos, who make up 48% of the city, can elect five council members.
Redistricting is contentious because, depending on how the lines are drawn, they can either boost or sap the clout of politicians, neighborhoods and ethnic groups.
In 1985, the U.S. Justice Department accused the city of weakening Latino political power by splitting Latino neighborhoods among several council districts. In response, the council created a new, predominantly Latino district near downtown. Several years later, Latino organizations clashed with black advocacy groups over a redistricting plan, saying that Latinos were again being disenfranchised. This year, proposed changes make Latinos the majority in eight of the council’s 15 districts. Five were drawn to ensure that Latinos make up a majority of the voting-age residents. In another district, African Americans make up a majority of voters.
Parks opposes the map because it takes Leimert Park and other heavily black neighborhoods out of his district and puts them into an area represented by Council President Herb Wesson. Perry is fighting to hold on to downtown’s multiethnic neighborhoods, which are being shifted into Councilman Jose Huizar’s Eastside district. Parks and Perry said appointees of Wesson, Huizar and the mayor helped transform their districts into “poverty pits” — neighborhoods with few economic assets to help low-income residents. Both said race was used to justify decisions that will hurt their constituents. Wesson had no comment. But in recent days, he pushed for Baldwin Hills — the well-to-do neighborhood where Parks lives — to remain in Parks’ district. The previous proposal would have moved that neighborhood into Wesson’s territory.
Villaraigosa referred legal questions to Trutanich. “The mayor has always believed in the generosity and goodwill of all Angelenos to support the best candidate regardless of race or ethnicity,” Villaraigosa spokesman Peter Sanders said. Parks and Perry point to an email sent earlier this year by redistricting commissioner Christopher Ellison, a Wesson appointee. In that message, Ellison said Palms — whose voting population is majority white — should be removed from the 10th District, which is represented by Wesson, who is black. Ellison also called for key black neighborhoods to be moved out of Parks’ district and into Wesson’s. “This … would protect and assist in keeping CD 10 a predominantly African American opportunity district,” he wrote to several commissioners, including Villaraigosa appointee Arturo Vargas. Ellison did not respond to a request for comment. But Redistricting Commissioner Michael Trujillo, a former campaign consultant for Huizar and the mayor, told 89.9 KCRW-FM’s “Which Way L.A.” last week that the panel moved African American voters into Wesson’s district to avoid what he described as mistakes made by the state redistricting commission. That panel, he said, “diluted” the African American vote in the state’s black congressional districts. As a result, U.S. Rep. Janice Hahn, who is white, will likely prevail in a contest against U.S. Rep. Laura Richardson, who is black, he said.