The first batch of political maps by California’s new Citizens Redistricting Commission is having exactly the effect that government reformers intended—shaking up the political status quo by ignoring incumbents and promising to make many statewide elections more competitive.
But the release last Friday of proposed maps for new legislative and congressional districts has left Latino civil rights advocates shaking, too— with frustration and anger.
“The proposed congressional maps create a worse-case scenario for Latinos in California,” declared Rosalind Gold, senior director of policy, research and advocacy at the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials (NALEO) Educational Fund in Los Angeles. “They do not reflect the growth of the Latino population in the state over the past 10 years.”
“This is disappointing and frustrating because we went from one extreme in the redistricting process to another, but still have not increased the voice of the second-largest group in the state,” said Steven Ochoa, national redistricting coordinator for the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund (MALDEF).
According to 2010 Census data, Latinos accounted for 90 percent of California’s population growth since 2000. But the draft map released Friday only includes seven Latino “opportunity districts” out of 53 congressional districts—the same number as currently held by Latinos.
“When you look at the combined number of districts statewide that would be effective Latino districts, we could actually end up with fewer than what we have now,” Gold said. She said the map appears to violate the 1965 Voting Rights Act.
It isn’t only Latinos who are reeling. If the proposed map were adopted, Republicans could find themselves at risk of losing four to eight of their current 19 seats in the House of Representatives, some analysts said. “It’s an earthquake with a tsunami,” Doug Johnson, a redistricting scholar with the Republican-leaning Rose Institute at Claremont McKenna College, told the San Jose Mercury News.
Meanwhile, San Francisco would lose one of its two state senate seats—not a surprise, given its stagnant population growth—and would see its political map extended to include suburban voters, who tend to be more moderate than its current population.
In the past, having both Senate seats—held by such powerhouses as John Burton, Willie Brown, and currently Leland Yee and Mark Leno—has been key to consolidating the city’s leadership in Sacramento. “No matter how you look at it, it’s a loss of power,” said David Lee, executive director of the Chinese-American Voters Education Committee and political science instructor at San Francisco State University.
In Fremont, the growing South Asian community, which is currently in the same Assembly and congressional districts, would be split, diluting its political power in Sacramento and Capitol Hill. “This is a huge disadvantage for Fremont,” said city councilmember Anu Natarajan. “It’s mind-boggling.”
Citizens in Charge
The U.S. Constitution requires that boundaries for voting districts be redrawn every 10 years, using the most up-to-date Census data. In California and other states, the process has traditionally been controlled by politicians and power brokers from the two major parties, with partisan politics often winning out over fairness and justice and incumbents drawing “safe” districts to keep themselves in office and their parties in power.
The 14-member redistricting commission, established by Proposition 11 in 2008, is a seismic shift in how political boundaries are drawn. Instead of leaving the process to politicians making deals behind closed doors, the commission members are ordinary citizens—including a retired high school principal, an architect, a chiropractor, and an insurance broker—who conduct most of their business in public, without regard to incumbents or political parties.
Since getting down to business in January, they have held 30 or so hearings up and down the state, listening to community organizers and residents talk about their “communities of interest”—the factors such as race and ethnicity, income levels, public school and parks, transportation, local economy, and language and sexuality that bind people into communities that should remain intact on political maps. Keeping “communities of interests” together preserves the power of voters to choose elected representatives who will work for them on those issues.
“Whether communities are kept together or split up makes all the difference in whether the [political]game is fair,” Gold said. “You can have a community that is very actively engaged in the civic process, but if the lines are not drawn in a fair way, then all that work won’t produce political gains and political progress.”
The proposed maps released Friday are the first concrete result of the commission’s work. The panel has already scheduled a new round of hearings across the state to discuss the plan. The final political maps are due August 15.
Most of the immediate analysis focused on the highest-profile maps, for congressional districts. deeper analysis of districts for state Assembly and Senate will continue into next week.
Not All Bad News for Ethnic Groups
The proposed maps do contain good news for some ethnic groups. The Asian-majority Berryessa section of San Jose, which had been split among four legislative districts in the 2001 redistricting, has been largely left intact. Similarly, L.A.’s Koreatown, split into three Assembly districts in 2001, would remain together, and a new largely Asian district would be created in the west San Gabriel Valley.
Latinos also scored a victory in the San Fernando Valley, where 10 years ago, a heavily Hispanic section was split in two to protect U.S. Rep. Howard Berman, a powerful Democrat whose brother was helping to oversee the redistricting process in 2001. Under the new proposed map, Berman could face a tough re-election fight.
Indeed, the proposed map would draw nearly half the state’s congressional incumbents into districts with one another. In the Bay Area, Democratic members of congress, Lynn Woolsey, a liberal from Santa Rosa, and Mike Thompson, a moderate from St. Helena, could see large parts of their districts swapped. Rep. Jerry McNerney (D-Pleasanton), whose 11th District extends over the Altamont Pass into San Joaquin County, was drawn out of his territory and into that of neighboring Rep. Pete Stark (D-Fremont).
But the map also appears to disadvantage Latinos, civil rights activists said. The new congressional boundaries, for example, would put Rep. Loretta Sanchez (D- Garden Grove) into a district with fewer Latinos and more Vietnamese-Americans, who tend to vote Republican.
Meanwhile, Gold said, a new proposed district in the Inglewood area of Los Angeles “unnecessarily pits Latinos against African Americans,” while another L.A. district would join some of the wealthiest communities in the state (Beverly Hills, Pacific Palisades) with some of the poorest (the Pico-Union neighborhood).
“Latinos cannot have a chance for fair representation in such a district,” Gold said. “We can’t tell you why [the commission]combined those areas— it’s baffling.”
MALDEF and other civil rights groups opposed the ballot propositions that gave redistricting power to the citizens commission, fearful that the new process would have unintended consequences that would disadvantage communities of color.
But MALDEF proposed its own map that translated Latino population gains into four additional congressional Latino opportunity districts, for a total of 11, as well as three additional state Assembly districts, and four additional state Senate districts.
“As a civil rights group, we’re certainly concerned that the commission didn’t do enough to draw districts that provide Latinos with an equal opportunity to elect representatives of their choice,” said Eugene Lee, voting rights program director for the Asian Pacific American Legal Center, citing the MALDEF map.
“In terms of Asian Americans,” he added, “it’s fair to say the commission’s plans are a mixed bag. We appreciated what they did in some areas, but in others”—Fremont, for example—”we will ask them to make improvements.”
Adherence to Voting Rights Act?
Lee and other said the redistricting commission—which, ironically, is more ethnically diverse than the state as a whole—seems to have been swayed by people who turned up at hearings in April and May pleading with members to keep their towns and cities intact and arguing that ethnicity and race should not be the most important factors in drawing new political maps.
Those arguments—made by largely white residents of the state, whose numbers have been falling as a percentage of the total population—are flat wrong, civil right activists said.
“California’s maps must comply with the federal Voting Rights Act of 1965 (VRA), which protects underrepresented communities from discrimination in the electoral process,” NALEO’s executive director Arturo Vargas said in a statement. “Under state law, strict adherence to the VRA is one of the highest priorities that the commission must apply in drawing the state’s new districts.”
Civil rights groups are already meeting to put together a “unity map” that will reflect the concerns of different communities of color as they try to persuade the commission to make the maps fairer and more reflective of the state’s demographic changes. If those attempts don’t work, Ochoa and Gold said, the commission’s maps could face a court challenge.
It’s important to note that redistricting maps invariably ignite conflict and controversy, no matter who draws them.
The citizens commission does seem open to revisions, and some of the maps—especially for state senate districts—clearly have a rushed, unfinished feel, Eugene Lee said. “They left a little bit of hope there that they heard the concerns of the community and didn’t have time to address them,” said Fremont’s Anu Natarajan, referring to a commission meeting on June 8 at which South Asians argued strenuously not to be divided.
Meanwhile, civil rights advocates said, community input is more important than ever in the next round of hearings if Latinos, African-Americans and other ethnic groups hope to influence the final boundaries.
“One thing that’s clear is that when communities turned out to make their feelings known, it made a difference,” said Michelle Romero, redistricting fellow with the Berkeley-based Greenlining Institute. “Anyone who feels the draft maps don’t treat their communities appropriately needs to speak up now.”
Nina Martin is a contributing writer at New America Media.