LOS ANGELES—California’s new process for redrawing political maps has taken a turn for the chaotic, with the Los Angeles area emerging as a key battleground as communities of color and others struggle to define the boundaries of political power for the next 10 years.
In a series of fast-moving developments over the past week:
• The new Citizens Redistricting Commission did an about-face and decided to skip the release of its second set of proposed maps, which had been due on July 14, thus throwing the public-comment process into disarray.
• The African-American Redistricting Collaborative (AARC), an advocacy group fighting to protect black representation in the redrawing of California’s political map, held a press conference to protest what it sees as the “evisceration of traditional African-American communities,” notably in the Los Angeles area.
• The voting rights lawyer for the commission told the 14-member panel that they were required under the U.S. Voting Rights Act to create new Latino-majority districts, after the commission’s first-draft maps were called “a worst-case scenario” for Latinos.
• An influential African-American activist wrote an op-ed saying the redistricting commissioners’ actions are making some wonder “what's in the Kool-Aid they're drinking.”
Meanwhile, the redistricting commission has been racing to complete its work in time to release its last set of proposed maps on July 28. After that, interest groups and the public will have two weeks to weigh in, before the August 15 deadline for approving the final maps.
“In the last couple of weeks, we have seen the commissioners change their minds so many times—it shows this process in California really is an experiment,” said Michelle Romero, a redistricting expert with the Greenlining Institute in Berkeley.
Some analysts were downright pessimistic about the outcome of the commission’s work. “Could California's noble experiment in redrawing legislative and congressional districts be collapsing?” Sacramento Bee political analyst Dan Walters asked in a column last week.
A Voter-Approved Reform
Redistricting takes place every 10 years and uses the latest Census figures to redraw the political lines that make up California’s Assembly, Senate, Board of Equalization and Congressional districts.
In California and other states, the redistricting process has traditionally been under the control of politicians and power brokers with their own interests to protect. But in 2008 and 2010, California voters approved ballot measures aimed at reforming the redistricting process by putting it in the hands of 14 ordinary citizens and increasing transparency as well as opportunities for public input.
Many civil rights groups opposed the California ballot measures, arguing that the reforms could actually harm communities of color by making it too difficult for them to participate in the redistricting process in a meaningful way, thus giving an advantage to more organized groups. But the minority advocates have also been very active in trying to make the new process work.
Results Have Been Mixed
The results have been mixed. Minority advocates succeeded in assuring that the commission is racially diverse (indeed, the percentage of minorities on the panel is greater than in the state as a whole). But at a series of meetings across the state this past spring, the public input process was dominated by Tea Party activists, who argued that ethnicity and race should not be taken into account in drawing new districts.
The commission’s first-draft maps came as a major shock for incumbents and Republicans—but also for many civil rights advocates, who noted that the commission appeared to have given more consideration to the Tea Party input than to the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
Latinos—who accounted for 90 percent of the state’s population growth in 2010 Census yet saw the number of Latino-majority districts remain stagnant or dwindle under the commission’s first-draft proposals—were especially upset.
In late June, several civil rights groups representing Latinos, Asians and blacks put forth their own “unity map” in hopes of persuading the commission to increase the number of districts where minorities make up the majority of voters.
Then the commission canceled the release of its second-draft maps, stunning many observers. In June, the commission also canceled the public meetings it had scheduled for July, saying it needed more time to do its work well.
A big problem is that the August 15 deadline for approval of the final maps—set by the two ballot measures—failed to take into account the fact that the commission has had to invent the whole redistricting process from scratch, says Astrid Garcia, the Redistricting and State Policy Manager for the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials (NALEO) Educational Fund.
Nonetheless, she expressed concern that the decision to cancel the second-draft maps would further curtail opportunities for public input. “The maps were supposed to be a catalyst for public reaction. People were waiting so that they could really see the work of the commission.”
“Visualizations” Instead of Maps
Instead of releasing a full set of maps for the entire state in mid-July as promised, the commission has been rolling out “visualizations” of different regions on an almost daily basis, and then holding meetings where they “edit” the visualizations—essentially drawing new lines—while the proceedings are broadcast online.
The visualizations "— rough maps without detail or data—“ are difficult guides at best to what's intended,” the Sacramento Bee’s Walters noted, especially since the commission is altering them in real time.
“We have recommended that they release the visualizations, then have a public comment period of 72 hours before making changes,” Garcia said, “but they’re not doing that." She said that by the time advocates have analyzed the visualizations, “they’re basically already out of date."
Uproar Over Threat to Black Districts
Garcia said Latinos were pleased by one development: a memo from the commission's voting rights lawyer that said the panel is required under the U.S. Voting Rights Act to create new Latino-majority districts. "It's a good sign," she said.
But the content of the commission’s “visualizations” was blasted by African-American activists, with the African-American Redistricting Collaborative’s Marqueece Harris-Dawson saying that redistricting could result in the “evisceration of traditional African-American communities” in the Los Angeles area, the L.A. Wave reported.
According to Harris-Dawson, the collaborative—whose members include AGENDA/SCOPE, Community Coalition of South Los Angeles, the Greenlining Institute, the Los Angeles Urban League, the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund and the West Angeles Community Development Corporation—mobilized after the redistricting commission posted a visualization last week that seemed to eliminate the 33rd Congressional District. That district is represented by Democrat Karen Bass, an African-American, who succeeded another black leader, Rep. Diane Watson, last November.
California’s urban blacks lost ground to Latinos and Asians in the 2010 Census, and coastal areas lost population to inland areas. Thus, civil rights advocates have long recognized that the state’s new political maps would likely mean less power for African Americans, including perhaps the loss of a congressional seat.
But swallowing that reality is another thing entirely. The commission’s first-draft maps, issued June 10, “maintained black political representation; four Assembly, three Congressional and two Senate districts in West and South Los Angeles,” Jackie Dupont-Walker, president of the Ward Economic Development Corporation and a leading black advocate in Los Angeles, wrote in a letter published in the Los Angeles Sentinel. In the same letter, Dupont-Walker wrote, “African Americans who are watching the recent maneuverings of the California Redistricting Commission are wondering what's in the Kool-Aid they're drinking.”
The commission's turnabout occurred at meetings on July 8 and 9, Harris Dawson said. “That’s when they put out proposals that completely eviscerated and tore apart the traditional African-American communities and essentially created new districts that would be white and see us eliminated.”
“Too many black people have lived and died for a voice and fair representation in the legislative bodies,” Dupont-Walker wrote in her letter urging the commission “to stop gutting our political representation.” “We will not sit by and allow this to happen."
Meanwhile, AARC coordinator Erica Teasley Linnick, an expert in the field, offered the L.A. Wave some the insight into the commissioners’ deliberations.
“We’re watching them, and the advice they are getting from counsel is that they need in certain instances to re-draw districts that are over 50 percent of a certain ethnic or minority group, and they have also been trying to draw a coastal district or some sort of semblance of a coastal district,” she said. “So in the visualization they came up with, the 33rd district was basically deleted. Now areas like Leimert Park, Baldwin Hills, Exposition Park and USC are in other districts created on the Westside, downtown and in Inglewood.
But she added that the commissioners “are now revisiting what they had drawn [over the July 8-9 weekend] and that was at the direction of Commissioner M. Andre Parvenue,” an African American from Los Angeles.
Bass also expressed outrage at the commission’s work.
“We need to make sure that we do not have the number of African-American representatives reduced on any level and we should not accept the Voting Rights Act — which the civil rights movement was responsible for — being used to reduce that representation by cross-ferrying everyone into one or two neighborhoods,” she said.
“This is a citizens commission that is supposed to be responsive to public input, but from what we can see it doesn’t seem as though it is responsive to input from the African-American community,” she added. “It’s really important we look at this in the historical and national context and re-districting is going on throughout the nation and the one thing that is consistent is the attempt to reduce African-American participation.”
“We need members of the public to write letters to the Commission [email@example.com] and tell them what neighborhood they live in, what neighborhood surrounds their community and how they’ve enjoyed being tied together in this congressional district and would like to stay that way,” Harris-Dawson urged.
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