Redistricting shakes up racial makeup of LA County supervisor board

The political angst that has followed an independent commission’s redrawing of 177 California legislative, congressional and Board of Equalization districts is being duplicated on a smaller scale in hundreds of local governments.

Cities, counties, school districts and other local agencies that elect boards from districts must also reconfigure them to equalize populations as reported in the 2010 census, while following federal Voting Rights Act guidelines to protect nonwhite communities’ political standings.

The state’s most traumatic local redistricting battle is in Los Angeles County, where nearly 10 million residents are divvied up among just five supervisorial districts.

When the board consisted of five white men a generation ago, they were dubbed “the five little kings.” It even had a Republican majority during the 1980s, thanks to a political misstep by then-Gov. Jerry Brown in filling a board vacancy.

As the county’s ethnic makeup changed dramatically in the 1980s and 1990s, however, the board also evolved, albeit reluctantly.

It took a court decision to create a Hispanic seat that’s been occupied for the past two decades by Gloria Molina. There’s also one black man, Mark Ridley-Thomas, and three white men, one of whom, Zev Yaroslavsky, is Jewish, and two of whom are Republicans — Don Knabe and Mike Antonovich.

The board is no stranger to conflict, sometimes personal. But redrawing districts has developed into political war, as an acrimonious hearing last week demonstrated.

The big issue is whether Hispanics, now half of the county’s population and a third of its voters, should receive another seat — and if so, who will lose out. Asian-Americans,
who far outnumber blacks, are pressing for representation too.

Molina has a plan to create a second Hispanic seat by wiping out what has been traditionally a Jewish seat centered in the “west side” of Los Angeles. And while he can’t seek re-election to the board because of term limits, Yaroslavsky is hopping mad, calling it “a bald-faced gerrymander.”

He and the two Republicans are blocking Molina — so far. But the alternative for another Hispanic seat would be to erase a Republican seat — the likely outcome of a plan backed by Ridley-Thomas — and under the county charter, any redistricting must obtain votes of four members.

The stalemate can’t go on forever. The charter says that if the board doesn’t adopt a plan by Oct. 31, three county officials — Sheriff Lee Baca, District Attorney Steve Cooley and Assessor John Noguez — are empowered to draw new maps.

Baca and Cooley are Republicans, but Baca and Noguez are Hispanics. The possibilities, and the angst, are endless.

Dan Walters’ Sacramento Bee columns on state politics are syndicated by the Scripps Howard News Service.

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