Mapping Power in Los Angeles County

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Every 10 years, the members of Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors must adjust the boundaries of the five supervisorial districts into which the population of the county is divided.

According to the 2010 Census, there are about 9.8 million of us living in Los Angeles County. About 1.1 million live in the unincorporated parts of the county. For them, the Board of Supervisors is "city government." The board oversees all of the public services, from police to trash collection, in unincorporated county territory. About 1.8 million residents live in one of 40 "contract cities" in Los Angeles County. In these cities, the elected city council hires county agencies and departments to provide municipal services. The decisions of the board impact "contract cities" almost as much as they do in unincorporated areas.

That makes the Board of Supervisors one of the most powerful political bodies in California and in the nation. Until 20 years ago, the process of slicing that kind of power into five nearly equal slices had been relatively placid. White men drew lines on a map so that other white men - when incumbents finally moved on - could be elected.

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The election of Supervisor Gloria Molina in 1991 upended the process. A successful legal challenge to district boundaries drawn after the 1990 Census led to a new, Latino-centric district that Molina, a former Los Angeles city council member and assemblywoman, handily won.

The county's demographics have changed even more radically since 1990. Molina and other Latino political leaders now see the outline of another majority Latino district in the 2010 Census data.

But the 10-member Boundary Review Committee appointed by the Board of Supervisors didn't. The boundary committee recommended a division of the county that will move whole cities into other districts but won't create a new Latino majority in any of them. On Tuesday, the Board of Supervisors will vote on their committee's recommendation. The board could reject it, introduce other maps, or make changes to the map they already have.

Molina and Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas support a redrawn county that has room for two Latino-majority districts out of five. Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky is equivocal, but leaning against the idea. Supervisor Don Knabe and Supervisor Mike Antonovich prefer the map recommended by the board's committee.

Ethnic politics is messy enough, but this border conflict is complicated by other concerns.

Yaroslavsky will be termed out of office in 2014. (He's considered a possible candidate for mayor in 2013.) Knabe can run again, but he will be termed out in 2018. The boundary plan backed by Molina creates a new district at the expense of Knabe's base and puts portions of Yaroslavsky's district into two others, fragmenting the his San Fernando Valley constituency for the first time.

Because Yaroslavsky won't run again, Latino voters in his district are available for reassignment, and Knabe, with one term left, is a tempting target. He would be vulnerable as a moderately conservative Republican in what would be a majority Latino and Democratic district.

From a crudely political perspective, a new district would give the board a super majority of four liberal members, a calculation that would benefit Molina and Ridley-Thomas.

A clock is running on the board's decision. If no redistricting plan gets at least four of the board's five votes by November - and that seems unlikely - new boundaries will be drawn by a committee of three officials who are elected countywide: District Attorney Steve Cooley, Sheriff Lee Baca and County Assessor John R. Noguez.

No matter whose pen draws the lines, a district map without a second, Latino-majority district will be vigorously challenged by the same advocates who successfully forced the Board of Supervisors to create Molina's district 20 years ago. They expect to win, making the future of county government very likely a repeat of the recent past.

D. J. Waldie, author, historian, and as the New York Times said in 2007, "a gorgeous distiller of architectural and social history," writes about Los Angeles on KCET's SoCal Focus blog.

The image on this page was adapted from public domain sources.

About the Author

D. J. Waldie is the author of "Holy Land: A Suburban Memoir" and "Where We Are Now: Notes from Los Angeles," among other books about the social history of Southern California. He is a contributing editor for the Los Angeles Times ...
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I agree that there must be a second Latino-majority district. However, I don't trust any politician to do the job right. Fortunately, I live in the Second District and I trust Supervisor Ridley-Thomas will do the right thing. Perhaps the answer lies in increasing the number of members on the Board by two seats, thereby eliminating districts that seem to be designed to prevent certain constituencies from being adequately represented (like the Fourth District)