Redistricting from a Different Angle

How You Look At It

The outcome -- despite six hours of public comment at the Board of Supervisors meeting on Tuesday (09/27) -- was never in doubt. Competing maps for divvying up the county into five supervisorial districts to create another Latino seat left either Supervisor Knabe or Supervisor Yaroslavsky out in the cold. The only map that avoided either of those outcomes was Knabe's "status quo" proposal. After some minor fiddling, that was the map that four of the five board members supported. Supervisor Molina cast the dissenting vote.

Despite the supervisors' fiddling, their new map won't lead to a new district that would likely elect a Latino supervisor.

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But that was the idea all along, it seems. Had the board members actually deadlocked on a 3-to-2 vote to map a second Latino majority district, their failure to agree would have sent the redistricting problem to Sheriff Lee Baca, District Attorney Steve Cooley, and County Assessor John Noguez. That would have been an unacceptable diminishment of the board's power that even Supervisor Gloria Molina could not permit.

But even if the board had deadlocked, the so-called Gang of Three faced the same political conundrum that the supervisors cannot resolve. The Gang of Three would almost certainly have chosen the same "status quo" map, because the politics of race in Los Angeles are so paralyzing.

The reality is that Latinos have become the majority in wide areas of the county, Anglo majorities are shrinking, and African-American majorities are passing away in areas that have historically been black. No one wants to contemplate what that ultimately means to county politics - not the Board of Supervisors or Baca, Cooley, and Noguez.

Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas, who had initially proposed a redistricting plan that carved out a Latino majority district by dismembering Supervisor Knabe's, was the swing vote that gave approval to the "status quo" alternative. As contradictory as it may seem, Ridley-Thomas (who is African-American) had little choice except to be both for and against his own redistricting plan.

Inevitably, the dispersal of black voters throughout Los Angeles County and their declining percentage of voters overall make the careers of black politicians problematic without broad Latino support.

Ridley-Thomas was the first to propose a new Latino district (even before Supervisor Gloria Molina revealed her competing plan), suggesting that his advocacy was a bit of political theater designed to appeal to his district's growing Latino electorate. And he was the fourth vote for the "status quo" in order to prevent redistricting from falling into the hands of the Gang of Three. (Molina, for obvious reasons, couldn't play the role of swing vote.)

Ridley-Thomas knew -- just as the other board members knew -- that a Latino district carved from Knabe's or Yaroslavsky's would never get the necessary four votes. And the politics of race in Los Angeles prevented even the mention of dismembering Ridley-Thomas' district for the benefit of Latino voters.

Latino advocacy groups will now sue to overturn the board's decision (just as everyone knew they would). And Ridley-Thomas may be counting on the courts to leave the district boundaries as the board adopted them, as he's been assured will happen by the county counsel. But if a panel of judges ultimately strikes down the board's plan and sets new boundaries that create another Latino district, it's unlikely that Ridley-Thomas' own will be left untouched. If his district is put in play, he'll need the good opinion of Latino constituents to win in a new district with even less of an African-American presence.

The status quo suits everyone just fine for now. The board escaped further internal conflict. The Gang of Three won't have to reveal its inability to deal with demographic realities. Molina gets a re-energized base for possible future ambitions. (She's termed out from another run.) And Ridley-Thomas, the fall guy, can claim to be hermano to Latino voters, despite being simultaneously for and against their interests.

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 is 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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