Los Angeles County is home to more than a quarter of California’s population, and nearly 60 percent of its residents are Latino.
However, just one of the county’s five supervisors is Latino, and Gloria Molina was elected to the board 22 years ago only because the U.S. Justice Department interceded in redistricting and declared that not creating a Latino seat would violate the Voting Rights Act.
After the 2010 census confirmed that Latinos are a strong majority of the county’s residents, Molina and the board’s only black member, Mark Ridley-Thomas, pressed their colleagues to create another Latino seat.
That, however, would have disrupted the board’s ethnopolitical status quo – one Latino seat, one black seat, one white Jewish seat and two white Republican seats, and none of the other three was willing to make the change.
Ultimately, therefore, the board adopted a plan that only slightly changed the existing boundaries, much to the dismay of Latino-rights activists who argued that by the numbers, they should have another slot on the powerful board.
Ever since, they have been pressing the Justice Department to intervene again, but curiously, it has stalled. The 1991 intervention came from a Republican administration, but the Obama administration has been less willing to challenge Los Angeles County – even though it has brought high-profile Voting Rights Act cases against redistricting plans and voting laws enacted in red states such as Texas.
The latest wrinkle in the saga comes from Bill Boyarsky, Los Angeles’ most experienced political journalist. Writing in LA Observed, a local website, Boyarsky reveals that Ridley-Thomas is supporting efforts to persuade the Justice Department to intervene.
“I know the Latino community will once again have to look to the courts for protection of their voting rights,” Ridley-Thomas wrote.
Were intervention to occur and be successful, the question, of course, is which of the three white seats would be converted. The most likely candidate is the southern county seat held by Republican Don Knabe, who must leave the board due to term limits in 2016.
Two years ago, Molina and Ridley-Thomas backed a plan that would have converted Knabe’s seat into one with a Latino voting majority, and also made Supervisor Mike Antonovich’s other Republican district one that could elect an Asian member.
A more comprehensive – and rational – solution to the dilemma would be to increase the board to nine or more members, thereby making it more representative of the county’s immense ethnic, cultural and economic diversity.
Tiny Alpine County, with about 1,200 residents, has five supervisors, and so does Los Angeles, with 10 million residents. Supervisorial districts with 2 million constituents just don’t make sense.