Opinion: Jeremy Lin, the Jews and redistricting

I was too young to see Hank Greenberg play. That was my father’s generation. But growing up in New Jersey, I well remember the day when Sandy Koufax, playing for the Dodgers, announced his electrifying decision to sit out a 1965 World Series game on Yom Kippur.  Koufax’s action was a great source of pride to a Jewish kid with a baseball glove perennially at hand and who had heard way too many jokes about the thin book of Jewish sports heroes.

I remembered that Koufax moment when I watched the New York Knicks’ Jeremy Lin annihilate my Lakers not so long ago. I had the feeling that Asian-American kids with a basketball perennially at hand must be feeling something akin to what I felt back then. The Lin phenomenon is not like the hoopla surrounding Yao Ming, whose presence in the NBA was really about the internationalization of the sport and who is a huge hero in China. Even though Lin is already attracting attention in both Taiwan and China, he is going to be a special star for Asian-Americans. 

When you look at the local basketball scene, you might wonder what took so long. There is a distinguished tradition of Asian-American basketball leagues, and there is a devoted basketball following in the community. You can see Asian-American girls playing in the high schools in Los Angeles and working their way into the college ranks (in fact, there are more Asian-American women than men in college basketball). 

I was reminded of these parallels between Asian-Americans and Jews while watching the unfolding debate over Los Angeles city redistricting.  Much has changed since the days of Tom Bradley, when a coalition of African-Americans and Jews dominated the political scene. Latinos and Asian-Americans, while part of the ruling coalition, sometimes felt themselves on the outside looking in. Bradley, though, consistently reached out to Asian-Americans and Latinos (saving Mike Woo’s seat in 1986 by vetoing a council redistricting ordinance, and working to create a Latino seat in the 14th District, eventually won by Richard Alatorre).

The rise of the Latino population, and its remarkable mobilization, mean that Latino political aspirations are at center stage. African-Americans, declining in population share, are trying to hold onto their representation. The current city redistricting seems to be focused on managing the inevitable increase in Latino office holding and settling internal disputes in the African-American community. The commission advising the City Council has issued draft maps, but there seems to be a lot of political maneuvering behind the scenes.  Allies of City Council President Herb Wesson seem to want to punish Bernard Parks for not supporting Wesson’s election to council president by moving pieces out of the 8th District, and Jan Perry seems to be in a similar boat. Should the 9th District (now represented by Perry) lose its lucrative downtown business base to the Latino 14th District?  These decisions inevitably impact the other communities of the city because each district must be roughly equal in population. Moving chess pieces in one area can make it harder to achieve fairness in other areas.

Asian-Americans and Jews are feeling the spillover impact of these disputes and negotiations.  The Jewish community, which once sported a half dozen members of the 15-member council, now has only one certain seat, the Mid-City 5th District represented by Paul Koretz, and that is being realigned a bit in the draft plan from the city commission. I asked Bruce Phillips, a professor at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion and Senior Research Fellow at the Center for Religion & Civic Culture at USC to run some numbers (see story below).  He concluded that with the proposed changes, the 5th would be marginally less Jewish, but there could be an increase in Jewish electoral strength in the 3rd District in the Valley.  It looks as if some Valley portions of the 5th District are proposed to be moved to the 3rd,  and Orthodox Jewish neighborhoods in Hancock Park and Larchmont, currently in Tom LaBonge’s 4th District, would be added to the 5th. In any case, Jewish candidates stand a good case of winning some citywide offices in 2013, and high levels of Jewish voter participation will continue to be consequential in city elections. It remains to be seen whether the proposed movement of Jewish neighborhoods becomes a point of debate.

The Korean-American community, however, has registered complaints about the proposed redistricting of Koreatown. At a City Hall public hearing, Korean-American speakers charged that they were being shunted off until the end of the meeting. The set-to emphasizes the long- standing problem of not having a councilmember who would be responsive to Asian-Americans (only one Asian-American, Mike Woo, has ever served in public office in the City of Los Angeles, despite an Asian-American population of roughly 400,000). Of course, long-standing groups like the Asian Pacific American Legal Center have been submitting and advocating for proposed Los Angeles city redistricting plans all along.

It is hoped that the city will undertake a redistricting process that looks for ways to increase Asian-American representation, either by increasing the number of council districts through a charter amendment or by moving district lines to capture population concentrations of a diverse community that has become somewhat dispersed. In the final analysis, however, neither Jewish nor Asian-American communities have the raw numbers to obtain districts in which they will hold majorities. In the midst of intense conflicts over redistricting, they will have to carefully navigate the debates with an eye to creating districts in which they will have influence, and aim to build coalitions with each other and with other groups.

Perhaps this current redistricting may also activate a younger generation of Asian-Americans (and not just Korean-Americans) to become more politically engaged in the hurly-burly of Los Angeles politics. That would be no less impactful than the rise of Jeremy Lin.

Raphael J. Sonenshein is executive director of the Edmund G. “Pat” Brown Institute of Public Affairs at California State University, Los Angeles.