What redistricting could mean for Jews, Asian-Americans

The redistricting process going on at the state, county and city levels is a major signpost of changing power for Jews and Asian-Americans in the Southland.
October 19, 2011

The redistricting process going on at the state, county and city levels is a major signpost of changing power for Jews and Asian-Americans in the Southland. While nearly twice as many Asian-Americans as Jews live in the City and County of Los Angeles, Asian-Americans have had a much more difficult time gaining political representation. Jews have tended to win political seats out of proportion to their numbers, although they now find their base narrowing and their safe seats imperiled. As the state and county redistricting processes wind down, and the city’s advisory commission starts its work, how will Jews and Asian-Americans fare?

Pressure on the city’s advisory redistricting commission (and on the council and mayor who will make the final decision) will come from several sources. The Latino population continues to be a force around the city, and there are calls to create a third Latino council seat in the San Fernando Valley. Valley activists also want to have more seats that are fully in the Valley, and this might mean taking away the Valley sections of the Westside’s 5th and 11th Districts.

In this context, the continuing narrowing of “Jewish seats” is possible.

Once upon a time, Jewish elected officials were plentiful on the city council. At one time, there were six, in districts stretching from Hollywood through the Westside to the ocean and into the Valley. Now there are three: Paul Koretz; Council President Eric Garcetti, whose mother is Jewish; and Jan Perry. But only in Koretz’s district, the 5th, is a Jewish candidate extremely likely to be elected. In Perry’s 9th District, the next council member is almost certain to be either African-American, which Perry also is, or Latino. The 5th District remains the city’s most Jewish, with its population at least one-third Jewish. And perhaps a third of the city’s Jews live in the 5th. When the 5th was expanded to the Valley after the 1990 census, it picked up a portion of the Jewish population in the southern tip of the Valley. Taking that Valley portion away from the 5th could offer the chance for a second Jewish council member based in the Valley, along the lines of the Joy Picus/Laura Chick seat in the 3rd. Or it could place the Valley’s Jewish population into a Latino-majority district, where the election of a Jewish candidate would be less likely.

But all is not bleak for Jewish political success. As the Jewish community has become more widely dispersed, Jewish candidates continue to win seats in districts that are not dominated by Jewish voters. For the foreseeable future, beyond the 5th District, Jewish candidates could also win in the other districts that are not historically black or majority Latino. And citywide office still is accessible, with open seats for mayor and controller in 2013 (and, if Carmen Trutanich is elected district attorney in 2012, for city attorney, a race in which former 5th District Councilman Mike Feuer has expressed interest). Greater Los Angeles is still home base for the California Jewish community, both in political candidacies and in campaign fundraising for local, state and national Democrats.

There is perspective to be gained from contrasting the political standing of Jews in Los Angeles to that of Asian-Americans. In the history of Los Angeles, only one city council member has ever been elected from the Asian-American community — Mike Woo, who from 1986 to 1993 represented the 13th District. And Woo’s position would not have survived even one year, but for Mayor Tom Bradley, who vetoed a council redistricting plan in 1986 that would have eliminated his newly won seat to enable the city to comply with a court decision to create a second Latino seat. Warren Furutani, currently a city council candidate for the 15th District seat vacated by Janice Hahn, was elected to the school board. This low representation comes while Asian-Americans constitute roughly 10 percent of the population of Los Angeles. That’s about 380,000 people.

The Asian-American shutout in Los Angeles not only contrasts with L.A. Jews, but with Asian-Americans outside Los Angeles.

In fact, the Asian-American caucus in California’s state legislature is quite large, comprising 11 members (eight in the Assembly, three in the Senate). The current mayor of San Francisco is Asian-American (appointed to fill a vacancy left by Gavin Newsom’s election as lieutenant governor), and four major Asian-American candidates are running in this year’s San Francisco mayoral election, including the incumbent. Four of San Francisco’s 11 county/city supervisors are Asian-American. In fact, Asian-Americans are now a much bigger force than Jews in San Francisco politics.

In addition, Jean Quan was elected mayor of Oakland in 2010, and four of the state’s Supreme Court justices are Asian-American. John Chiang has made a big impact as state controller. In fact, given all this, it would not be surprising if California elected an Asian-American governor before another Asian-American becomes a city council member in Los Angeles.

Outside Los Angeles, Asian-Americans fare better, even in Southern California. Asian-American state legislators have been elected both from the South Bay and the San Gabriel Valley. Judy Chu won a congressional seat in a Latino majority district in the San Gabriel Valley. In Orange County, Republican Van Tran nearly upset Democrat Congresswoman Loretta Sanchez in 2010. It’s just in Los Angeles that the absence is so surprising.

Not surprisingly, Asian-Americans don’t have a county supervisor seat, largely because their 13 percent of the county’s population is spread out over districts of 2 million people each. But in the City of Los Angeles, with Koreatown and Chinatown, and with smaller electoral districts, what’s the problem? Some of it is that Asian-Americans are not a cohesive group, compared to Jews or even to the largely Chinese-American community of San Francisco. Citizenship and voter participation fall below their population share, in contrast to Jewish voting, which far outstrips the community’s population. Unlike in hyper-diverse San Francisco, where Asian-Americans now constitute the most dynamic bloc of voters, Asian-Americans in Los Angeles are trying to find their way in a community of highly established political communities — first white Protestants, then the Bradley coalition of African-Americans and Jews, and, finally, Latinos.

New data prepared for the city redistricting commission indicate that the Asian-American population is between 10 percent and 21 percent in eight of the 15 council districts. Asian-American candidates have to be crossover candidates in order to win anywhere. Koreatown is too small to dominate the 10th District, which has historically been African-American and now has a Latino population majority. (The district was once more evenly contested. When Tom Bradley was elected mayor in 1973, his seat was very nearly won by a major Asian-American activist, “Star Trek” star George Takei.) Asian-American candidates probably have their best chances in white or highly diverse districts (like the Hollywood 13th and the Harbor 15th), the same areas where Jewish candidates have as good a chance as anybody else. What they don’t have is the equivalent of a 5th District, a home base that provides security for wider crossover politics. On the other hand, Asian-Americans have some protection as a minority under the Voting Rights Act, which does not apply to the Jewish community.

In order to have better representation, Asian-Americans can make a case that the redistricting commission, the city council and mayor should examine the maps with the intention of making the election of an Asian-American somewhat more likely, looking for any districts that could be 25 percent or 30 percent Asian-American, for example. Once a significant Asian-American victory is possible, greater mobilization will follow.

Some structural reforms also would help in the long run. In 1999, Los Angeles city voters approved a new city charter but resoundingly defeated two companion measures to expand the size of the council to either 21 or 25 members.

With a larger council, there could have been at least one, and maybe two, districts where Asian-Americans could have dominated. Should such measures ever get back onto the ballot, Asian-Americans might find allies in the Harbor that would get its own district, and among African-Americans who opposed the reform in 1999 fearing a decline in their representation but now might find that more seats fit their declining population. Jews and other white liberals voters supported it then and might back it again.

As the Jewish base narrows in Los Angeles, and Asian-Americans continue to seek political representation, conversations between the two groups would be in order. Both Jews and Asian-Americans will need to reach out to other groups and win elections in districts without a secure majority of their own group. But, so far, neither group understands how similar its problems and worries are to the problems of the other group. Jews and African-Americans made history together in Los Angeles during the Bradley era, and there are serious efforts afoot to prevent electoral competition from obstructing a positive relationship between Jews and Latinos. An exploration of the potential for mutual benefit between Jews and Asian-Americans could well pay dividends that have not been fully appreciated until now.

Raphael J. Sonenshein is chair of the Division of Politics, Administration, and Justice at California State University, Fullerton.

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