October 13, 2019

Citizens redistricting commission: (Almost) no Jews involved

Stanley Treitel, 66, is Orthodox, lives in Hancock Park and is one of the few Jewish Californians to have made a direct pitch to the state’s new Citizens Redistricting Commission on behalf of Jewish interests.

He went to Culver City’s City Hall on June 16 hoping to tell the 14-member panel, which had just released its first draft maps of the Golden State’s Congressional, State Senate, Assembly and Board of Equalization districts on June 10, why he wasn’t happy about the lines they had drawn in and around his neighborhood.

“I thought that the Korean testimony was good, because they kept the Korean community together,” Treitel said, referring to a Korean-American group whose members testified before the commission early in the evening. “That would have been nice if they had done that for the Orthodox community,” Treitel said.

Redistricting takes place once every 10 years, and the current district lines, drawn in 2001 using data from the previous year’s U.S. Census, had split the three neighborhoods Treitel was focused on — Pico-Robertson/Beverlywood, Hancock Park and the area around Beverly Boulevard and La Brea Avenue — into two Congressional, two State Assembly and three State Senate districts.

The newly formed commission, created by ballot initiative in 2008, is still working to finalize a new set of lines based on the 2010 census data. In the first draft of the redistricting maps,  which were released in June and differed significantly from the 2001 maps, Los Angeles’ Orthodox community remained fragmented; this is what motivated Treitel.

Making a single Congressman, State Senator or Assembly member responsible for the bulk of the Westside’s Orthodox Jews likely would, Treitel believes, make those politicians more responsive to his community’s specific concerns.

Voters endorsed creating a commission as a way to transform a politicized process that previously had been controlled by incumbent politicians whose goals were primarily to ensure their re-election. The commission was set up to become a transparent, bipartisan, citizen-led endeavor that would aim to empower communities in the hopes of ensuring all Californians get fair representation both in Sacramento and in Washington.

In some sense, all the speakers at the June meeting in Culver City were asking for the same thing as Treitel — that their communities be kept “whole.”

Leaders of organizations representing Latinos pointed to the growth of the Latino population in California, and argued that increase was not fully reflected in the first draft.  This, they alleged, would prevent the election of “candidates of choice” and thus would not comply with the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

Similarly, James Harris, an African American resident of South Los Angeles, pointed to what he believes is an under-representation of the black community. “The maps look like black and brown communities are being pitted against each other,” he said, “while other communities are enjoying the status quo.”

Treitel attempted first to make his own case on behalf of Los Angeles’ Orthodox Jewish community in May, by arranging for two local Orthodox organizations to send identical letters asking the commission to unify the three neighborhoods.

When the first draft did not accomplish this, Treitel headed to Culver City to address the commissioners directly. But because his speaker number was so high on the list — 149 — Treitel did not get the two minutes at the podium he was hoping for.

Aside from Treitel’s efforts, and a letter sent by 30 Years After, an association of young Jewish Iranian Americans,  Jews have been noticeably absent in this round of commission-led redistricting. And no major local or national Jewish organization has expressed any opinion about how the lines dividing up California should be drawn.

“Redistricting is intrinsically about electoral politics,” Rabbi David Saperstein, director of the Religious Action Center, said, by way of explaining the absence of Jewish organizations involved in this discussion. “There’s fear that getting involved in a redistricting fight will convey the image that they’re getting involved in electoral politics generally.”

It isn’t that Jews haven’t been paying attention, or aren’t worried about the impact of redistricting, particularly when it comes to the seats of pro-Israel Congressional incumbents.

In 2010, billionaire Haim Saban lent $2 million to the unsuccessful campaign for Proposition 27, which aimed to eliminate the Citizens Redistricting Commission. Saban had supported the campaign for Proposition 11, which established the commission in 2008, and his reversal of course led some to speculate that Saban’s support of Proposition 27 was motivated by a desire to protect Rep. Howard Berman’s seat in Congress.

Asked to clarify Saban’s position on the redistricting panel, a Saban spokesperson responded with a prepared statement that first appeared in the L.A. Weekly in an October 2010 article.

Saban, the statement said, initially supported Proposition 11, but the media mogul later felt “it hasn’t worked out as intended.”

“Accordingly,” the statement continued, “Mr. Saban does not support expanding the commission concept to Congressional redistricting and agreed to make a loan, which has since been paid back.”

With the resignation last year of Rep. Jane Harman, a reliable pro-Israel voice in Congress, one might expect Israel supporters to speak up for other Jewish incumbent lawmakers. Working draft maps released in mid-July showed Berman and Rep. Brad Sherman drawn into one district and Reps. Adam Schiff and Henry Waxman drawn togetherinto another.

But Jews aren’t making the case, at least not to the commission. The American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) has not made any public comments about redistricting, despite its ability to involve itself directly in politics, as a 501(c)(4) organization. Multiple calls to an AIPAC spokesperson were not returned.

One possible reason that Jews have not spoken up for Jewish incumbents could be that Jews have such disproportionate representation in state and federal government already. There are 37 Jewish lawmakers working in Washington today, including two senators and six representatives from California.

Jews make up, at most, just 2 percent of the U.S. electorate; advancing any legislation on local, statewide or national levels requires Jewish community leaders and lawmakers to work in coalition with representatives of other communities.

With efforts to develop partnerships between Jews and Latinos being undertaken by multiple organizations at a variety of levels, it could be that preserving so-called Jewish seats in Congress or state government is less important to Jewish leaders than building inter-ethnic relationships for the future.

According to relevant laws governing redistricting, Jews might not have had much of a case to make, even if they had tried to lobby the new commission.

“I don’t think it would’ve made much difference,” Raphael J. Sonenshein, professor of political science at California State University, Fullerton, said. “I think Jewish voters would’ve been lumped in with white voters in general. They’re not a Voting Rights Act group.”

But Paul Mitchell, a Democratic political consultant whose firm Redistricting Partners has been closely monitoring the work of the commission, has seen evidence that even groups not protected under the Voting Rights Act can get the attention of the commission.

Working for Equality California, an organization representing lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) Californians, Mitchell prepared a series of maps illustrating LGBT communities across the state. Watching the proceedings of the commission’s July 8 meeting, Mitchell said commissioners were consulting those maps in certain areas in an attempt to keep the LGBT communities intact.

“It’s the first time in the country’s history that a state commission has taken this kind of care to treat the LGBT community as a community of interest,” Mitchell said.

Mitchell, who is not Jewish, said it wouldn’t have been hard to do something similar to show where Jewish voters are concentrated, but without data-driven maps, he said, the commission is effectively ignoring local Jewish communities.

“They’re just flying blind,” Mitchell said. “I don’t think that I’ve ever heard it come up.”

Douglas Johnson, president of National Demographics Corp., said it’s already too late for the Jewish community to have much impact on the shapes of districts. The final drafts are set to be unveiled on or around July 28, and the commission could choose to hold a vote that same day. By law, the panel must certify the maps by Aug. 15.

“The consultants told the commission that for large-scale line-drawing directions, the last day [was] July 20,” Johnson said. “After that it’s only fine-tuning.”

Whatever the reason, Jews largely have been standing back and watching from the sidelines.

Treitel’s attempt at input, meanwhile, does not appear to have had much sway. Like the 2001 district lines and the June first draft, the July 16 visualization map of Los Angeles’ Congressional districts leaves Beverlywood and Pico-Robertson in a different district from the area around the intersection of Beverly and Fairfax. The same division is reflected on the most recent maps of State Senate and State Assembly district lines.