By Jacob Adelman
THE ASSOCIATED PRESS
LOS ANGELES (AP) — An important effort to redraw legislative districts in California and shake up the political landscape seems to be missing one important element: minorities.
State officials are weeks away from beginning to select members of a 14-person commission that voters decided should reshape the state’s Senate, Assembly, and Board of Equalization districts.
So far, fewer than a quarter of the applications they’ve received are from minority candidates in a state where non-Latino whites make up less than half of the population.
Fearing the erosion of their political power, advocacy groups are making a last-ditch effort to recruit candidates with the necessary professional reputations, leadership skills, and political independence.
“This is where communities could be divided and that could in the future lessen their political clout and leave them with less than adequate representation,” said Orson Aguilar, director of the Greenlining Institute, one of the groups working to boost participation in the panel among Blacks, Latinos, and Asian Americans.
Backers of the Proposition 11 redistricting measure narrowly passed by voters in 2008 argued that it would help end gridlock in Sacramento by stripping lawmakers of the authority to draw districts that protect incumbents on extreme ends of the partisan spectrum.
That power instead goes to a Citizens Redistricting Commission that the initiative’s language stipulated would reflect the diversity of the state’s racial and ethnic makeup.
However, a small number of minorities have applied to join the commission and even fewer have met the minimum requirements to be considered. Those requirements include registration with the same political party for five years and a record of voting in at least two of the last three statewide general elections.
The proportion of tentatively eligible Black applicants, about 7 percent, is roughly on par with the group’s 6 percent share of the population, according to state data.
About 4 percent of the applicants are Asians, who make up more than 12 percent of the state’s population. Latinos make up fewer than 9 percent of the applicants, although they count for almost 37 percent of the state’s population.
“You’re talking about first-time voters, first-time political participation in their families,” said Harry Pachon, a public policy professor at the University of Southern California’s Tomas Rivera Policy Institute. “Just getting them registered is a big step because there’s no family history with the American political system. Some of the more nuanced things just aren’t on their radars.”
The state auditor, which is overseeing the commission’s formation, will select 120 applicants it deems most qualified, then eliminate half of those candidates after interviews. Eight commissioners will be picked at random from the remaining 60 candidates and those eight will select the commission’s final six members.
Advocacy groups are working to make sure the final outcome represents California’s diversity. The alternative, some members said, could be a return to the days before court challenges helped end the practice of drawing bizarrely shaped districts that snaked through minority communities, neutralizing their voting power.
“As minorities, we have to make sure that we’re at the table,” said Christopher J. Ige, the executive director of the Center for Asian Americans United for Self-Empowerment. “We want someone there to represent us. Otherwise, we’ll get redrawn out.” Ige’s group is among the loosely affiliated organizations that, with the help of a $1.5-million grant from the James Irvine Foundation, have been recruiting in ethic communities.
The group and similar advocacy organizations have been blasting e-mails to Asian studies departments in California universities and at chambers of commerce with large Asian memberships.
Niki Solis, 41, a deputy public defender in San Francisco, said she applied to join the commission after learning about the issue through the Latino bar association chapter where she serves as president. “When we are at the table, we have input on the redistricting and we can detect if there are any shenanigans going on or any redistricting going on that would unduly burden our community and be inconsistent with what’s just,” said Solis.
Democratic political candidates could suffer if minorities are poorly represented on the commission, since minority communities tend to vote for Democrats, said Eric McGhee of the Public Policy Institute of California.
McGhee said he understood the concerns of minority groups who feared having their political clout weakened, but said the National Voting Rights Act and other federal laws would prevent any drastic fragmentation of their communities through redistricting.
“It makes sense for these groups to want to exercise as much influence as possible,” he said. “But it’s not like just willy-nilly any kinds of district that the commission wants to draw could be drawn. There’s a limit to which minority strength can be weakened.” (end)