The Sad History, the Faint Promise

A Stronger Voice for Los Angeles County Latinos

By Fernando Oaxaca
Published on LatinoLA: February 1, 2002

The Sad History, the Faint Promise

Some twelve years ago, a courageous 52 year-old Latina from Glendora, California, Sarah Flores, was well on the way to becoming the first Hispanic elected to the Board of Supervisors of Los Angeles County.

Her unparalled community service and Latino activist record and her political smarts had served her well.

It was June of 1990, a census year, and the supervisorial district in which Mrs. Flores had won the non-partisan primary was centered in the San Gabriel Valley, just east of downtown Los Angeles.

Her victory was aided by the many Latino voters in the Valley and, importantly, by the strong backing of two "white" incumbent supervisors, Mike Antonovich and Deane Dana, both Republicans, and now deceased County Sheriff Sherman Block.

Helped by Antonovich and Dana, and many, many others, Latino and non-Latino, her campaign raised (and spent) over $400,000, not bad in a 1990 local race.

The seat she ran for opened up when the incumbent, Walter "Pete" Schabarum, another Republican, decided not to run again at the end of his term. Schabarum, however, opposed Sarah Flores, even though she had been his Assistant Chief Deputy.

But in the primary, Sarah beat Superior Court Judge Gregory O?Brien, picked by Schabarum as his successor, 34.7% to 20.6%. Latina Nell Soto got 10% of the vote as did the black Mayor of Monrovia and, adding 2.5% for a Latino who spent no money, the district "minority" vote totaled 57%!

The stage was set for Sarah Flores to be the new Supervisor after a November run-off.

Then disaster struck for Mrs. Flores! Federal Judge David Kenyon, 60 days after Sarah?s primary win, struck down the lines of the district in which she had just won, voiding her victory. He was ruling in a pending lawsuit against the County filed prior to the primary by the U.S. Department of Justice. He ruled that county districts had been gerry-mandered by the existing Board of Supervisors and an Hispanic "could not be elected".

Judge Kenyon also canceled the November runoff. Run-off favorite Sarah Flores had won 29 of the 31 cities in the primary in a district with only 24% Latino registered voters.

Latinas Flores and Soto, with a combined 45% of the primary vote, obviously received support from non-Latino voters. In light of these facts, Judge Kenyon's decision and the encouragement from his counsel, MALDEF (the Mexican-American Legal Defense and Education Fund) and the ACLU (American Civil Liberties Union), seemed peculiar, at best.

The Judge and his civil rights advisers also examined, and rejected, an alternate plan provided by the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) which would have saved Sarah's win.

This plan would leave the Flores primary results untouched but redraw the County. It would revise Supervisor Ed Edelman's 48% Latino district by removing his Westside L.A. and including southeast Los Angeles, Pico-Union, Boyle Heights, Downtown L.A., northeast Los Angeles and the northeast San Fernando Valley.

This new district would be almost 80% Latino with about 50% Latino voters.

An upset Mr. Edelman reminded everyone that he disliked this option and warned that he had $1,000,000 in the bank and could beat anyone.

Gloria Molina, on the L.A. City Council and on MALDEF's board, was a favorite to win any new "Latino seat". Yet Molina et al, possibly a bit intimidated by Edelman or unwilling to "hurt" a political ally, failed to support the DOJ option that could have resulted in the election of both Flores and Molina.

Instead, the judge allowed a MALDEF-drawn plan with a lone new Latino seat and Edelman protected, thus voiding Mrs. Flores' primary win and killing another sure Latino seat on the Board.

Following up on Judge Kenyon's lead, MALDEF and the ACLU offered the judge "their" county district lines, ostensibly more favorable to Latinos. They packed most of Sarah Flores? San Gabriel Valley Latinos into a new 72% Latino district with about 50% Latino voter registration and the expected East L.A. focus with heavy Democrat presence.

In rejecting the DOJ optional plan, the redistricting mechanics of MALDEF/ACLU not only left Edelman's seat undisturbed but assured a Democrat as the first Latino on the Board of Supervisors.

Their action also delayed the possibility of two Latinos on the Board for at least ten and perhaps twenty years. With their support, one district could have been that won by Sarah in the primary, and the other, the mostly Eastside district which could still be won by a Latino but would force Ed Edelman to give up his affluent Westside base and run against a Latino.

Sarah Flores would have had her run-off as planned and then her district would be part of the total re-map which would also correct the fractured (into three districts) San Gabriel Valley that exists to this date in 2002.

There is one previously unrevealed detail. Sarah Flores, our Latina pioneer, was (and is today) a Republican!

But back to 1990. Unsurprisingly, now that they had "their" own district, thanks to Judge Kenyon and his highly political L.A. "civil rights" counsel, the usual East L.A. kingmakers (of 1990) sat down to decide for the community who their new county leader should be.

Congressmen Ed Roybal and Esteban Torres, Assemblyman Richard Alatorre and State Senator Art Torres and Roybal prot?g?, L.A. City Councilwoman Gloria Molina, tried for a couple of days to divide the power pie. They failed. An unplanned election with a guaranteed Latino winner was on.

Almost predictably, Republican Sarah Flores, choosing bravely to run in the new MALDEF/ACLU drawn and heavily Democrat district, came in third on January 22, 1991. In February, Senator Art Torres and Councilwoman Gloria Molina went mano-a-mano in a runoff and Molina won, becoming the first Latino to sit as an L.A. County Board member in 115 years.

Today, in 2002, she joins Mike Antonovich (from the 1990 Board) and "new" Supervisors Yvonne Burke, Don Knabe, and Zev Yaroslavsky in a new but similar fight to maintain the status quo. They aim to prevent the San Gabriel Valley from getting, finally, geographically unified representation on the Board of Supervisors, and, feasibly, to elect its own Latino member, who would, incidentally, end Molina?s Latino county power monopoly. If the County prevails, it will surely continue with one lonely Latino on its Board.

This 20% Latino representation on the current Board is obviously inadequate, given an over 43% Latino population in 2002 Los Angeles County. Latinos are scattered from Pacoima to San Pedro, from Covina to Culver City, from Pomona to North Hollywood.

It is not unreasonable that Latinos should have at least two votes on the five person Board. (A proposal to expand the Board to nine persons lost in the November 2000 election with strong opposition from a majority of the current members.)

Ironically, the same Latino groups that promoted Board expansion in 2000 now have filed a voting rights complaint with the U.S. Department of Justice against the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors and its current district lines.

The Los Angeles County Chicano Employees Association and the Latino Coalition for Fair Redistricting propose to "unpack" Molina?s district from 76% to 68% Latino population (a voting rights violation since 1993) and unite the fractured San Gabriel Valley, now in three different districts, into a 58% Latino district with Latinos as the largest voter group. The San Fernando Valley, with its massive land mass, would remain in two districts.

The population and ethnicity percentages and political registration distribution in the maps now in Department of Justice hands, would, with high confidence, result in a "black" seat, two non-minority "white" seats, protection of Gloria Molina?s Latino seat and a San Gabriel Valley seat that could be filled by a latter-day Sarah Flores or another prominent, competent Latino or Latina. To win, this candidate could be from either major party.

If the U.S. Justice Department agrees with the filing Latino coalition organizations about alleged violations of the Voting Rights Act by the Board of Supervisors, Los Angeles might one day see new district lines, resulting in more fair and effective representation of the millions of Latinos scattered across this vast county.

But first, the Justice Department must sue the County and win.

As it did in 1990, the County will likely spend millions in hard-earned taxpayer money to protect their status by fighting the lawsuit, if it is filed. Many other things have to happen, including an election, perhaps a special one as in 1991.

But, if the incumbents prevail, if the current Board remains "safe", though insensitive to fairness and justice, Latinos may have to wait until after the 2010 Census to try for a stronger County voice. Must we wait another ten years?

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