By Laura Mecoy
LOS ANGELES Nov. 8, 2001 In challenging the state's new election boundaries, the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund is battling some of its former allies and facing charges that it is "racially divisive."
MALDEF lost its bid Monday to halt the March primary elections in two San Fernando Valley and two San Diego congressional districts. But it is pushing ahead with its legal challenge and coming under fire from Latino lawmakers.
State Sens. Martha Escutia, D-Montebello, and Gloria Romero, D-Los Angeles, went public with the dispute last week by writing an editorial (see below) in which they labeled MALDEF's lawsuit "frivolous and racially divisive."
They say the state's new election boundaries which were supported by 23 of the California's 26 Latino lawmakers strengthen the re-election prospects for Latino incumbents.
In addition, they said, it created a new Latino congressional district in Los Angeles.
MALDEF Vice President Thomas A. Saenz said he was "obviously disappointed" by the criticism but that it's not the first time MALDEF has found itself at odds with Latino elected officials.
"This is probably a little more intense," he said, "but we have had this experience before."
He said MALDEF is representing the interests of the Latino community, while Latino lawmakers are trying to "protect themselves."
MALDEF contends the Legislature's mapmakers intentionally diluted the Latino vote during its once-a-decade redistricting. It claims the mapmakers were trying to ensure Democratic incumbents wouldn't face Latino challenges for the Los Angeles County Senate seat held by Betty Karnette, the San Fernando Valley House seat held by Howard Berman and the San Diego County House seat held by Bob Filner.
But Escutia and Romero said elections are no longer "just about race." They said Latino candidates could win districts where Latino voters are a minority, as did Sens. Deborah Ortiz, D-Sacramento, and Liz Figueroa, D-Fremont.
"Our success lies in proclaiming that the Latino agenda is (and should be) the American agenda," they wrote in the Los Angeles Times. "No one holds a monopoly on this message."
If that were the case, Saenz responded, the mapmakers wouldn't have split the Latino vote in the districts MALDEF challenged. "You do not intentionally break up a group if you don't believe group-based voting occurs," Saenz said.
MALDEF based its request for the election postponement on declarations from prominent Latino leaders who said they had participated in phone conversations either with Michael Berman, the Democrats' top redistricting consultant, or about him. The declarations claimed Berman had said he was reducing the number of Latino voters in the districts at issue to protect incumbents from Latino challenges.
Jonathan Steinberg, who defended the new districts on behalf of the state Senate, disputed the claims in the declarations. He said the districts MALDEF challenged are ones in which Latinos have an "equal opportunity" to win. He said MALDEF is trying to create "slam-dunk" districts for Latino candidates and that is not required under federal law.
"There is a suggestion that the incumbency is something the courts need to get in and root out," he told the court. "The Supreme Court says no."
He said MALDEF's loss Monday showed that the three-judge panel rejected the claim that there was "going to be some horrible loss of voting rights."
But Saenz said he was encouraged because the judges' ruling said MALDEF raised "important and substantial questions of fact."
The judges also said these issues need to be developed through further hearings and urged the lawyers to work out a schedule to bring the case to trial before the March primary.
"It is going to be tough for us, but these cases are never easy," MALDEF Chairwoman Gloria Molina said. "It is going to be a complicated case, and drawing the line between law and politics is going to be very difficult."
MALDEF's Lawsuit Is Racially Divisive
(The following is the Commentary by Martha Escutia and Gloria Romero published in the Los Angeles Times, Nov. 1, 2001)
By Martha Escutia (D-Whittier) and Gloria Romero (D-Los Angeles)
The Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund's lawsuit challenging the recently redrawn boundaries for congressional and state Senate seats is frivolous and racially divisive.
The lawsuit seeks to overturn a bipartisan redistricting plan that took special care to respect the rights of minorities.
Thirteen seats (seven state Senators; six members of Congress) currently held by Latinos are maintained or strengthened, and a new heavily Latino congressional district is created in Los Angeles County. In addition, voters in two state Senate districts (and possibly three) held by white term-limited senators will, in all likelihood because of increased Latino and Democratic voting strength, elect Latinos in 2002. Why would MALDEF complain about this? The organization disputes only three (out of 93) districts: a San Diego congressional seat that MALDEF explicitly endorsed in a letter to legislators, a state Senate seat that MALDEF representatives verbally approved and the San Fernando Valley district of Rep. Howard Berman.
MALDEF claims that Ber-man's 55.6% Latino district is not "Latino enough." But the voters in the new Berman district have demonstrated a willingness to support progressive candidates of any race. Residents in the areas that comprise the new district voted for Antonio Villaraigosa for mayor and for Rocky Delgadillo for city attorney in the recent Los Angeles city election and voted overwhelmingly for Cruz Bustamante for lieutenant governor.
More and more, California is reaping the benefits of multiracial coalitions. The voice of Latinos in California is stronger because electoral politics and issues are no longer just about race.
The elections of State Sens. Deborah Ortiz (D-Sacramento) and Liz Figueroa (D-Fremont) in non-Latino areas demonstrate that a strong Latino candidate need not have a district packed with Latino votes.
Issues of concern to Latinoswhether access to health care, better schools, better jobs or cleaner airare not just Latino issues. They affect everyone and can be voiced by any legislator responsive to his or her constituents' needs.
Of the state's 26 Latino legislatorselected representatives of Latinos and non-Latinos alike23 voted for the redistricting plan.
MALDEF submitted its own redistricting plan to the Legislature. The plan was found lacking in how it dealt with both Latinos and non-Latinos.
It jeopardized the congressional seats of many female elected officials. MALDEF's state Senate proposal diluted the districts of several Latina legislators and cut one out of her own district, pitting her against another Latino. This move could have reduced the number of Latina legislators. MALDEF fixates on numbers, ignoring the advances in the redistricting plan.
By strengthening the Latino districts and locking in the Democratic majority in the state Senate and congressional delegation, our legislators can continue to lead the fight on issues such as immigrant rights, consumer protection and advancements for farm workers.
In the era of term limits, Latinos need not limit themselves to only seeking office in "safe" Latino districts. We should not relegate ourselves to only a few court-imposed barrios.
Our success lies in proclaiming that the Latino agenda is (and should be) the American agenda. No one holds a monopoly on this message.
But, ultimately, we trust the voters. Most citizens cast their votes the American waythey vote for the most qualified candidate, regardless of race or gender. All we have to do is compete for votes the old-fashioned way: by earning them.