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Ethnic groups expand beyond their historic bases

California is the most ethnically diverse place in the world.  From corner to corner, across its coastline, valleys, deserts and mountains there is just about every type of voter in the state.  From the strong Republican rural communities along the Nevada border to urban Democrats in Los Angeles and San Francisco the state typifies diversity.

 

While the Republicans are facing internal problems with a party that cannot attract enough minority support, the Democratic Party is plagued with infighting between different ethnic groups.  But as time progresses, California is entering an era where diversity is impossible to escape.  Politicians are not immune to this either, being forced to run in districts where a majority of voters may have a different skin color than them or historically have been the base of a certain ethnic group.

 

There are Congressional and Legislative districts drawn that help elect African-Americans, Latinos and Asians to office, but across the state these ethnic groups have been successful in winning districts outside their historical geographic bases, a testament to improving race relations among voters.  Currently one-third of the Black Caucus represents a district that is outside the historical geographic bases of African-American political power.
These include African-Americans Chris Holden (D-Pasadena), Cheryl Brown (D-San Bernardino) and Shirley Weber (D-San Diego), the first African-American elected to the Legislature south of Los Angeles.  With the addition of these members the Black Caucus is nine members strong, a number that hasn’t been reached since the 80’s when Willie Brown was Speaker.
In addition, for the 2014 elections, African-Americans Kevin McCarty and Jim Cooper are running a strong campaigns in Sacramento’s 7th and 9th Assembly Districts, and if elected will be the first African-Americans elected in Northern California outside the Bay Area.  Among Latinos, Susan Talamantes Eggman (D-Stockton), Jose Medina (D-Riverside) and Sharon Quirk Silva (D-Fullerton) represent districts that are not historical bases of Latino political power.

 

Victor Griego, a public affairs consultant and Co-Editor of the California Target Book believes representation is based on either descriptive representation or substantive representation, where the former is a representative that is physically like the voter and the latter is based on public policy and a track record of service.  “If a candidate is of substance on the issues and in the best interests of those voters you are going to see that person run and win,” said Greigo.

 

The African-American population is facing the same problem as whites in California, as the Latino and Asian populations increase, their population decreases.  African-Americans are also dispersing from their historical bases in urban areas to the exurbs, to Solano County, Eastern Contra Costa County, the Inland Empire and High Desert.  During Redistricting, Alice Huffman, president of the California NAACP, understood that African-Americans are facing changing demographics and fought for what was the best option to continue electing African-Americans.

 

“We tried to get lines drawn that would give our elected officials a chance, not necessarily to win.  If you wanted to guarantee a black seat you are shrinking the number of seats they can get,” said Huffman.  “I think the day is over on counting on an all-black district.  We would have a couple people.”

 

Holden represents a district that not only hasn’t been represented by an African-American, but the eastern half of his district has historically been represented by Republicans.  He was first elected to the Pasadena City Council where he served for 23 years, at a time when Republicans represented the city in Sacramento and Washington.  Holden says today politics have changed and area is more progressive.

 

“I think it is more who will represent the district best and the important issues of the district and it helps to be known and to have a track record that people can look at and that speaks for you,” said Holden.

 

In the past it was difficult to mount a campaign in a district that was considered safe for a certain ethnic group, something Democratic Party Vice-Chair Alex Gallardo-Rooker and Paramount City Councilwoman Diane Janet Martinez know all too well when in 2002 the Latinas tried unsuccessfully to challenge Mervyn Dymally in a district that is historically African-American.

 

Rooker was running strong, but her campaign hit opposition in the African-American community.  “Low and behold, Herb Wesson becomes Speaker and stops the money.  It was hard for me to be on the other end of being discriminated against,” said Rooker.  She was told, “We can’t have a Latino win a Black seat.  It has to stay Black.”

 

Rooker said she was running to help all people and understood there was tension between the Black and Latino communities, but wanted to provide leadership to help people that lived along side each other and respected each other.

 

“I ran to help a district that nobody was helping.  I thought I could fight to bring jobs into that district and help the district,” said Rooker.  “There were Latinos populating the schools and there was some friction with the blacks, but there was a lot of cooperation between the people and if you walked door to door they lived next to each other and they cooperated and I felt I could help in that situation.”

 

As the 2014 election approaches, some of these districts are attracting strong candidates from different ethnic groups.

 

In the 62nd Assembly District, Betsy Butler wants to reclaim a seat in the Legislature and is running in a historically black district.  Today voter registration is 27 percent Black and 25 percent Latino and the redrawn district includes her home base of Marina del Rey and surrounding coastal communities, along with inland territory new to her, including Inglewood.  Butler could be part of a field of seven candidates, including herself, five African-Americans and one Latino.

 

In 2012 Butler ran in the 50th Assembly District and lost a close race to Richard Bloom.  Interestingly, just 1 percent of voters in her old district overlapped the 50th AD, while 28 percent of voters in her old district reside in the 62nd AD.  Butler has already been endorsed by former Congresswoman Diane Watson who served the Los Angeles  African-American community for decades in Sacramento and Washington.

 

“This is a district that I think mirrors Los Angeles in its diversity, the diversity of backgrounds and ethnic groups,” said Butler.  “This is an area I have lived in a long time.  Working families are every color and they are all over Los Angeles.  They want clean water, they want jobs, and those are the things I am going to work for and those are priorities I have always worked for and I am going to continue to hold them.”

 

Holden says he understands the push to preserve an African-American district.  “There just aren’t a lot of African-Americans elected to office so certainly when you have a district that has a makeup that favors an African-American candidate, that is a seat you like to retain.  As long as you got a qualified African-American,” said Holdon.  “Does that mean Betsy Butler shouldn’t run, no.  Does that mean Betsy Butler should lose, no.”

 

In the 18th Senate District, a district with a majority Latino population, Bob Hertzberg has entered the ring with the endorsement of incumbent, Alex Padilla and Senate leader, Darrell Steinberg.  Latinos make up 38 percent of registered voters, a 10 percent decrease from the old district, which makes it more hospitable to non-Latino candidates, according to Allan Hoffenblum, Editor-in-Chief of the California Target Book.

 

In 2012 Janice Hahn was able to wrestle a historically African-American district against fellow incumbent Laura Richardson, who was also dragged down by ethical violations.  Although the district is historically African-American, Latinos actually make up about half of registered voters, and in the end the representative elected is white.  It helped that Hahn represented a lot of the district on the Los Angeles City Council and her father represented South Los Angeles for years on the L.A. County Board of Supervisors.

 

Both Rooker and Huffman believe we are entering an era where racial lines are becoming less defined.  “We live in a state where diversity is important, we also live in a state where we are beginning to support each other,” said Huffman.

 

Rooker gives credit to the Millennials, who are a pivotal force behind not only behind better race relations, but LGBT civil rights and helped usher Obama in the White House.

 

“I think the younger generation is changing,” said Rooker.  “The old guard no, they think it is a Black seat or a Latino seat.  The younger generation that is coming up is not as territorial.”

Ed’s Note: Nik Bonovich, who has written for the California Target Book, is a regular contributor to Capitol Weekly.

 

 


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