Riverside County lawyer Jodie Filkins Webber spent much of 2011 listening to hundreds of hours of testimony about how she and other members of California’s redistricting commission should redraw the state’s political map.
A theme of those hearings sticks with her, nearly five years later.
“I was astonished, absolutely astonished, at the number of groups that existed by racial makeup,” Filkins Webber, one of the panel’s Republican members, recalled in a recent interview. “Race was practically the primary concern in a number of our meetings, particularly in Southern California. I couldn’t believe it.”
The racial and ethnic overtones of politics in California, the country’s most diverse state, surfaced again last week. Two Democratic Assembly incumbents, Mike Gipson and Cheryl Brown, both of whom are black, are facing challenges from Latina opponents within their own party.
We did not have a partisan gerrymander in Los Angeles and surrounding areas, we have an ethnic one.
Former Republican redistricting consultant Tony Quinn
The challenges to Brown and Gipson are motivated by their stances on environmental legislation, not race. But the prospect of unseating two black incumbents, with African Americans’ share of the state’s population dwindling, stirred concern.
One African American legislator, Assemblyman Sebastian Ridley-Thomas, D-Los Angeles, accused interests backing the challengers of being “tone-deaf” and questioned their willingness to “work with black California.”
Another urged fellow Democrats not to let issues of race and ethnicity divide them.
“In the environmental community, there’s not a whole lot of black and brown people involved in that. But to be fighting over it is not what Dr. King wanted us to do. He did not want black and brown to be fighting with one another,” Assemblyman Reggie Jones-Sawyer, D-Los Angeles, chair of the California Legislative Black Caucus, said on the Assembly floor Friday while marking Martin Luther King Jr. Day. “We would be remiss if we continued ... race-baiting and fighting.”
Multiple race- and ethnic-based caucuses exist in the state Legislature and Congress. Of 77 Democratic lawmakers, 41 belong to at least one. At election time, they sometimes find themselves in competition to elect candidates endorsed by their caucuses, and either add to their ranks or hold on to seats already represented by one of their members.
It is not uncommon to hear talk in political circles of “black seats” or “Latino seats,” districts where a certain racial or ethnic group predominates and has a history of electing candidates who look like them. The black caucus currently commands a historical high of 12 seats, but demographic shifts threaten to upend the current order.
As the state’s Latino electorate has boomed, the numbers and clout of Latino lawmakers has also grown. Soon, both the Senate and the Assembly will be led by Latinos from Los Angeles, a nexus of Latino power. The Democrat-only Latino caucus has 21 members, and two Latino Republicans hold seats in the Assembly.
Over the decades, communities such as Compton, Carson, Inglewood and other parts of Los Angeles County that once had majority black populations began to change as Latinos’ share of the population grew. That has led to political rivalries between the different communities.
Matt Barreto, an expert on racially polarized voting hired by the redistricting panel, advised its members in a 2011 memo that “Latinos vote as a cohesive political group, and non-Latinos regularly bloc vote against Latino candidates” in Los Angeles County.
The panel also concluded that there “was strong evidence of racially polarized voting with respect to Latinos and non-Latinos in Fresno, Orange, San Diego, Riverside and San Bernardino counties.”
As a result, many Southern California districts, as well as others around the state, reflect the panel’s efforts to comply with the federal Voting Rights Act and maximize the ability of various racial or ethnic groups to elect a member of their community.
“We did not have a partisan gerrymander in Los Angeles and surrounding areas. We have an ethnic one,” said Tony Quinn, a former Republican redistricting consultant and veteran political observer.
21 Number of Democratic Latino state lawmakers
12 Number of Democratic African American state lawmakers
Both African Americans and Latinos remain underrepresented in positions of power relative to their share of the electorate. But black voters in California are more likely to show up on Election Day, manifesting what Mindy Romero of UC Davis’ California Civic Engagement Project called “a three-decade upward trend of African American turnout.”
“There’s been a set of historical markers that happened at a national scale for African Americans that began to motivate the community politically,” from the civil rights movement to mass mobilization during the Reagan years, Romero said, that has produced a tradition of local civic engagement.
In African American communities, “not just campaigns are doing this, but churches are doing this,” Romero said. “There are more organizations that talk about that connection between politics and social and economic opportunity.”
The growth of the Latino electorate has not yet produced commensurate political gains, Romero said, in large part because their turnout rates are far below those of white voters.
“They’re growing in their share of the vote, but they’re underrepresented,” she said. “The system as a whole is designed in a way that has disadvantaged Latinos.”
Multiple legislators declined to comment for this story. But after the black caucus added members in the last election, including in districts that have not historically elected African American lawmakers, Sen. Holly Mitchell, D-Los Angeles, heralded the result as a boon for African American constituents and credited black caucus outreach for aiding the pickups.
“There’s strength in numbers in the land of politics, and so to have a larger caucus that can represent our priorities ... really empowers us to bring forward the plight of the African American in California,” Mitchell said in 2014. “The black community is at the bottom of the heap if you will. We’re the sickest, worst-educated, most likely to be unemployed.”
One of the 2014 seats that expanded the black caucus went to Assemblyman Jim Cooper, D-Elk Grove. Cooper defeated former Sacramento City Councilman Darrell Fong, whose candidacy and endorsement from the California Asian Pacific Islander Legislative Caucus pointed to the growing political power of Asian Americans.
That trend, too, has exposed ethnic fault lines. Three Democratic candidates to succeed termed-out Assemblywoman Nora Campos, D-San Jose, are Asian American. If any of them defeats Darcie Green, a Latina and the choice of the California Latino Caucus PAC, it would disrupt the area’s 15-year streak of electing Latino Assembly members.
“Everybody seems to think (the diversity of candidates) is the new normal,” said Bill Wong, a political consultant who ran Fong’s campaign and directs the Asian American Small Business PAC. “With so many different communities now ... it’s become more of a big jumble.”
In the race for an open Los Angeles-area congressional district, this year, state Sen. Isadore Hall faces a Latina opponent, Nanette Barragán.
Alan Clayton, a redistricting consultant who advises Latino elected officials, voiced frustration at some Latino leaders’ support for Hall in a district with a Latino makeup that is among the highest in the state. Hall has been endorsed by a trio of prominent Latino politicians: Senate President Pro Tem Kevin de León; state Sen. Ricardo Lara, a former leader of the Latino Legislative Caucus; and Assemblyman Anthony Rendon, the incoming Assembly speaker.
“It’s very disappointing when three extremely powerful Latino leaders ... did not support a credible Latina,” he said. “It sets back the political empowerment of the Latino community by playing it safe when you should be bold.”
Rendon called that criticism “insulting to the voters and to the district,” noting that Hall, first elected to the Legislature in 2008, has “represented that district at a number of levels for quite some time.”
Republican political consultant Mike Madrid said he thinks political tensions between different racial and ethnic groups will become a more frequent campaign subplot, as Democratic dominance in California continues to increase along with the state’s diversification.
“What’s going to happen is that the brand of the party is going to give way to these internecine fights between ethnic groups,” Madrid said. “These same battles are going to be fought by pro-business and environmental groups through a racial lens.”
Erica Teasley Linnick, a senior program officer at the Open Society Foundations, helped lead the African American Redistricting Collaborative during the 2011 remap. She worked closely with representatives of Latino, Asian and other groups to try to ensure a unified front with the commission.
California, she said, is in an era of “Politics 2.0,” past the time when districts were dominated by one racial or ethnic group.
“Everyone knows how the winds are blowing,” she said. “If you are a legislator today, you have to be aware of the dynamics, and you have to be responsive to your constituents.”