Multi-American

How immigrants are redefining 'American' in Southern California

Election 2015: In a diverse city, a not-so-diverse City Council

The population of Los Angeles is half female, almost half Latino, and roughly 12 percent Asian. But it's not reflected in City Hall: Out of 15 City Council members, only one is a woman. There are only four Latinos, and no Asian Americans.
The population of Los Angeles is half female, almost half Latino, and roughly 12 percent Asian. But it's not reflected in City Hall: Out of 15 City Council members, only one is a woman. There are only four Latinos, and no Asian Americans. Alice Walton/KPCC

Los Angeles is one of the most diverse cities in the world: Nearly half Latino, roughly 12 percent Asian. Half its residents are women. But you wouldn't know it from looking at a roster of its elected city leaders.

Out of 15 City Council members, 14 are men. There are only four Latinos on the dais. As for Asian-Americans, there aren't any.

The first and so far only Asian-American to hold a council seat, Michael Woo, did so more than two decades ago.

There is diverse mix of candidates running in the March 3 primary: There are a dozen women, and Latinos are well-represented. Some are children of immigrant parents, or immigrants themselves — the same holds true for some current council members.

But there are still only three Asian-Americans, including one candidate of Mexican and Japanese descent.

Read more about the candidates running in LA's 2015 primary election using KPCC's election guide.

It wasn't always so, said political scientist Fernando Guerra, who directs the Center for the Study of Los Angeles at Loyola Marymount University.

“There are many districts that have previously elected women, previously elected Latinos, that currently don’t," Guerra said. "And so the system is pretty open when it comes to gender and race. There are no structural barriers. However, there are informal barriers.”

Comparing the LA City Council demographics to those of the City

Some candidates are handicapped by a lack of campaign experience, he said. Fundraising can be  problem for political newcomers from the city's ethnic enclaves, as can the lack of a big enough support network.

Then there are the council boundaries.

Redistricting has helped some groups – like African-Americans, who make up just 10 percent of the population, but hold three council seats. Latinos also benefited early on.

But Asian-Americans haven't. During the most recent redistricting of boundaries, an attempt to create a unified Koreatown fell through, prompting a lawsuit from Asian-American activists.

Guerra isn't sure this would have worked, though.

"While there are enough Asians citywide, you would think, to elect an Asian, they are not concentrated enough to create an Asian district," he said, adding that in spite of concentrated Asian-American communities in places like Koreatown or Filipinotown, "these communities are still pretty small given the size of the district."

Koreatown, for example, has more Latino than Asian residents.

Smaller districts could help, Guerra said, but the idea of additional district and council members has never gone over well politically.

As for women, there are a few theories — including one that has more women choosing private-sector jobs over public service. Another is that male voters tend to support male candidates, while female voters take a more egalitarian approach, supporting either. Guerra points to the mayoral race between Eric Garcetti and Wendy Gruel as an example.

"Women actually split their vote 50-50, ... but men overwhelmingly supported Garcetti," he said.

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