Politics, government and public life for Southern California

Redistricting has turned this election season upside down

LA City Councilmember Tony Cardenas on truancy

Tami Abdollah / KPCC

Los Angeles City Councilman Tony Cardenas is running virtually unopposed for Congress in the new 29th District in the San Fernando Valley.

You’ve probably heard about the contentious race between Congressmen Brad Sherman and Howard Berman. The two Democratic incumbents were pushed into a re-election contest because of redistricting. That’s just one of many examples of how new boundaries are affecting the 2012 election. 

In 2008, a voter-approved proposition removed responsibility for redistricting from politicians, who historically protected incumbents. About 30,000 people applied to be named to the 14-member Citizens Redistricting Commission. The 2012 election is the first result of its labor. 

Consequently, the San Fernando Valley is on the cusp of electing its first Latino member of Congress.

Los Angeles City Councilman Tony Cardenas finished the June primary with 64 percent of the vote. He will appear on the Nov. 6 ballot against perennial candidate David Hernandez.

The new 29th Congressional District is about 70 percent Latino. Its creation, in part, pushed Rep. Howard Berman into his colleague Brad Sherman’s district. Those two men are now locked in a contentious battle for the 30th District.

While the Latino-majority district could be seen as the growing influence of Latino voters and politicians, Fernando Guerra, director of the Center for the Study of Los Angeles at Loyola Marymount University, says it is actually a sign of the community’s lack of power over the decades.

“The end result will be a Latino in Congress," said Guerra, "but the fact that the Latino community and its Latino leaders could not get, on their own, the powers that be in Sacramento to create the district or keep it as it was 10 years ago, shows a lack of power."

In drawing the new districts, commissioners focused on demographics. The commission’s president said they were unconcerned with protecting incumbents.

“We were forbidden from looking at party registration or where the incumbents or potential challengers lived,” said Stan Forbes. “We never looked at that.”

Some of the changes were modest, others more consequential. To avoid running against a fellow Republican Congressman, long-time Inland Empire Representative Gary Miller moved his residence into another district. Some veteran lawmakers practically had to introduce themselves to voters as if they were running for the first time. In the San Gabriel Valley, the state’s first-ever Asian-majority district was created. 

"Essentially, you have demographics by census bloc," said Forbes, "and we would put them together to get to the requisite population, and we would look at the percentages of Latinos, of Asians, Anglos and African Americans, and we would sort of see, what do we have?"

The end result was slightly more competitive districts, though that’s not how the campaign played out in the 29th District. Cardenas has not faced any serious competition.

The councilman believes other candidates figured he was probably going to be the leading candidate, "and so, after that, I think people just thought about it and said, 'If I want to fight to be in office, probably not against him, not this time, not in this seat.' ”

The other people who would have been likely candidates were members of Cardenas’ East San Fernando Valley coalition — State Sen. Alex Padilla, Assemblyman Felipe Fuentes, and school board member Nury Martinez.

After next week's election, a Latino politician will represent the eastern part of the Valley at every level of government. (Richard Alarcon represents the L.A. City Council's Seventh District; Fuentes has declared his candidacy for that seat; and Martinez is expected to run for Cardenas' council seat.)

The decision not to have a fight over the congressional seat is a sign of political maturity, Guerra said. That’s in contrast to what the western part of the Valley is experiencing with the Berman-Sherman fight. 

“Because Berman and Sherman are so alike, they vote so much alike, the difference between the two is almost negligible when it comes to policy, when it comes to their political history, therefore the difference becomes personal and you get a very nasty election,” Guerra said. 

Cardenas’ election to Congress will leave a vacancy on the Los Angeles City Council. It is unclear if that special election will be wrapped into the city’s March or May elections next year. 

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