Redistricting is ‘bare-knuckle politics,’ leaked LA council audio shows

Written by Danielle Chiriguayo, produced by Brian Hardzinski

“What I hear are people in power deciding whether or not to try and give their colleagues a good district, a bad district, and what that means for them,” says Jessica Levinson about the leaked conversation between members of the LA City Council and the president of the LA Federation of Labor. Photo by Shutterstock.

The redistricting of LA’s council districts was at the center of the racist conversation between LA City Councilmembers Nury Martinez and Kevin De León, plus LA Labor Federation President Ron Herrera. They referred to the group as a “little Latino caucus” of their own. The discussion also tackled how to increase Latino political power in the newly drawn districts.

The redistricting process starts with an independent, 21-member citizen panel that gives suggestions on how to organize the region and best represent residents. However, LA City Council has the ultimate say on how to draw the lines. That’s all according to Loyola Law School Professor Jessica Levinson.

“This is bare-knuckle politics. … Redistricting is so important. It determines how our voices are heard. It determines our level of representation,” Levinson says. “It determines whether or not they keep their jobs and how much power they have. So what I hear are people in power deciding whether or not to try and give their colleagues a good district, a bad district, and what that means for them.”

She adds that without an entirely independent entity making decisions, these types of situations can be difficult to avoid.

“Without giving it over to a separate body, we're going to have these conversations. … Explicitly and implicitly, this is going to be a place where there's almost a built-in conflict of interest when it comes to our public servants.”

The question now is whether or not the councilmembers were drawing district lines in a way that discriminates on the basis of race, says Levinson.

“Typically, it's really really difficult to show that district lines are drawn on the basis of race, and you just have effects. In this case, we actually had them on audio really explicitly talking about how to draw lines to improve and or diminish different racial groups in their voting power. Now, this is only three members. Obviously, it's not a majority. But I think this is where I see the legal red flags.”

She adds that lawsuits could be filed under the Federal Voting Rights Act, the California Voting Rights Act, and the California Fair Maps Act.

“How that fares and what ultimately happens? I don't know. But I know that we have comments here that we typically don't have audio of this level of explicitly saying, ‘Let's help this race. Let's hurt this race.’”