Imagine if today's Los Angeles were governed by a white mayor and an all-white City Council. And then imagine if that anomaly was protected by city election rules that virtually guaranteed no Latino candidate could land a spot in elected office. The civil rights community would be apoplectic and the public justifiably enraged.
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Now consider Compton, a city that's about two-thirds Latino but in which no Latino has ever held elected office. Instead, thanks in part to the kind of voting rules that were challenged and abandoned in many cities long ago, an all-black City Council and a black mayor maintain a firm hold on public office.
In Compton, City Council members run in citywide elections, which means all voters can vote in all races. If instead, as happens in Los Angeles, council members represented specific geographic areas and were voted on only by residents of those areas, heavily Latino neighborhoods would have a better chance of electing Latino council members. And then, having cracked the city's closed politics, a group of experienced officeholders who could vie for mayor and other citywide offices would develop.
Compton's commitment to at-large voting, which has been challenged in a lawsuit alleging violations of the California Voting Act, is the manifestation of a particularly noxious brand of racial politics that plays out in schools, elections and even civic events. The conflicts are neither new nor deniable. To take just one example: In 1994, when Californians voted on Proposition 187, exit polling found that 64% of Compton's non-Latino voters supported it; less than 1% of its Latino voters did so. One expert who analyzed Compton's voting patterns said the evidence of racial balloting was "clear and convincing."
Meanwhile, the city's demographics are rapidly changing and apparent everywhere. Barbecue and soul-food restaurants still have their place in the 10-square-mile city of 95,000 residents, but they now stand alongside taco stands and Oaxacan cafes; Stella's Beauty Salon caters to "hombres, mujeres y ninos." Evangelical storefront churches draw a multiplicity of faiths, with the Iglesia de Dios Pentecostal M.E. sitting just down the block from Greater Zion Church Family. Rap music thumps from car radios, but so does ranchero. According to the census, more than half of Compton's families speak Spanish at home.
So why hasn't that meant an automatic transformation of Compton politics? Some of the city's Latinos are in the country illegally and thus can't vote; even those here legally may not be citizens or feel themselves ready to join the electorate. And many are too young to vote. Despite their demographic dominance, Latinos make up only about 44% of Compton's voting-age population, so the city's black leadership, by insisting on citywide elections, has been able to dilute Latino voting strength. If Compton were broken into geographic districts, voting-age Latinos would almost certainly be a majority in at least one, and perhaps more (depending on how the lines were drawn). This would give them, finally, a foothold of political influence.
In the civil rights movement of the 1950s, blacks relied on the Constitution and found an ally in the courts. Now, the black leadership of Compton is defending its system in the courts against three Latino plaintiffs seeking to replace Compton's at-large council elections with district-by-district ballots.
So how do Compton officials explain their opposition to the very process that empowered so many African Americans in an earlier era? I first tried Mayor Eric J. Perrodin. His assistant has a pleasant voicemail message asking callers to leave a name, number and message. Calls, the message promises, will be "graciously returned." Mine wasn't.
I also tried asking the city clerk. She was out of town. Her office referred me to the city manager; that office forwarded me to City Atty. Craig J. Cornwell, who was more forthcoming.
In court filings, the city attorney has maintained that the challenge to Compton's voting rules violates the city charter, which specifically calls for at-large elections and thus can be changed only by a vote. Moreover, he challenges the assumption that Latinos need districts to elect candidates, suggesting instead that boosting turnout would accomplish those ends.
In our conversation, Cornwell elaborated: "We don't believe that it's our system that's the problem. We believe that Compton is plagued with low voter turnout of all ethnicities, including Latino voters."
Royce Esters, a businessman and civil rights leader who has lived in Compton since 1956, put it more bluntly. Blacks in Compton, he said, "kept on it until we got elected.... Latinos just have to get out there and vote."
But there's more to it. Today, the very practices once employed by Southern whites — diluting the voting power of blacks, evading media inquiries, defending their political power against demographic trends — is now the province of Compton blacks. "It's unfortunate," said Joaquin G. Avila, executive director of the National Voting Rights Advocacy Initiative at Seattle University Law School and a lawyer in the Compton case. City leaders could open the city to political diversity, make it a model of inclusion. But they won't. As Avila noted, "They've had plenty of opportunities."
It is, he added a bit ruefully, an example of "one minority politically oppressing another minority."
The judge in the voting rights case declined to order an immediate change in Compton elections as the plaintiffs requested. So, on June 7, Compton voters will go to the polls to select a new council member (one incumbent retained his seat in April by winning a majority of the votes cast in the first round). Voters in the election will pick between two black candidates. No Latino made the runoff.
Jim Newton: Compton's racial divide
In a city that is about two-thirds Latino, not one elected official is.
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