State attorney general will investigate L.A. redistricting

California Atty. General Rob Bonta said Wednesday his office will investigate Los Angeles’ redistribution process that took place last fall and said an investigation was needed to restore “trust” in the line drawing of the city’s 15 council districts.

The announcement comes days after The Times published a recording in which then-council leader Nury Martinez made racist remarks while speaking with fellow councilors Kevin de León and Gil Cedillo and union leader Ron Herrera about how the city’s council district boundaries should be redrawn. That conversation focused on how the group could maintain Latinos’ political power while ensuring they and their peers have precincts that will help them win re-election.

“We will conduct our investigation, and when it’s complete and thorough and comprehensive and complete, we’ll be able to share something about what liability there might be, either civil or criminal,” said Bonta, a former member of last year’s state assembly was appointed Attorney General.

Bonta said his office has information — which he did not detail — and is reviewing the law “to determine whether we think we have a good basis to launch an investigation.”

“And having conducted and completed this process — it wasn’t completed yesterday, but it is completed now — we believe we have a basis … for an investigation,” Bonta said.

Calls for his resignation and government structural reforms echoed across LA after the leaked audio surfaced.

A group of 30 citizen leaders on Wednesday sent a letter to incumbent City Council President Mitch O’Farrell urging the council to support a ballot measure to amend the city charter to create an independent redistribution commission.

At one point in the recording, Herrera, head of the LA County Federation of Labor, is heard telling the councillors: “My goal in life is to get you three through elections. And you know, I’m just concentrating on that. I mean, we’re like the little Latino caucus of, you know, our own.”

In another section, the group discusses Councilor Marqueece Harris-Dawson and Los Angeles International Airport. Martinez recounts a conversation with businessman and Black leader Danny Bakewell, in which she told him to tell Harris-Dawson to move the airport to his county.

“I told Danny, ‘Tell Marqueece to go to the airport. You have, you have the people mover or whatever it is called. The modernization project is just around the corner,” she said. “Billions of dollars worth of contracts at the airport. We negotiate with the workers about all these s—. Do you want to be a baller? go after that Because that’s where the damn money is.”

For the record:

8:01 p.m. October 12, 2022A previous version of this article swapped two words in a quote by Nury Martinez. She referred to Oaxacans as “little little dark people,” not “little little dark people.”

Martinez, who referred to a black child as a “changuito”, or little monkey, and for Oaxacans as “little short dark people” in the recording, resigned from the council on Wednesday. Herrera has also resigned.

Bonta condemned the comments, calling them racist and saying they had no place in California.

“They were offensive and deeply painful and deeply hurtful to many communities,” he said. “The redistribution process is fundamental to our democracy and our communities’ ability to be heard, and it must be beyond reproach.”

Bonta is trying to keep his seat in the November 8 election and faces Republican Nathan Hochman, a former US assistant attorney general.

The redistribution process usually involves open discussions about race, economic assets such as stadiums and population numbers, but the divisive and racist comments heard in the audio drew national condemnation.

Fred Ali, who was appointed to the Redistribution Commission by Martinez and served as its chairman, said he was “appalled” by “the racism you hear on these tapes.” He said the commission tried to run an independent map-making process without political interference, only to see commissioners replaced when council members grew dissatisfied with the maps.

“This should be a reminder that elected officials should not be involved in a new election process,” Ali said. “It should be an independent process. If not, you get the kind of manipulation that is reflected in these tapes.”

Borough election adviser Alan Clayton, who has spent 35 years advising elected officials and organizations on creating political maps, questioned Bonta’s decision to study the new LA borough maps.

Clayton said the racist comments about the recording were “obviously reprehensible”.

But exchanges about protecting incumbents and moving assets from one district to another are “a political matter, not a criminal matter” — and typical of redistribution struggles, he said.

“Redistricting is a cutthroat business where people try to win in a cutthroat way,” he said. Politicians “often support cards that benefit them and their allies and reject cards that harm them and their allies.”

To fundamentally change LA’s redistricting process, the city council would have to ask voters to enlarge the council or establish an independent redistricting commission — one that removes the council from the process, Clayton said.

Since the leak, some politicians have recommended stripping the city council of its redistribution powers. The panel relies on an independent commission to advise on the cards, but has the final vote.

California voters in 2008 and 2010 stripped the state legislature of power over the redistribution process, handing responsibility for drafting state legislation, the Equalization Committee, and congressional boundaries to an independent 14-member commission.

The California Citizens Redistricting Commission is made up of five Republicans, five Democrats and four independents, all of whom apply for a seat on the body and go through a lengthy selection process.

The commission uses census data every ten years to draw the maps and has one year to determine and approve the boundaries through a process that requires public hearings and input.

The commission then certifies the cards and submits them to the California Secretary of State for use in the next election cycle.

Matt Rexroad, a Republican political adviser and district redistribution expert, said there are many ways local governments can handle the map-drawing process.

But an independent redistribution commission is “tailored to a city like Los Angeles,” Rexroad said, because of its size and diversity.

“The reason you saw this movement towards independent commissions to redistribute districts was because of a fear that talks would be going on behind closed doors, as if we happened to have a chance to listen to them,” he said. “They tried ‘us against them’.”

Paul Mitchell, who served as an adviser to the city’s redistribution commission, called LA’s redistribution the “worst process.”

“The appointments are made by the councilors and the mayor. If the Appointed don’t do what they want, they end up replacing the Appointed. They talk in these tapes about actually communicating with and directing their appointees,” Mitchell said. “And when the map is finished, it’s sent back to the city council, and the city council can basically do whatever they want.

“It gives the impression of transparency and that public interest is driving the drawing of the map,” Mitchell added. “But it doesn’t mean anything if the council can repeat it at will or if the council interferes all the time.” State attorney general will investigate L.A. redistricting

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