Compton's Latinos Want Council Elections Revamped

fromKQED

Lawyers representing Latinos in Compton, Calif., head to court Tuesday to try to postpone upcoming City Council elections. They're suing the city over political representation. Latinos want the city to change the way it votes for City Council members — from at-large to district elections.

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Let's go to Southern California now, to a city that has long indentified itself as African-American. In Compton, changing demographics have landed the city in court. Latinos have overtaken African-Americans there as the largest ethnic group, but blacks still dominate the city politically. Now, a group of Latinos is suing to change the way city council members are elected in Compton, to give Latino neighborhoods more power.

Krissy Clark of member station KQED has the story.

KRISSY CLARK: If you stand outside Compton's city council chambers, through the glass doors, you'll see a giant mural in the lobby.

Mr. JOAQUIN AVILA (Attorney): Portraits of African-American elected officials.

CLARK: Like the first black mayor, elected after years of segregation, in 1969. But Joaquin Avila sees what's not in the mural.

Mr. AVILA: I think it's a very incomplete picture. Basically, we're invisible.

CLARK: By we, Avila means Compton's Latinos, who made up just a small part of the city when he was growing up here in the 1960s. But in the last few decades, Latinos have grown to more than 60 percent of Compton's population, and 40 percent of eligible voters. At least eight have run for city office in that time. And yet, Avila says...

Mr. AVILA: There had never been a Latino on the city council. Doesn't take a rocket scientist to figure out that you have a problem.

CLARK: But it could take a voting rights lawyer like Avila to solve it. He's representing three Latinos suing Compton under the California Voting Rights Act. They want to restructure city council elections so they give more opportunity for Latino candidates. The goal is ambitious and technical. To understand it, consider the city council campaign of one former candidate.

Mr. PEDRO PALLAN (Bakery Owner): Pedro Pallan. I established a business here in Compton, the bakery.

CLARK: In the early 1990s, Pallan almost won a council seat. He said he had lots of open support in the Latino parts of town where he lived and worked. But in the African-American neighborhoods, those who backed him were discrete.

Mr. PALLAN: And they told me flatly, I cannot walk with you. My community would make me feel like a traitor for voting other than African-American.

CLARK: This is what political scientist Lisa Garcia Bedolla calls racially polarized voting. She teaches at the University of California, Berkeley.

Professor LISA GARCIA BEDOLLA (University of California, Berkeley): If you can show that along racial lines, people are voting in particular ways and that that's consistent, that's the place where you need some sort of remedy, so that the folks who are continually losing have some ability to be represented.

CLARK: In cities with racial polarization, where council members are chosen at large, it can be nearly impossible for minorities to win. Garcia Bedolla says in places from the Deep South to San Francisco, a move to district elections has opened the doors of city governments to minorities. And it could do the same in Compton.

Prof. BEDOLLA: The fundamental difficulty is how do you honor the history of the African-American community in that city, while at the same time understanding that the city demographics have changed?

Mr. BENJAMIN HOLIFIELD: Honorable mayor, city council staff, ladies and gentleman.

CLARK: At a recent Compton city council meeting, silver-haired Benjamin Holifield stands at the microphone to comment on police issues. Almost everyone in the room, including him, is black. The mayor, the entire city council and most of the audience. At a break, Holifield describes a time when these meetings looked very different.

Mr. HOLIFIELD: I used to go to the city council here when it was all white, and they'd run me out of there. They'd say we're going to go out to closed session, so I'd leave. Then when I leave, I'd find out later they came right back out and started the meeting over again. So really, they threw me out.

CLARK: He says years of political organizing and a severe bout of white flight slowly changed things. Craig Cornwell, Compton's city attorney, says the same thing will eventually happen for Latinos. He's defending the city in the lawsuit.

Mr. CRAIG CORNWELL (City Attorney, Compton): Having your vote count is a tenet of this country and what a lot of people of various ethnicities have fought for.

CLARK: Cornwell argues the problem's not the structure of elections, but that only 7 percent of Compton's eligible citizens bother to vote.

Mr. CORNWELL: I think what's really at issue here is increasing voter participation of all ethnicities for the city of Compton.

CLARK: But voter apathy is a vicious cycle. In court today, the Latino plaintiffs will argue that the current at large election system actually heightens disengagement. Since Latinos are in the minority, even if every one voted for the same candidate, it wouldn't be enough. If the judge agrees, he could freeze Compton's city council elections until the lawsuit's resolved.

For NPR news, I'm Krissy Clark.

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