Who Lost K-Town?

MAILANDER MUSINGS - As the city prepares to face its first meaningful challenge to its recent redistricting efforts from a coalition of groups in Koreatown, the challenger groups are also wondering why they were so let down by the Commission's final map and Council's 13-2 vote to endorse the commission's draft, thereby splitting Koreatown in two Council districts.

The top questions many Korean-American groups quietly posed in the run-up to the potential challenge have been: How did it happen? Who lost K-Town? Can legal action make it right?

There are three prominent, well-connected Korean Americans in city government who may have been in a position to do something to put Koreatown in one CD--but they didn't succeed in appealing to their own bosses to take up Koreatown's cause--and they aren't talking now about the recent Koreatown battles.  

Doane Liu, a former deputy mayor who now serves as new Councilman Joe Buscaino's chief of staff, reportedly had little discussion with his boss about Koreatown redistricting, and Buscaino voted for the controversial boundaries that split Koreatown in two.  

Mitch Englander's chief of staff, John Lee, declined all public comment on the matter, and Englander joined Buscaino in supporting the commission's final draft.  

And Controller Wendy Greuel's office, who appointed Korean-American attorney Helen Kim to the city's redistricting commission, released the following statement on Koreatown redistricting:

"Controller Greuel believes in having an independent redistricting commission that respects and reflects the diversity of this city and its communities of interest and she has advocated for transparency throughout the process."

Greuel's office refused further comment.  In response to Greuel's blanket statement ironically calling for transparency while disclosing precious little, mayoral candidate Kevin James said:

"Just two days ago I attended a community townhall in Koreatown about redistricting. Transparency is so lacking in City Hall around redistricting that community members in Koreatown have lined up some of the City's most prestigious law firms to file a lawsuit against the City. Once the lawsuit is filed and discovery is under way, it is very likely we will learn the truth around the City's so-called ‘transparent’ redistricting process that Controller Greuel is apparently such a champion of."

A redistricting insider, who wished to remain anonymous, told me however that there had indeed been a chance for Koreatown to be placed within a single Council district--Council President Herb Wesson's. But the powerful Wilshire Center Koreatown Neighborhood Council—the de facto neighborhood council of the heart of Koreatown, representing far more citizens of Los Angeles than any other council (over 100,000), balked at the prospect of being situated in Wesson's district.

In balking at the plan to put Koreatown mostly in to Wesson's district, the Korean groups may have alienated the commission, and certainly alienated Wesson, who many City Hall insiders believe became beholden to the interests of the multi-ethnic but Latino-dominated commission as part of the deal that made him Council President early this year.

The redistricting commission's president, Arturo Vargas, appointed by Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, is one of the top Latino organizers in redistricting efforts in this state as well as throughout the country.

While Anglo, Korean, and African American groups had pronounced complaints about the way the maps were drawn, mostly vocalized by Councilmembers Bernard Parks and Jan Perry--the two dissenting votes in Council--there were almost no Latino groups who complained about the results of the commission's redistricting or the Council's ratification.

K-town had previously been divided into four Council districts. Koreatown leadership esteems Koreatown as more logically belonging to Garcetti's or LaBonge's district--the bulk of its key, central neighborhood council district, almost a perfect grid, is presently in LaBonge's district, with north and south aprons in Garcetti's and Wesson's.  But when key Wilshire Center Koreatown Neighborhood Council figures began organizing against the prospect of joining Wesson's district, the redistricting commission viewed the anti-Wesson sentiment as a hostile gesture to the committee's overall efforts, and reportedly only then did the committee resolve to split Koreatown in two.

Although it has a very high public profile, the Wilshire Center Koreatown Neighborhood Council is also one of the city's most inscrutable to outsiders.  Its website doesn't list contact information for officers, nor specific committee members, and publishes agendas and minutes in codes that are troublesome on most computers.  Large Koreatown organizations such as the Korean American Coalition have called the Commission and Council's plan "unacceptable."

Yesterday the firms Akin Gump and Bird Marella announced through attorney Hyongsoon Kim that they were preparing a legal case to challenge the boundaries should Antonio Villaraigosa sign off on the map that City Council approved with little discussion.  The next step for all involved is watching for the Mayor's action on the Council-approved maps.  That action may trigger one of the greatest Voting Rights Act challenges to hit Los Angeles politics in over a decade.

(Joseph Mailander is a writer, an LA observer and a contributor to CityWatch. He is also the author of The Plasma of Terror. Mailander blogs at street-hassle.blogspot.com.)

Tags: Joseph Mailander, Mailander Musings, K-Town, Koreatown, Herb Wesson, Mayor Villaraigosa, Los Angeles Redistricting, Los Angeles City Redistricting, redistricting

Vol 10 Issue 26
Pub: Mar 30, 2012