Menchie Caliboso, a young Filipino music therapist, didn't plan to get involved in Long Beach politics, but friends prodded her to join a young, diverse group of activists organizing a local living-wage campaign. She was drawn to the fight because it could help her connect to a Filipino community that struggles with low voter engagement.
"I wanted to organize them so they could speak for themselves," Caliboso says, "rather than having 19 percent of the population speak for them" — meaning the people who vote. To her, Filipinos in Long Beach are lucky compared with Filipinos in L.A., many of whom are low-income, with low voter turnout and almost no political organization.
Los Angeles residents pride themselves on being progressive. Gay people hold citywide and countywide offices, some of the most successful Democratic political careers in the nation got started here, and voters support left-leaning public policy through ballot measures and their choices for municipal elective offices.
Yet the city might have a race problem.
L.A.'s municipal voting districts include 15 powerful City Council seats overlaid by seven much more obscure, yet in some ways much more powerful, LAUSD school board seats.
But in liberal Los Angeles, people tend to vote by race. The "black seats" stay black, the "white seats" stay white, the "Latino seats" stay Latino. And while Asians make up the third largest racial group in Los Angeles, no Asian has persuaded voters to elect her or him to the L.A. City Council since Mike Woo first pulled it off in the 1980s — by winning a "white seat" in Hollywood.
Not that Asians are the only ones getting snubbed by the other racial and ethnic groups. In L.A., they're all snubbing one another.
Best of luck to any Latino running in either a "black seat" or a "white seat" in a school board or City Council election, and the same for black or white candidates trying to win a "Latino seat."
Take LAUSD's School Board District 5, a 74 percent Latino urban swath whose white incumbent is being targeted on May 19 by Latino candidate Ref Rodriguez, a successful, up-from-nothing, charter school founder.
Very liberal and Democratic, LAUSD District 5 has a small but voter-rich population of white voters concentrated in areas including Silver Lake, Eagle Rock, Los Feliz and Mount Washington. And the district usually chooses a white representative — currently Bennett Kayser, a vociferous opponent of charter schools. Only once in 20 years has a Latino won the seat, when Yolie Flores beat Kayser in 2006.
Also on the May 19 ballot is a pitched fight for L.A. City Council District 4, a diverse district of 265,000 people, which snakes from Sherman Oaks over the Hollywood Hills through Hollywood and Fairfax all the way south to Miracle Mile and Koreatown.
Much like LAUSD District 5, the most active voters in L.A.'s CD 4 are white, and they repeatedly elect white representatives — they've done so every election since 1925. In March 2012, the City Council redistricted the area, creating a much safer white seat, torturously drawing odd pockets that shifted thousands of minorities to other voting districts. CD 4's minority population plummeted from 52 percent to 39.5 percent.
But now a wide-open battle is under way for CD 4 between Carolyn Ramsay, a City Hall insider who is white, and a rare L.A. bird — David Ryu, an Asian-American candidate who came in second to make the May runoff.
With both of these ballot races looming large on May 19, L.A. is about to witness its latest civics lesson on skin-color politics.
If the brown LAUSD challenger, Rodriguez, beats the white incumbent, Kayser, or if the Asian-American council candidate, Ryu, beats the white insider, Ramsay, those would be huge upsets. The maps deem these "white seats." But the same color-coding is true of every "black" and "Latino" seat that opens when a council member or school board member is forced out by term limits.
Some people have no problem with voting by race in L.A. — as long as you're a member of a minority group.
Consider campaign consultant Michael Trujillo, a familiar face to the media at election time, when he drops bombs about opposing camps for a living. Trujillo argues that voting for candidates who are the same race as you isn't necessarily a bad move.
Trujillo says it's "aspirational" for many minority voters to see someone in office who looks like them, and that in other cases the candidate may be a "favored son" who is trying to break through a glass ceiling — racial or otherwise.
Trujillo suggests, however, that as millennials start to vote in higher numbers, race could become less of a factor. He imagines millennials' blasé response to the second candidates to break various political barriers: "Yeah I had a Latino mayor, I had an African-American president," he says. "Great."
The millennials themselves see that day coming.
Chelsea Krost, a millennial advocate and media personality who, with a partner, is developing a site that will break down daily news into bite-sized bits, is host of radio's The Chelsea Krost Show, which is branded as "the ultimate platform for the millennial generation." An opinion leader among the millennials, she says the fact that millennials voted so heavily for Barack Obama shows that race is far less of a factor for her generation.
To Krost, younger voters want a compelling narrative and clear policies above all else, including ethnicity or race.
Millennials' anti-bias behavior goes deeper than just voting for a popular black presidential candidate. Most of them embraced gay rights when they were still children in middle school — the first generation to do so. "America is not white people anymore," Krost says, and her generation is behaving accordingly.
Krost's views are echoed by Caliboso, who says Long Beach is just as politically segregated as Los Angeles but "a lot more politicians, especially our mayor, are saying, 'We can't keep focusing on the same districts.'" Even before Long Beach's majority white voters elected as their mayor young, gay Latino Robert Garcia last year, she says, there was "a much more strategic effort to reach out to all communities."
Many point to the elections of minority mayors Antonio Villaraigosa and Tom Bradley as proof of L.A.'s open-mindedness. But those are citywide, not community, races.
The last Asian to hold elected office in Los Angeles, in the 1990s, Woo is now dean of the College of Environmental Design at Cal Poly Pomona. He says that unless the number of seats on the L.A. City Council is increased from the 15 spots created back in 1925, racial and ethnic groups will stay locked in a "vicious political scramble for power" and the free-thinking L.A. millennials will get stuck with their parents' and grandparents' ethnic and racial divisions.
Woo disagrees with Trujillo's view that things are working as they should. "It's like Russian roulette," he says. "There's a limited number of seats available" on the City Council. The number has not grown since L.A. had just 700,000 residents 90 years ago.
When it comes to electing representatives in local posts, a process unfolds that is both nakedly nepotistic and rarely, if ever, formally acknowledged: the heavy engineering of residents' voting districts, a federally mandated process known as redistricting.
Redistricting is often dubbed "gerrymandering" — the creation by politicians of strangely shaped, bizarrely twisting voting districts that ignore geographic boundaries and cut apart tight communities. This process is the "scramble" that Woo refers to, and it shapes Los Angeles in ways its citizens wouldn't necessarily condone.
Politicians will actually draw lines around specific groups of voters, even around specific Los Angeles streets, to catch enough voters of the proper skin color to assure re-election of the incumbent, or of a favored insider.
Jacqueline Schneider, a singer and communications manager for Soulection, a record label that tries to bring together the world's sounds, is one of the millennials that Woo says is being marginalized by her map-drawing elders.
"Maybe by not having so many boundaries, [Los Angeles] could actually make progress by letting these [elections] happen the way that they do naturally — based on ideas and personalities, and not by race," suggests Schneider, whose record label is made up of young, diverse DJs and performers.
She says Soulection's diversity was completely accidental, based on shared goals rather than cynical plotting. Schneider thinks young people care about justice and equality but don't love the cravenness of politics.
"Politics is just something that's been kept in the corner, something for politicians," she says. "It's not something for everybody. "
Mayor Eric Garcetti has been openly worried about L.A.'s low voter turnout, and the young have the lowest voter participation of all. Yet City Hall is making no serious effort to acknowledge that voters know the city's elections are somewhat rigged — and, not surprisingly, they see voting in local elections as pointless.
The system prevents fresh faces, everyday natural leaders and other so-called outsiders from building winning coalitions made up of like-minded people instead of like-colored people. There are no plans at City Hall to change it.
Political consultant Trujillo argues that 90 percent of City Council gerrymandering is not a sneaky effort to unnaturally keep blacks, whites and Latinos grouped together by skin color on Election Day. He insists that gerrymandering is a fairly wholesome process dominated by a dispassionate adherence to the Voting Rights Act.
But the City Council's most recent gerrymander, in 2012, made sure that vibrant, multicultural L.A. would see no serious change in its race-based power structure.
Among other things, the City Council consolidated even more black voters into black Council president Herb Wesson's 10th City Council district, while splitting Korean-American voters in his area between two districts, the 10th and the 13th.
Korean-American community leaders slammed Wesson for orchestrating the weakening of Asian voter power, and filed a federal lawsuit. They lost.
Woo says elected officials tend to create gerrymanders that favor sitting incumbents; at the same time, racial groups who already hold the power in a certain area fight hard to "freeze in" that power.
In Los Angeles, that includes black voters, who fight hard to keep three "black seats" on the 15-seat City Council — yet black residents make up only 9 percent of L.A.'s population.
Woo says voters who want to look past race and ethnicity to deal with broader issues, such as L.A.'s livability, end up on the outside looking in at election time. "The only way to change that is to not have the incumbents draw the lines," he says.
Woo served two City Council terms starting in 1986, then lost a bitter mayoral election against Richard Riordan in 1993 and got shut out of his old District 13 in a failed comeback effort against Eric Garcetti in 2001.
That Woo was the only Asian-American ever elected to the L.A. City Council makes the emergence of City Council candidate David Ryu, a Korean-American who is a public affairs director at a nonprofit, all the more interesting.
Ryu turned heads in the March 4 primary after raising gobs of cash and placing second in Council District 4. He beat candidates with far more institutional backing and years of political experience, and now faces Tom LaBonge's former chief of staff, Ramsay, in the May runoff.
On April 8, Ryu made a clear push for one of those colorblind uber-issues that Krost talks about, which link together tens of thousands of residents. Ryu announced he'd identified and returned $4,300 donated to his campaign by developers, and will refuse to accept any developer money, the life's blood of many Los Angeles campaigns.
It's a message that could resonate across racial groups in development-weary CD 4. But Ryu has two major strikes against him on May 19: He hasn't spent his life climbing the political ladder, and he's a mismatch when it comes to skin color in CD 4, a diverse district — but a "white" seat.
Outgoing CD 8 City Councilman Bernard Parks points out that the Los Angeles Times editorial board didn't even mention Ryu's name in its CD 4 endorsement of Sheila Irani, a former deputy for LaBonge who finished far back in the pack in the primary.
"They listed everybody, including some homeless people on the street," Parks says, exaggerating to make a point. The paper "never mentioned [Ryu's] name" — even in the paper's list of "credible" candidates near the end of its endorsement editorial. Parks says Ryu has "overcome a lot already" just to land on the May 19 ballot.
But Parks doesn't exactly jump to the idea that the younger generation, no matter how hip or concerned, will pull L.A. out of its decades-old racial voting patterns.
He thinks that the city's middle-aged politicians will have to take the lead, because, he argues, they are the ones who have "done all in their power" to assure that L.A. is straitjacketed by elections in which the insider — and his or her race or ethnicity — almost always wins.
Parks said the City Council sends the message to fresh thinkers and new faces: "You need not apply."
On rare occasions, city fathers do go after one of their own.
David Tokofsky, now a lobbyist for Englander Knabe & Allen, was the District 5 LAUSD board member from 1995 to 2006. But despite being the incumbent, he was targeted for removal when the City Council tried in 2002 to strip out his middle-class voters in northeast L.A. The Council wanted to create a guaranteed "Latino seat" on the school board.
The District 5 seat was originally created by L.A. voters in 1979, along with the seven other LAUSD board seats, as part of a raucous upheaval over the busing of minority kids out of failing schools in the urban core and into much better middle-class schools on the Westside and in the San Fernando Valley. District 5, encompassing much of the Eastside, was crafted to be a "Latino seat," but has been mostly held by white politicians. But in ensuing years, not nearly enough Latinos were registered to vote in the huge area, so city leaders pursued an extreme form of gerrymandering, creating one of the skinniest, curvy, most bizarrely shaped voting districts in California to encircle more Latinos.
In its subsequent gerrymander in 2002, the City Council ultimately let Tokofsky keep some of the northeast, and the fluent Spanish speaker won.
The district elected a Latino in 2006, Yolie Flores. She left after just one four-year term and Bennett Kayser won, narrowly beating Luis Sanchez. Now Kayser is facing off against Ref Rodriguez, and Tokofsky suggests white voters will go with Kayser, the white incumbent.
If millennials voted in municipal elections, Rodriguez likely would be their man. At 43, he'd be the youngest member of the school board if elected. He's a lecturer at Loyola Marymount University and gets heaps of campaign help from Netflix, the great drainer of millennial productivity.
But millennials — and most voters — probably do not know that this little-covered LAUSD race pits charter school fans against charter school foes.
Rodriguez oversees some of LAUSD's most academically shining charter schools, all in working-class communities, under the name Partnerships to Uplift Communities, or PUC. Kayser, by contrast, has voted against every single charter school that has opened in L.A. during his tenure, including some of the top-ranked schools in the nation.
"Unless something like a military draft or something else that affects their livelihood happens, they're not gonna turn out," Tokofsky says of millennial voters. He says the LAUSD election will be decided by "senior citizens and absentee ballots."
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Krost, the millennial advocate, bristles at the widely held notion that young people don't care enough to change things. Instead, she says, "I think that we are more attuned to a lot of the B.S. that goes on in politics."
She says young voters haven't fully engaged because they were deflated by two wars and a crippling financial crash, and it's only a matter of time before they dive in.
Millennial voters could flip the board, but the question is when. They're the most diverse generation in U.S. history, and they're uniquely allergic to party and religious affiliation. Old-style racial seat-rigging might not appeal to them.
"When you think Democrat, Republican — it's so segregated," Krost says. "I feel like millennials just want to make the world a better place."