Helen Kim was not used to feeling like the dumbest kid in class. A graduate of Harvard and of Yale Law School, a top litigator — yet she felt as if everyone on the Los Angeles City Redistricting Commission had done their homework except her. She felt like the only one asking questions.
"Either they were a lot better prepared than I was," she says, "or they knew which way they were gonna vote."
Every 10 years, state and local governments redraw voting district boundaries to ensure that each citizen's vote carries equal weight. The obscure work got surprising attention in L.A. thanks to a very public California Citizens Redistricting Commission in Sacramento that recently drew new lines for legislative races.
Officials were stunned when 30,000 Californians applied to be on the largely randomly selected and independent 14-member state commission. By contrast, the 21 members of the city's redistricting body were chosen by Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, Controller Wendy Greuel, City Attorney Carmen Trutanich and 15 City Council members.
Following in the footsteps of the state citizens' commission, the city's commission promised transparent decision-making. But careful observers soon noticed that a voting bloc seemingly had made up its mind about how to "redraw" L.A.
One case in point was Commissioner Amber Martinez, appointed by Villaraigosa to replace a commissioner who fell ill just hours before a meeting. Newcomer Martinez didn't ask any questions, voting on complex new boundaries without hesitation.
Redistricting is supposed to respect boundaries such as freeways, mountains and "communities of interest." But in practice, redistricting morphs into gerrymandering — with politicians drawing crazily shaped voting districts to assure that they or their allies win the next election.
There are very few women, and no Asians, rising in the ranks of L.A. city politics. So Kim, a two-fer, stood out for her plainspoken criticism of the commission's decisions.
"I'd like to think I was more than just a thorn in the commission's side," Kim says. "I wasn't the person who created the shit. I was just the person who turned the light on and said, 'This is the shit you've created.' "
Unexpectedly huge crowds showed up to watch the L.A. gerrymander unfold, and many demanded that their neighborhoods be united or left alone. This often was impossible, given population growth and changing demographics.
But other motives were afoot. The commission altered the boundary of Council District 1, represented by Councilman Ed Reyes, to include the home of Reyes' ally and chief of staff, Jose Gardea, who is running to replace termed-out Reyes in 2013. The commission neatly chopped out of the district the home of state Assemblyman Gil Cedillo, who also is running for that seat.
Jose Cornejo, an appointee of Councilman Tony Cardenas, persuaded the commission to move an elementary school in Van Nuys named after Cardenas' parents back into Cardenas' council district. The audience loudly guffawed, with an elderly woman exclaiming, "He can still visit it!"
Early on, the commission voted to break into three closed-door committees to draw maps of the 15 new council districts. Kim challenged that vote, asking the group to continue working and debating in public. She got little support.
Also early on, the commission hired Andrew Westall, a top aide to City Council President Herb Wesson, as executive director. Kim objected. Although Westall finally quit his job with Wesson weeks later, critics saw a conflict in allowing Westall to oversee a group as it drew political boundaries that directly affected his longtime boss.
Kim says one of the commission's arguments for considering Westall — that it might not find a suitable executive if Westall weren't in the mix — "was an early sign that things were awry."
Then, as the maps began to take shape, rumors erupted that Westall planned to run for the Council District 4 seat in 2015.
Westall denies that, and there's no proof it's anything but a rumor. Even so, anger erupted when District 4's new boundaries were heavily gerrymandered, a mad pinwheel spinning through unrelated areas such as Griffith Park and the Wilshire district, its borders cutting through the Santa Monica Mountains to the San Fernando Valley. One redistricting expert says the commission diced up serious interest groups that might have fielded District 4 candidates, making it much easier for a city insider to win in 2015.
Two weeks ago, the commission publicly met to debate and possibly reconfigure 79 initially proposed boundaries throughout L.A., many of which drew withering criticism. It appeared that a majority bloc had made its decisions beforehand.
"At a certain point, I realized my job was shifting," Kim says. "Because I wasn't at the table at which these decisions were made, which was apparently behind the scenes."
Defending the commission, redistricting Commissioner Michael Trujillo, a hard-bitten political consultant, says, "It's a pimple we have to squeeze once every 10 years, and the pus that goes everywhere — so be it."
But Koreatown activists are appalled and the younger "Generation K" is speaking out. Many point to the 100,000-plus Angelenos represented by the Wilshire Center–Koreatown Neighborhood Council. As now proposed, 70 percent of this core Koreatown community will be placed inside Wesson's newly redrawn 10th district, which already included part of Koreatown.
The vast majority of public commenters begged not to be placed in his jurisdiction. Wesson's black voter base is across the 10 freeway in South L.A. Many K-towners say Wesson does not provide Koreatown — where Latinos are the majority and Asians a large minority — with the public works, services and nonprofit funding it deserves.
In purely racial terms, Asians have no City Hall representation. Asians are 11 percent of L.A., but there hasn't been an Asian council member since 1993. L.A.'s population is 9.6 percent black, and black leaders Wesson, Jan Perry and Bernard Parks hold 20 percent of the City Council seats.
USC advocate and redistricting Commissioner David Roberts, Perry's appointee, often sided with Kim. Roberts calls the commission "really a sham. ... You have people behind the scenes, the mayor and [Wesson], directing the process."
Wesson has denied that he is engineering the maps to punish his enemies, such as Perry and Parks.
Even so, Kim says, "I decided I was going to start documenting and objecting to all the procedural irregularities." A corporate litigator specializing in class actions, she found it "incumbent upon me to create a record."
On Feb. 22, the commission approved a citywide map that will be sent to the City Council for approval. Commissioners who voted yes struggled to describe their product, calling it "a good effort," "credible," "ugly," "ornery" and "OK."
Mona Soo Hoo, a Villaraigosa appointee, said, "I don't have anything nice to say. I'm gonna pass." She then voted for the map.
Former state Sen. David Roberti, appointed to the commission by Councilman Paul Koretz, voted yes after stating: "I am terribly guilt-ridden over the concerns of the Korean community. They did not win here. They were not heard." Already, a coalition of Korean-Americans is discussing a lawsuit to challenge the map.
In a final twist, commissioners praised Kim for her tenacity and, as one said, "for championing other voices." As the unexpected praise continued, Commissioner Grover McKean leaned over and whispered, "God, Helen, it's like we're at your funeral!"
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The next day, Kim laughed: "I would have liked their votes better! ... They had to vote for the map, even though they felt guilty? They could have just done the right thing."
Recently, Kim received an email from a stranger. It asked: "Have you ever thought about running for city council?" Kim said she hadn't. "I'm very ill-suited," she says. "Obviously, I don't know the art of the deal."
But with the commission's work completed, the next job of City Hall leaders might just be to figure out in which council district they've placed the intriguing Helen Kim.
Reach the writer at firstname.lastname@example.org.