Orange County’s Little Saigon didn’t get its own House of Representatives district because of the regional impact of Los Angeles County’s huge population, not because of hidden maneuvering by Democrats, the chairman of the California Citizens Redistricting Commission said Tuesday.
Stanley Forbes said an article by the online investigative news organization ProPublica that generated statewide political debate during the holidays missed the main problem the 14-member commission faced last year when trying to draw new boundaries in Orange County.
The ProPublica article, which was largely based on memos and emails obtained through the state’s Open Records Act, states that Democrats influenced the commission by planting operatives at the hearings who passed themselves off as concerned citizens.
The article has created an uproar in the state’s political circles. Here is what it stated about the process in Orange County:
… residents of what’s known as Little Saigon begged the commission to undo what they saw as decades of discrimination and put the U.S.’s largest Vietnamese community together in one district. Instead, the community was split in two — a result of testimony by supporters of Rep. Loretta Sanchez, including a former staffer and one of her wedding guests, to get her a safe district. A large section of Little Saigon ended up in a district with Long Beach, a town that is 1 percent Vietnamese.
Forbes, who doesn’t belong to any political party, said the ProPublica story contained good information about how Democrats were far ahead of Republicans in organizing efforts to surreptitiously influence the commission.
But, he said, ProPublica “made a vast jump that they [Democrats] had influence on the commission. … We knew what they [all speakers] were there trying to do, and we took it with a grain of salt.”
Forbes added: “We made a real effort to keep the Vietnamese communities together. Anybody who took the time to listen to the hearings would understand that.”
Instead, he said, it was Los Angeles County’s population of more than 9 million that affected lines in northern Orange County.
The new redistricting procedures, approved by voters in 2010, were drafted to replace a system in which political boundaries were drafted by politicians behind closed doors.
The rules governing the new redistricting process prohibit commission members from considering political party registration, among other issues, and encourage keeping cities, counties and “communities of interest” intact as much as possible.
Complicating matters in Orange County is the fact that the Vietnamese neighborhoods are adjacent to neighborhoods that include large concentrations of the county’s approximately one million Latinos.
Originally, the commission tried to keep districts from crossing Orange County’s boundaries, but Forbes said “we just couldn’t get it to work.”
During the hearings, representatives of the Vietnamese community urged the commission’s five Democrats, five Republicans and four declined-to-state members to keep Little Saigon united in one district.
Leaders of the Vietnamese Chamber of Commerce also sent the commission letters urging them to keep together the roughly 185,000 Vietnamese, who generally are concentrated in Westminster, Garden Grove, Fountain Valley and sections of Santa Ana and Anaheim.
But the majority of complaints came from communities, including Cypress, Los Alamitos, La Palma, Rossmore and Buena Park, that wound up with at least part of their populations in districts dominated by Los Angeles County.
Virtually all of the rest of north Orange County cities also are in districts that include sections of Los Angeles County. And the southernmost part of Orange County is in a San Diego County district, although the commission was able to keep Dana Point in one piece after initially splitting it between two districts.
In August, Supervisor Bill Campbell, chairman of Orange County’s all-Republican Board of Supervisors, wrote the commission a letter in which he stated that 968,000 — roughly one-third of the county’s 3 million residents — would be represented by districts split with Los Angeles or San Diego counties.
Campbell urged the commission to create an additional congressional district just for Orange County.
Forbes said the commission heard the complaints of Campbell and the smaller cities but had to draw the lines the way they did, mainly because each House district had to have close to 703,000 people.
— TRACY WOOD