SANTA ANA — Hispanic advocacy groups in California are alarmed about new political maps that sketch proposed boundaries for congressional and state legislative districts, saying the changes will disenfranchise the fastest-growing segment of the population in a state where the number of Hispanic politicians has soared during the past two decades.
The debate over that concern is likely to escalate in the coming weeks, as an independent redistricting commission takes public comment and wrestles with revisions before voting on a final version Aug. 15.
Since the commission released its draft earlier this month, advocacy groups have begun organizing their members and are urging Hispanic voters to attend public hearings in force to voice their concerns. Several groups have submitted their own proposals, and the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund raised the possibility of legal action under the 1965 Voting Rights Act if it is not satisfied with the final results.
"We really believe that the maps proposed by the commission could seriously impair the future of Latino political progress," said Rosalind Gold, senior policy director at the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials Educational Fund. "Latinos accounted for 90 percent of the state's population growth in the last decade, but we don't think the maps reflect that."
The debate is important in California, where no racial or ethnic group has a majority of the population. Thirty-seven percent of the state's 37 million residents are Hispanic, according to the 2010 Census, while Asians account 13 percent and blacks just over 6 percent. About 40 percent of Californians identify themselves as non-Hispanic whites. Thirty-two percent of the state's population was Hispanic in 2000.
One advocacy group, the League of United Latin American Citizens, is working on its own suggested map while organizing opposition to the political boundaries drawn by the citizens commission.
"You've got a huge realignment," said Art Montez, public policy chief for Santa Ana branch of the league. "Catsup used to be the No. 1 sauce, and now it's salsa. You've got to face the reality."
Most notably, the proposed shift in districts could endanger the congressional seat of Rep. Loretta Sanchez, one of California's most prominent Hispanic lawmakers. Her victory in conservative Orange County almost 15 years ago signaled the rising power of the Hispanic electorate.
Sanchez, who survived a tight race to win her eighth term last year, did not respond to repeated requests for comment.
The draft maps also would dilute majority Latino voting populations in two state Senate districts currently held by Juan Vargas, D-San Diego, and Kevin de Leon, D-Los Angeles. De Leon said he thought the commission had done a good job overall and will make needed changes before issuing its final maps in August.
In central Los Angeles County, "the minority districts were all pushed together," potentially forcing some Hispanic lawmakers to run against each other in the next election, said Steven Ochoa, MALDEF's national redistricting coordinator.
Two new majority Latino seats would be created in the Assembly, in San Diego and the San Fernando Valley, said Gold. But two would be lost: one west of downtown Los Angeles and the other the Orange County seat currently held by Assemblyman Jose Solorio, D-Santa Ana. His district currently has a 52 percent Latino voting-age population, but would be split, leaving a district with 46.5 percent Latino voters.