On Thursday, Milwaukee County Executive Chris Abele signed into law a redistricting plan that stiffs the Hispanic community on issues of policy at the behest of the county board. Currently, African-Americans outnumber Latinos in Milwaukee County by a 2 to 1 ratio, yet they have 6 times the representation in county voting districts. The board had a chance to fix the discrepancy, but they ignored the fastest growing segment of our society to play partisan politics. Despite public opposition from Hispanic leaders and local chapters of the ACLU and NAACP, the county board rushed a plan through that is quite possibly a violation of federal law.
For the ease of understanding, let's say that our county population consisted of 50% blacks and 50% Latinos. And let's say that the County Board had to decide whether they would fund a park with basketball courts or a park with soccer fields. Each community wants something different, but they can't have both. Now let's say that the County Board has 10 seats, but 8 of those seats belonged to black voting districts. Which community do you think would get the park they wanted?
In the scenario, the Hispanic community is vastly underrepresented despite an equal number of voting constituents. As a result, one community loses representation due to the way the voting districts were drawn out. Such a case would be a violation of section II of the Voter Rights Act that explicitly prohibits redistricting in a way that mutes the voice of a minority community.
In Milwaukee County, the Hispanic population is roughly 126,000 while the black population is roughly 254,000. Blacks double Latinos in Milwaukee County, but secured a 6 to 1 advantage despite substantial growth among Latinos. Bluntly put, the black population is getting more representation than they need, and Latinos are getting less representation than they deserve. Nobody is blaming the black community, nor are we suggesting there was ill-intent. We do believe, however, it's time they coughed up a seat in order to conform to the 2010 census results.
In the past decade, U.S. Census numbers showed a 74% growth among Wisconsin's Hispanic community. Not so, says the Milwaukee County Board. Milwaukee Latinos must wait another 10 years before their voices can be heard. And how did the "2004 Hispanic Woman of the Year" vote on redistricting? Peggy West, the lone Latina on the county board, voted against giving Hispanics an extra seat at the table.
County Supervisor Joe Sanfelippo introduced a plan that would have reduced the county board by 4 seats and redrawn the map so that the Hispanics would get an extra district. Peggy West rejected his plan and voted to pass one that packs Latinos into a single district. Not only did Peggy West fail to fight for the community, but she neglected to return calls to one of its leaders.
County Executive Chris Abele also dropped the ball on a number different fronts. Abele ran his County Executive campaign on a ticket of reforming government, yet he missed his chance to do just that. The Greater Milwaukee Committee (GMC) suggested a plan to downsize the county board by more than half of its present size. We admittedly have no love for the GMC, but we agree with them that reducing the size of the county board is the best way to streamline its effectiveness and reduce its corrosively entrenched partisanship.
Abele could have also stopped the county board from redrawing County Supervisor Joe Rice's north shore district to include a politically left-leaning portion. The move was considered to be political payback for his support of reducing the board from its current size. Rice, a conservative, must now face Supervisor Jerry Broderick for a more liberal district in 2012. For the purpose of transparency, Rice had called for an independent redistricting process by a 5 member, non-partisan panel. Considering the speed in which the redistricting was rushed through, transparency never had a real chance to materialize.
The Hispanic community has some political soul-searching to do. Neither Peggy West nor Marina Dimitrijevic stood up for their constituents. In fact, it could be reasonably argued that Marina Dimitrijevic had something to gain by keeping more Latinos out of her district. More Latinos in Dimitrijevic's district raises the risk of being challenged by a more conservative Hispanic challenger - a challenge she would likely lose.
Ultimately, there are two ways of righting this wrong. The Republican-dominated State Legislature could pass a bill making the necessary corrections, but there appears to be no reason to believe the GOP will take up the cause. And second, someone or some organization could file a federal lawsuit against Milwaukee County for violating section II of the Voting Rights Act.
Ironically, only Supervisor Joe Sanfelippo, with a low 3.8% Latino constituency, was fighting for an additional Hispanic district. When we met with Supervisor Sanfelippo, he told us,
"As the Latino community grows in Milwaukee County, there is no doubt that their representation at all levels of government should grow as well. The Voting Rights Act is meant to provide equal protection to all minority groups, and all groups should be treated equally. Unfortunately, the redistricting plan approved by the County Board falls short of achieving that goal."
Too bad Supervisor Sanfelippo couldn't represent West's district, perhaps then Latinos would get the representation they deserve.