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Op-Ed Articles

COLUMN RIGHT:  Los Angeles City Council: The Struggle for Chicano Representation

By John P. Schmal

Los Angeles was founded in 1781 by Mexican settlers from Sonora, Sinaloa and Jalisco. The influence of Mexico on the cultural and political direction of Los Angeles remained strong even after the city became part of the United States in 1848.  Twenty-two persons with Spanish surnames served on the Los Angeles Common Council – now known as the City Council – between 1850 and 1886.  Some of these councilman included well-known members of Californio society: Manuel Requena (served 1850-54, 1856, 1864-68), Julian Chavez (1850, 1865-66, 1871-72), Cristobal Aguilar (1850, 1855-56, 1858-59, 1861-62), Pio Pico (1853), and Eulogio de Celiz (1873-75). 

Cristobal Aguilar also had the distinction of serving as the last Mexican-American Mayor of Los Angeles (from 1866 to 1868 and 1871 to 1872). In 1870, the former Mexican city of Los Angeles still had a Latino voting registration of 22%.  However, with a large influx of Anglos in the decades to come, this percentage steadily dropped.  The enactment of a literacy requirement in 1894 further reduced the number of Spanish-speaking voters.  After the 1886 reelection of M.V. Biscailuz to the Common Council, no person of Hispanic heritage was elected to serve on the Los Angeles City Council until the very end of the first half of the Twentieth Century. 

Edward R. Roybal (9th Council District, 1949-1962)

Born in Albuquerque, New Mexico, Edward R. Roybal came to Boyle Heights in 1922 with his parents, when his unemployed father sought new employment. Roybal graduated from Roosevelt High School and attended UCLA before going to World War II.  After the war had ended, he returned to Los Angeles and became the Director of Health Education for the Los Angeles County Tuberculosis and Health Association.

In 1947, 30-year-old Roybal decided to run for councilman of the 9th Council District, which included Boyle Heights, Bunker Hill, Civic Center, Chinatown, Little Tokyo, and the Central Avenue District.  The racial makeup of the district’s 185,033 residents was: 45% White, 34% Latino, 15% African American, and 6% “other.”  Even Roybal’s political base, Boyle Heights, was just 43% Hispanic at the time, while 34% of the inhabitants were native-born Whites.

Professor Katherine Underwood has analyzed Roybal’s run for office and noted that Roybal’s first campaign lacked endorsements and neglected voter outreach.  In the primary election on April 1, 1947, Edward Roybal and three other candidates ran against the incumbent councilman, Parley Parker Christensen.  On Election Day, Christensen won 8,948 votes, while Roybal came in third with 3,350 votes (15% of the total ballots cast). Seventy-five percent of Roybal’s support had come from Boyle Heights. (Katherine Underwood, “Pioneering Minority Representation: Edward Roybal and the Los Angeles City Council, 1949-1962,” Pacific Historical Review – 1997).

Following this loss, Roybal became involved with several of his campaign supporters to create the CPO (Community Political Organization) in September 1947.  The organization, which was later renamed CSO (Community Service Organization), became the first broad-based organization within the Mexican-American community, representing veterans, businessmen, and workers.  The primary goal of the CSO was to register Mexican Americans to vote.  For this purpose, the organization recruited 1,000 members and registered 15,000 new voters in the Latino sections of Boyle Heights, Belvedere, and East Los Angeles. 

By 1949, Roybal believed that he had enough support to run for the Ninth District seat once again.  In the April 5 primary election, Roybal knocked Daniel Sullivan and Julia Sheehan out of the council race by capturing 37% of the total votes cast.  This forced a runoff with Christensen in the May general election.  In the general election held on May 31, 1949, Edward Roybal soundly defeated six-term Councilman Christensen by a vote of 20,472 to 11,956, winning by a 2-to-1 margin.  With this victory, Ed Roybal became the first Mexican American since 1887 to win a seat on the Los Angeles City Council.  In the years to come, Roybal would continue to win reelection and would serve as Council member of the 9th District from July 1, 1949 to Dec. 31, 1962, before moving on to the U.S. Congress in 1963.

Charles Navarro (10th Council District, 1951-1961)

In the meantime, a second Hispanic, Charles Navarro, ran for the City Council.  In the April 3 election, five candidates ran for the Council seat, representing District 10.  In this primary election, left-wing Assemblyman Vernon Kilpatrick received 5,301 votes, while Navarro received the second largest number of votes with 5,077. Navarro and Kilpatrick thus advanced to a showdown in the general election, to be held in June.

The Los Angeles Times reported that this election represented “one of the bitterest Council fights in years,” pitting the Conservative income property owner and “champion of free enterprise” Charles Navarro “on a strong anti-Communist platform” against the left-wing Kilpatrick.  Kilpatrick had already served for twelve years as an Assemblyman but, according to the Times, “had a long record of left-wing activities and associations.”

Once the complete returns had been tallied, Navarro had defeated Kilpatrick 9,075 votes to 7,382 on June 29, 1951 at the general election. Navarro took office as Councilman on July 1, 1951.

According to the 1960 census, Latinos made up 9.6% of the population of Los Angeles, slightly above the African-American population of 7.6%.  By this time, both Roybal and Navarro had been reelected by their respective constituencies during the 1950s and still sat on the City Council at the beginning of the new decade.  However, in 1961, Councilman Charles Navarro decided to run for the office of City Controller, challenging the incumbent City Controller, Don O. Hoye, who had served in that capacity since 1957.  

In the May 31, 1961 General Election, Navarro coasted to an easy victory of the incumbent Hoye, winning 331,340 votes, well above Hoye’s 161,690 votes. Charles Navarro took office on July 1st as City Controller, thus vacating his council position. Upon his victory, he stated, “I’ll miss the debates and personality clashes of the City Council, but I’m looking forward to my new responsibilities as controller.”  An Anglo, Joe E. Hollingsworth, was appointed on August 25, 1961 to Charles Navarro’s unexpired term on the 10th District seat.  Hollingsworth would be succeeded by Thomas Bradley, who was elected at the April 2, 1963 primaries to replace Hollingsworth on June 30, 1963.  Bradley served the 10th District until July 1, 1973, when he became Mayor of Los Angeles.

No Chicano Representation (1962-1985)

On November 6, 1962, Edward Roybal was elected as a Representative of the 30th Congressional District to the United States Congress.  In preparation for this move, he had resigned from his City Council seat on July 31, 1962.  Roybal urged the Council to hold an election to pick his successor in the 9th District since several Chicanos had expressed an interest in succeeding him. 

However, the Council vetoed Roybal’s suggestion and instead appointed an African-American, Gilbert W. Lindsay, to replace Roybal on January 28, 1963, even though the 9th District had a large concentration of Latinos.  Lindsay would serve in this capacity to Dec. 28, 1990, when he died in office. In three years, African Americans went from having no representation on the Los Angeles City Council in 1960 to having three representatives in 1963. At the same time, Latino representation went from two council members to zero.

Although the African-American community was finally seeing the beginning of true representation on the Los Angeles City Council, the Eastside Chicano community watched as its voting power became diminished by fracturing and gerrymandering. The City Council apportionment of 1962 had split the East Los Angeles community into seven councilmanic districts. Most of these districts were combined with neighboring Anglo communities so that Hispanics rarely made up more than 20% of any one district's population.  This district manipulation was effective in depriving the Latino community of power and influence in the City of Los Angeles for the next two decades.

The Council District with the most significant population of Latinos during the next two decades was the 14th District, which included significant parts of East Los Angeles.  On July 1, 1967, Arthur K. Miller succeeded his mentor, Councilman John Holland, as representative of this district.  However, in 1972, the 14th District was redrawn by court order with a 67% Latino majority population.  Initially, Snyder – who was of German and Irish heritage – complained.  However, he soon adjusted and became a tenacious fighter for his newly configured district, which included Boyle Heights, Lincoln Heights, El Sereno and Highland Park.

From 1972 to 1985, Arthur K. Snyder represented his constituents, mainly drawing support from older Hispanic voters and from conservative Anglos living in the Eagle Rock section of his district.  Although many Latinos ran against him at election time, Snyder was able to maintain the support of his district’s voters.  With great enthusiasm, he attended church and civic festivals and spoke Spanish at public gatherings.  He paid scrupulous attention to the needs of his constituents’ communities, and was able to survive two recall efforts.

A graduate of USC and a resident of Eagle Rock, Snyder also navigated several controversies, including a state conflict of interest fine, accidents in city vehicles, drunk driving charges, and a messy divorce.  Through all Snyder's personal and political controversy, his constituency remained loyal and he served in office for eighteen years. However, on January 2, 1985, Arthur K. Snyder announced that he would resign as Councilman for the 14th District of Los Angeles later in the year so that he might pursue a career in law and spend more time with his family.

By the time of his resignation, Arthur Snyder’s 14th District contained 200,000 residents, 75% of whom were Latinos. However, only about half of its 60,000 registered voters were Chicano, and a great deal of the district’s voter strength was still based in its mostly Anglo, conservative Eagle Rock neighborhood.

With Snyder’s impending resignation, several well-known Chicano politicians were considered for the council seat, including Larry Gonzalez (a member of the Los Angeles Board of Education), Assemblywoman Gloria Molina, and Assemblyman Richard Alatorre. With Snyder’s backing, Assemblyman Richard Alatorre, formally announced on October 3, 1985 that he would begin his campaign for Snyder’s Council seat that would be vacated by Councilman Snyder the next day. 

The competition for the 14th District seat became fierce as many Latino activists accused Alatorre and his supporters of trying to secure an appointment to the position.  Such a designation would have put Alatorre in office for the rest of Snyder's term, which would not end until 1987.  Because Alatorre’s Assembly district roughly coincided with the 14th Council District, many people thought that Alatorre was the logical successor for Snyder.  However, on October 4, when Snyder stepped down, his Council colleagues approved a December 10 special election to decide who would represent the Eastside’s 14th Council District.

Richard Alatorre (14th Council District, 1985-1999)

In the special election held on Tuesday, Dec. 10, 1985, Assemblyman Richard Alatorre won 60% of the vote in the Eastside special election held to replace former Councilman Arthur K. Snyder. Alatorre's closest competition was city planner Steve Rodriguez, who obtained only 16% of the votes.  Richard Alatorre thus became the first Latino in 23 years to be elected to the Los Angeles City Council. He took office on December 20, 1985.

Ironically, two weeks earlier, on November 26, 1985, the United States Justice Department had filed a lawsuit against the City of Los Angeles, charging "a history of official discrimination" against Latinos. With this suit, the Justice Department sought to invalidate the City's 1982 redistricting plan as a violation of the Chicano community’s rights as a minority.  The civil complaint, filed in federal court in Los Angeles, named Mayor Tom Bradley, thirteen current City Council members and City Clerk Elias Martinez as defendants. 

The suit accused the City of Los Angeles of deliberately drawing political boundaries in such a way as to disperse Latinos over several council districts to intentionally splinter their political power. The Justice Department contended that the redistricting plan – approved unanimously by the City Council in September 1982 – violated Section 2 by dividing an expanding core concentration of Latinos surrounding the downtown area among seven of the 15 council districts.

As a result of this fracturing, only one council district contained a majority of Latinos and strength of the Chicano voting community was diluted.  This violated their rights under the equal protection clause of the 14th Amendment and the voting rights provisions of the 15th Amendment to the Constitution. The suit concluded that this redistricting plan was “... effectuated for the purpose, and with the result, of avoiding the higher Hispanic percentages in certain districts that would be the logical result of drawing district boundaries on a non-racial basis.” It alleged that their reapportionment plan – approved at a time when no Chicanos served on the Council – violated the 1965 Voting Rights Act, which bars any practice or procedure that abridges a person's voting rights.

Between 1970 and 1980, the Latino population of Los Angeles had risen from 18% to 27%. But, until Alatorre took office on December 20th, 1985, that 27% of Los Angeles’ population was essentially without the representation of an elected Chicano official on the Council.  In contrast, three African-American Councilmen – Gilbert W. Lindsay, Robert Farrell and David Cunningham – sat on the Council, while Mayor Tom Bradley served as Mayor of the entire city.

On Tuesday, Dec. 17, Richard Alatorre, three days before he was scheduled to take office as Los Angeles' first Latino council member in 23 years, was appointed Chairman of the Council’s Charter and Elections Committee, which would review the city's controversial reapportionment plan. The topic of redistricting took up a great deal of the Council’s time during the first half of 1986. However, on August 12, 1986, Los Angeles City Councilman Howard Finn had died very abruptly of a ruptured aorta.  Since 1981, Councilman Finn had represented the 1st Council District, which ran through the northeast part of the San Fernando Valley, including Shadow Hills, Pacoima, Sun Valley, and Sunland-Tujunga.

Immediately, it was recognized that Finn's death might open the way to the eventual election of the first Latino from the San Fernando Valley to the Council. The council had adopted and scrapped two plans before settling on final boundaries for revised Councilmanic districts.  The 1st District, left vacant by the death of Councilman Finn, was carved from six existing districts and recreated into a new district north and west of Downtown Los Angeles. Now containing a 69% Latino population, the 1st District included Elysian Park, Elysian Valley, Chinatown, Lincoln Park, Cypress Park, Pico-Union, Temple-Beaudry, Montecito Heights and parts of Highland Park, Echo Park, Glassell Park and Mount Washington. It also had a population that was 25% Caucasian, 14% Asian and 2% black.  However, although the district had a majority Latino population, Chicanos represented only 40% of the voters, in large part because of its large immigrant population and the traditionally low voter registration among Hispanics at that time.

Joan Kradin became the Chief Deputy for the newly reconfigured 1st District, which contained a population of 200,000 residents. On October 2, 1986, the Council announced that a special election would be called for February 3, 1987 to fill the seat.  Soon there were four candidates vying for the 1st District seat: state Assemblywoman Gloria Molina, Larry Gonzalez, Leland Wong and Paul D. Y. Moore, a former aide to Mayor Tom Bradley.

Gloria Molina (1st District, 1987-1991)

On Nov. 6, 1986, Assemblywoman Gloria Molina, backed by significant political support, announced that she would run for a seat on the Los Angeles City Council representing the newly created, largely Latino 1st District. On February 3, 1987, Assemblywoman Gloria Molina took an early lead and went on to win with 6,526 votes, or 57% of the vote, while Larry Gonzalez placed a distant second with 2,952 votes, or 26%.  Gonzalez, who was backed by most of the Eastside political establishment, failed to force a runoff election as many had expected.

On February 27, 1987, Gloria Molina became City Councilperson.  She was the fourth woman to serve on the Council and was its first Latina representative in history. Councilwoman Molina would serve as Councilperson for four years.  In February 1991, Molina resigned her Council position after winning election to the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors.  Her term ended on March 7, 1991.

Mike Hernandez (1st Council District, 1991-2000)

In June 1991, Cypress Park bail bondsman Mike Hernandez and Chinatown attorney Sharon Mee Yung Lowe both announced that they would take part in the August 1991 runoff election for the City Council seat left vacant by Gloria Molina.  Thirty-eight-year-old Hernandez raised nearly $100,000 and had the endorsement of Molina.  As a result, he led the six-candidate field in the runoff election, balloting with 42% of the votes cast in the 1st Council District.  By this time, Latinos made up nearly 74% of the 223,000 residents in this 13-square-mile district, but only a small part of the 33,000 registered voters, primarily because the Pico-Union, Westlake and Echo Park were inhabited by a large population of immigrant non-citizen Latinos.

On August 13, 1991, Mike Hernandez defeated Sharon Lowe by 64.5% to 35.5% to become the second Latino to sit on the 1st District seat. Taking office on August 27, 1991, Mike Hernandez joined Richard Alatorre as the second Latino to be sitting on the fifteen-member City Council.

During the next year, the rapid growth of the Latino population in the San Fernando Valley led many Latino leaders in that area to press for the City Council to redraw district lines in the Valley. The District that drew the most interest was the 7th District of Councilman Ernani Bernardi, which included Sylmar, Pacoima, Sun Valley and Van Nuys.  The 7th District had grown so rapidly that it had nearly 40,000 more residents than the optimum population of 232,000 – which represented 1/15th of the city's population. Although 62.3% of the 7th District's residents were Latinos, only 26.2% of its 73,500 registered voters were Latino, according to city demographic data. Some political analysts expressed doubt that a Latino district with less than 40% Latino registration would be able to elect a Hispanic candidate.  It was already known that Councilman Bernardi was not planning to run for reelection when his term expired on June 30, 1993.

New redistricting plans were drawn up and approved, but civil rights groups, such as the

Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund (MALDEF), believed that proposed district changes only favored the incumbents and violated Latino voting rights.  MALDEF noted that while Latinos made up about 40% of the City’s population, only two Latinos served on the 15-member Council.  However, some Council members and analysts also pointed out that Latinos made up only 11% of the City’s registered voters, and that the real answer to the problem lay with naturalization and voter registration drives.

In July 1992, the San Fernando Valley’s 7th District was officially redrawn. The district, reaching from the heavily immigrant, working-class neighborhoods in Pacoima and Van Nuys to the middle-class homes of second- and third-generation Latinos in Sylmar, was 70% Latino.  However, Latinos represented only 31% of the district’s 30,000 registered voters, while Anglos made up 48% of the voters.  African-American registration in the same district stood at 19%.

Richard Alarcon (7th Council District, 1993-1999)

In the April 20, 1993 primary election, Richard Alarcon, Mayor Bradley's top Valley aide, and former Los Angeles Fire Captain Lyle Hall faced off for the 7th District seat.  In a June runoff election, Richard Alarcon defeated Hall by a mere 234 votes out of nearly 19,000 votes cast. The election had an unusually high voter turn out with 27% of the district's 50,000 registered voters showing up at the polls.

By defeating Hall, 39-year-old Alarcon became the first Latino to be elected to the Los Angeles City Council from the San Fernando Valley.  He joined Richard Alatorre and Mike Hernandez, two Eastsiders, to become the third Chicano on the 15-member Council. Richard Alarcon would serve as Councilman until January 3, 1999, when he resigned to become a California State Senator.  The 7th Council seat would be vacant from January 4, 1999 to July 5, 1999 when a new election was held.

Alex Padilla (7th Council District, 1999-Present)

On June 8, 1999, elections to the Los Angeles City Council brought Nick Pacheco and Alex Padilla as two young newcomers to the Council, both representing a new generation of Latino politicians.  Twenty-six-year-old Alex Padilla won an overwhelming election victory Tuesday over Corinne Sanchez in the race for the northeast San Fernando Valley's 7th District seat on the Los Angeles City Council.  A graduate of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Padilla captured more than 67% of the vote and credited his strong showing to a combination of labor and youth that rallied behind his candidacy.  Padilla had been the legislative aide for and was strongly backed by Assemblyman Tony Cardenas (D-Sylmar).  Through his victory, Padilla had inherited the remaining two years of the unexpired term left by Richard Alarcon when he moved up from the 7th District seat to the State Senate in December.

Nick Pacheco (14th Council District, 1999-2003)

On June 8, 1999, 35-year-old Nick Pacheco won 52% of the votes in the 14th Council District to succeed Richard Alatorre.  His opponent, Victor Griego, had obtained 48% of the vote in this election.

Ed Reyes (1st Council District, 2001-Present)

When Mike Hernandez retried from the Council on June 30, 2001, he was succeeded by Ed Reyes, a former council aide and planning department official, who won his seat in the April primary but did not take office until July 1, 2001.

In the 2000 census, the number of persons living within the city limits of Los Angeles reached 3,694,820.  Of this group, 1,719,073 individuals of Latino or Hispanic origin represented 46.5% of the total population of the city.  With the results of the 2000 census in hand, the issue of redistricting Council Districts once again came onto the agenda.  With a Latino population that was quickly approaching half of the City’s population, many community activists believed that more districts should be in the hands of Latino Council members.  Latinos represented a plurality in four of the 15 council districts, while African Americans constituted a majority in three districts.

A new redistricting plan endorsed in March 2002 redrew the Council Districts in such a way as to give Latinos a plurality in five districts, compared to the four they currently had.  The new Latino District was created from the Councilwoman Ruth Galanter’s 6th District, which was moved from the Westside to the East Valley.  Galanter was scheduled to be forced out of her district on June 30, 2003 by term limits, and could not run for reelection. Portions of Galanter’s Westside district – including Westchester and West Los Angeles – were scheduled to be merged into a reconfigured 11th Council District, represented by Councilwoman Cindy Miscikowski. Under the new plan, the 1st, 7th, 13th, 14th and new 6th districts would all have at least 40% Latino voter registration, giving that ethnic community a plurality of voters.

Tony Cardenas (6th District, 2003-Present)

In the March 4, 2003 election for the Los Angeles City Council, seven Council seats were up for grabs.  Former Assemblyman Tony Cardenas faced off against businessman Jose Roy Garcia for Ruth Galanter’s 6th District. A year earlier, in March 2002, Cardenas had been defeated by Wendy Greuel in the 2nd District race.  Thirty-nine-year-old Cardenas, a resident of Panorama City, had the backing of City Council President Alex Padilla and took office on July 1, 2003.

Antonio Villaraigosa (14th District, 2003-Present)

At the same time, Councilman Nick Pacheco ran for reelection in the 14th District, but was faced with a serious challenge from former state Assembly Speaker Antonio Villaraigosa and former Olympic boxer Paul Gonzales. On March 4, 2003, Antonio Villaraigosa defeated Councilman Nick Pacheco in their hard-fought race to represent the Eastside council district. Villaraigosa won 57% of the vote to unseat Councilman Pacheco.  With this victory, Villaraigosa now represented the communities of Boyle Heights, Eagle Rock, El Sereno, Hillside Village, University Hills, Hermon, Garvanza, Monterey Hills, and parts of Highland Park, Mount Washington, Glassell Park, and Downtown Los Angeles.

Eric Garcetti (13th Council District, 2001-Present)

In the election for the 13th Council District, 30-year-old Eric Garcetti faced off against former Councilman Mike Woo. Garcetti, a professor of political science at Occidental College and son of former District Attorney Gil Garcetti, was a fourth generation Angelino of both Mexican and European heritage.  His victory gave him representation over a district that now included Hollywood, Echo Park, Silver Lake and Atwater Village. Garcetti was sworn into office of June 15, 2001 to replace Council member Jackie Goldberg, who had been elected to the State Assembly the year before.

As of October 2004, five majority Latino districts were served by five Councilpersons, Reyes (1st District), Cardenas (6th District), Padilla (7th District), Garcetti (13th District) and Villaraigosa (14th District).


Jaime Pacheco, Professor Julian Nava, Mimi Lozano, The Outlook, The Eastside Sun, the Los Angeles Times.

Jack Cheevers, “Alarcon Victory Confirmed in 7th District,” Los Angeles Times, June 17, 1993.

Janet Clayton, “Snyder’s Decision Throws Eastside Seat Up for Grabs,” Los Angeles Times, January  3, 1985.

Victor Merina, “Districting Hurts Latinos, U.S. Says: Justice Department Suit Accuses L.A. of Diluting Hispanics’ Political Power,” Los Angeles Times, November 27, 1985.

Contact John Schmal at