Members of Equity for Cambodians answer questions from the public regarding a proposed charter amendment that would create an independent redistricting commission. Photo by Stephanie Rivera.

Cambodian residents are currently spread across four Long Beach council districts, giving one of the largest ethnic communities in the city little say in local governance.

Advocates hope that will soon change as the city looks to empower a citizen commission to redistribute the makeup of each of the city’s nine council districts, based on the approaching 2020 Census count.

The council on Tuesday is expected to place a redistricting charter amendment on the November ballot, along with four other amendments dealing with term limits, an ethics commission, the auditor’s duties and consolidation of the city’s gas and water departments.

Those who want the Cambodian community to have a stronger voice plan to attend Tuesday’s council meeting following eight months of advocacy on this issue.

A map of Cambodia Town, which is spread mostly across council districts 4 and 6. Courtesy of Equity for Cambodians.

“If we had the majority of this group in one district, the voting influence would be much greater so that even if you could not elect a Cambodian as a representative you would have enough influence that whoever was elected would have to respond to a Cambodian agenda,” Alex Norman, a Long Beach resident and retired UCLA professor, said over the weekend in Cambodia Town during a public meeting recapping advocates’ efforts.

Norman is part of a coalition that has been working with the city to come up with guidelines for the proposed redistricting commission, which advocates hope will redistrict the city in a way that, independent of political sway, would prevent the division of cultural communities.

Studies have put the number of Cambodians in Long Beach at between 50,000 and 70,000 people, estimated to be the largest concentration in the United States. They make up between 13 and 15 percent of the city’s population, on par with the African American community.

Despite this, a Cambodian has never been elected to the City Council.

Most Cambodians live in council districts 4 and 6, the Traffic Circle area and Central Long Beach, respectively. Smaller numbers live in the Downtown and Alamitos Beach areas, advocates say.

A group called Equity for Cambodians was formed at the beginning of this year following a class on local political power taught by Norman, fellow community organizer and civil rights attorney Marc Coleman, and Laura Som, executive director of The Maye Center in Cambodia Town, a healing center for survivors of the Khmer Rouge massacre.

After Decades of Division, Long Beach Cambodians Want Redistricting

When a student asked how her Cambodian community could begin organizing for more political power, Coleman said the group started looking at city maps.

“We asked the question, why can’t the Cambodian community have what the Latino community has, what the African American community has, and that is the community kept intact in a single council district?” Coleman said.

But when the City Council held its first hearing on the proposed charter amendment in June, Norman, Coleman and Som, as well as other members of the coalition, spoke in opposition to the first draft of the proposal.

“We were very angry so we brought our passion to the City Council members as well as the mayor,” Som said. “Later on we actually discovered it was an invitation for us to work with them.”

The city had already began working with California Common Cause, a nonprofit organization that works on various issues meant to make government at all levels transparent and accountable to its constituents. The group was invited by Councilman Al Austin, who first brought up the charter amendment  in 2015 in an effort to give residents the power to redistrict the city, as opposed to politicians themselves, which had been the case in previous years.

Under the proposed charter amendment, a commissioner could not be a city employee, lobbyist, elected official or their relative, and must have voted in the city’s previous election and lived in the city for at least one year.

The coalition said it was successful in ensuring that the proposal included criteria that would minimize a community’s division. Specifically it states that the commission shall draw its final map so that “neighborhoods and communities sharing a common language, history, culture and identity should not be divided so as to dilute their voting power.”

Along with attending Tuesday’s council meeting, advocates will present a petition with about 3,000 signatures demanding that Cambodia Town and the surrounding community become one council district in time for the 2020 election.

The joint meeting of the charter amendment committee and the city council is scheduled to take place Tuesday, Aug. 7, at 3 p.m. City Hall is located at 333 W. Ocean Blvd.

Stephanie Rivera is the community engagement editor. Reach her at [email protected] or on Twitter at @StephRivera88.