Nothing in politics is messier, more arcane or more brutal than redistricting.
Math, demographics, voting rights laws, calculation and compromise either jeopardize, boost or abruptly terminate careers in elected office.
Newly configured legislative districts mean new opportunities triggering feverish clawing by candidates for higher or safer office, which, in turn, spawns equally furious jockeying for the seats they vacate.
Lucky for all involved it only happens once every 10 years.
For California, 2012 isn’t just when the newly created districts take effect for all but 20 of the 173 legislative and congressional seats drawn – for the first time in state history – by a citizens commission.
That wouldn’t be messy or complex enough.
Thanks to Proposition 14, the top two votegetters in the June primary will advance to the November general election, regardless of party affiliation.
In some instances, the new rules created by the proposition, approved by voters in June 2010, may ease some of the angst of incumbents, 60 of whom find themselves outside of their current district or shoehorned in with another incumbent.
Whether a boon or a curse, either way, the top-two primary changes how candidates conduct their races.
In case next year isn’t a big enough cluster, term limits eject 22 Assembly members and six state senators.
And America is electing a president.
“It’s going to be one of the most complicated and expensive elections in history,” said Barbara O’Connor, director emeritus of the Institute for the Study of Politics and Media, California State University at Sacramento.
“Voters are adjusting to new districts, seeing familiar faces run against each other and making sense of a top-two primary. There’s just a whole lot of new things confronting them at a time when they hate every single politician out there.”
For now, the dominant political driver is the new districts and who wants to sit in them.
The number of Democrats sitting in those seats, at least in the Legislature’s upper house, is worrisome enough for the state GOP that it filed a lawsuit and launched a referendum of the redistricting plan for the state Senate.
If the referendum qualifies – nearly 505,000 valid signatures by Nov. 13 – the new Senate districts will be shelved until 2014 and new lines will be drawn by the state high court for the 2012 elections.
“As a party, we’re trying to maintain a level above the super-minority status,” said Mark Standriff, a spokesman for the California Republican party.
“Our concern is if (Republican membership in the Senate) goes below one-third then the Democrats can push forward on their agenda of increasing fees and taxes and go after certain Assembly seats to get a super majority in both houses.
The lawsuit also seeks to invalidate the senate plan which with 24 safe Democratic sets, two seats leaning Democrat and two seats that could tip either way probably justifies the GOP’s concern.
“California Republicans have had the luxury of living on borrowed time for the last decade because the last redistricting preserved the status quo between the two parties,” said Bill Whalen, a Hoover Institute research fellow.
“A court can do anything it wants, or chooses, I suppose, but as far as the Republicans are concerned, I would be busy trying to find viable candidates in swing districts.”
An impediment to a court challenge succeeding is that the drawing of the latest lines were done by a public commission at a series of public hearings with reams of written input and hours of testimony.
“This process was the most open, most transparent, good-government redistricting ever done in the history of mankind,” said Paul Mitchell, whose firm, Redistricting Partners, would be in a position to know.
The way Mitchell’s firm maps the political landscape for the 80-member Assembly is 48 Democratic seats and two that lean Democrat – two less than the 52 seats Democrats now hold.
Republicans have 21 sure seats and four that lean their way.
On paper, registration allows five Assembly seats to swing either way although a Kings County seat tilts Democrat, another swing seat Republican and a third in Ventura is currently held by a Republican.
Because of term limits and the domino effect of other lawmakers declaring for Congress or the Senate, 30 Assembly seats are open. From Riverside to Sherman Oaks and Sacramento to San Diego.
At the same time, several incumbents in the lower house lost their existing seats and need a new home to continue their Assembly careers.
Freshmen Democrats Roger Dickinson and Dr. Richard Pan are drawn into the same Sacramento-centered district. Either could move to a new South Sacramento seat and stay in the Assembly.
Assemblyman Michael Allen, a first-term Santa Rosa Democrat, found himself potentially running against Assemblywoman Mariko Yamada, a Davis Democrat, in the new Assembly District 4. Instead, he is moving south of his Santa Rosa base into an open Marin County-centric seat.
To increase Allen’s success, Assembly Speaker John Pérez, a Los Angeles Democrat, encouraged one of the declared candidates, San Rafael City Councilman Marc Levine to reconsider.
“I’ve known John a few years and I’m fond of him,” Levine told Capitol Weekly. “We have a good relationship which I think is reflective of the fact he spoke to me personally about it.”
Levine plans on staying in the race and, if the synopsis he gives of his stump speech is an indicator, he will back-handedly highlight Allen’s carpet bagging:
“I know the issues of the district. I live in the same home I brought my children to after they were born in Marin General. I’m well known through the district.”
Torie Osborn, a former deputy Los Angeles mayor, is running in the new Assembly District 50 that takes in West Hollywood and Santa Monica. Now so is Assemblywoman Betsy Butler, a Torrance Democrat, whose South Bay district was carved into thirds.
“This district maps to my resume,” Osborn told Capitol Weekly. “I think it’s going to be tough for her. This district is highly educated, fiercely independent, highly opinionated and people aren’t going to take kindly to somebody just moving in from another district to advance their career.”
Overall the Senate district issues are less severe. Lawmakers drawn out of the current districts, in many cases, simply can move a few miles to a new, equally safe seat.
Democrat Fran Pavley and Republican Tony Strickland, however, find their homes in the new Senate District 27. Registration is 41 percent Democrat and 34 percent Republican. At 20 percent, decline-to-state voters will make the two decide to stay and gut it out.
In Congress, veteran Orange County GOP Rep. Ed Royce now sits in the same seat with fellow Republican Gary Miller. Another Orange County republican, Dave Drier, has no seat and either retires or finds a new one to run in.
One of the major – and nicely alliterative – slugfests will be Howard Berman and Brad Sherman duking it out for a San Fernando Valley seat that contains both their homes. The expensive battle could be avoided by one of them moving to a Ventura County-centered seat where Democrats have a less comfortable edge over Republicans.
The dust has far from settled – filing deadlines aren’t until spring 2012.