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New non-profit group faces political test in redistricting fight

A redistricting measure backed by Gov. Schwarzenegger on the November ballot is more than just another in the long line of mapmaking measures that have come before California voters before. It is also the first true test of a new organization, bankrolled by some of the state’s wealthiest non-profit foundations, as they wade into the perilous waters of partisan politics.

Schwarzenegger’s measure has some bipartisan support, picking up the backing of former Gov. Gray Davis this week. But it has been publicly opposed by Speaker Fabian Nunez, D-Los Angeles, and roundly criticized by Democratic strategists.

California Forward, the new non-profit group headed by former White House Chief of Staff Leon Panetta, has backed the Schwarzenegger plan. “Our goal is to try to implement the kind of reforms that will hopefully alow sacramento and the Legislature to be more responsible in dealing with the problems facing the state," said Panetta. "One of the problems that everyone has identified is that the redistricting process has resulted in safe Democratic and Republican districts that largely drive members to the extremes than to the center.”

But wading into politics possesses some political dangers for the foundations that have bankrolled California Forward. The foundations enjoy federal tax-exempt status, and are barred from participating directly in politics. That’s why California Forward was built with an educational arm, which is a standard 501 (c) (3). There is also a political arm to the organization, a 501 (c) (4), the California Forward Action Fund, which is allowed to particpate in overtly political activities. That part of the organization does not receive any foundation funding.

California Forward leaders say they will maintain a bright line between the political operation and the education role of the non-profit.

“None of the foundation money will go to our political activity,” says Zabrae Valentine, policy director of California Forward and executive director of the group’s Action Fund. “We got two directives from the foundations when we began California Forward – One was to change policy. The other was tp set up a plan that doesn’t spend a penny of their money on the political stuff.”

But as the group takes political positions, and potentially makes some political enemies, the foundations’ political resolve will be challenged.

“Their political stomachs will be tested as we go through each of these fights,” said Panetta. “Certainly, no one is naïve enough to assume that good government is going to be embraced simply because it’s good government. My experience is you’ve got to fight for the reforms that matter.”

And there is every indication that the redistricting battle in November will indeed be a fight. Nunez criticized the governor’s plan because “it doesn’t require diversity in how the dist boundaries are drawn, and it leaves a lot of holes in what I consider to be a complex task.” Nunez said he would propose his own redistricting plan, adding, “we’re going to improve upon” the governor’s proposal.

Kathay Feng, executive director of California Common Cause, a co-sponsor of the Schwarzenegger plan, dismissed Nunez’s proposal, and his objections to the Schwarzenegger plan, as disingenuous.

“The Speaker has a few [redistricting] bills languishing in Rules Committee that have never seen the light of day. It’s hard for us to put our hopes in his promises,” she said.

Democratic political consultant Bill Cavala, an expert on redistricting issues, says Democrats in Sacramento and Washington should oppose the new plan.

“This plan would hurt Democrats,” Cavala said.  “This could lead to a result that would have the Republicans taking over the state Assembly. I think electing Republicans is bad. Anything that helps them is bad. Any Democrat who would sacrifice Democratic seats to help the Republican Party is stupid.”

The state Democratic Party has not yet taken a position on the initiative. “When we do take it up, the position most likely will be no,” said Bob Mulholland, spokesman for the California Democratic Party. “The very principles of the Democratic Party are fairness to minority groups, and this Schwarzenegger measure does not pass that test.

The Schwarzenegger plan would create an independent panel to draw political districts of state lawmakers. Control over the Congressional maps would remain in legislative hands. Feng said the decision to exclude Congress from the proposal was a pragmatic one in an effort to mute opposition from Washington Democrats.

“Voters rejected a redistricting initiative in 2005,” said Kathay Feng, director of California Common Cause, which is co-sponsoring the initiative. “This is our last chance to change the process before the next round happens. We made a very conscious decisions not to bite off more than we can chew.”

Congressman Kevin McCarthy, R-Bakersfield, said the Common Cause proposal was the product of “cutting a deal with Nancy Pelosi. It’s just  setting the platform for failure,” he said. “I understand wanting to get something done. The public has been educated on this. People are frustrated with both parties. I think the governor should have included Congress in his plan.”

Nunez said he opposes Schwarzenegger’s plan for the impact it could have on Latino and African American representation.
Feng said the plan backed by her organization would ensure minority districts stay in tact. But she understands why the speaker may have problems with the new rules.

“There is a big difference between the interests of Latino incumbents and the Latino community,” she said. “Sometimes they coincide, sometimes they don’t. Incumbents want to hold on to what they’ve got regardless of the direction the community is moving in.”


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