Opinion: Redistricting’s musical chairs: Yanked from L.A., S.F., and hiding in the Central Valley

After four ballot measures and years of political wrangling, the new redistricting reality is finally settling in.  The commission has its 14 members appointed, with hearings to resume in January.   And this week U.S. Census released national population figures confirming California’s 53 congressional seats.

California’s overall rate of growth has been a consistent 10 percent for the decade, but the real story for redistricting is how uneven it was, with residents leaving the urban population centers and moving inland.  Through a rational redistricting process this will result in a shift of political power away from the cities and toward the state’s rural and suburban communities.

The Rose Institute at Claremont McKenna College recently released projections for each Assembly, Senate and Congressional district, showing some seats had lost over 100,000 residents while others had gained over a quarter-million.

In the abstract, districts that are over-populated need to contract, while those that are under-populated need to expand.  When several nearby districts are all contracting, that can make for a new Assembly seat, while nearby expanding districts start stealing population from each other until there are no residents left and someone misses out.

While it can be shocking for a legislator to find out that their district is shrinking or expanding, that is just one part of the formula.  

More significant will be each district’s connection to a population center, its geographic compactness or how “funny” shaped it is, how well it follows city and county lines, and even its relationship to the other seats in the region.

If you could pick a spot to observe the political drama, one of the best vantage points would be on the border of San Mateo and Santa Clara counties.  The most expanding districts in the state will be in San Francisco, and this will force districts down through San Mateo and into San Jose.  At the intersection of these two counties you could watch the fate of powerful Democrats like Anna Eshoo, Jackie Speier and Mike Honda and see at least six current and former state legislators jockey for just one Senate and two Assembly seats.

Los Angeles will also see high drama as the underpopulation of districts is rampant, and extremely gerrymandered seats are all jam-packed into a small geographic area.  Legislators can’t very well go over the mountains or into the ocean, so the greatest impact will be in the city core where seats will disappear.  Additionally, the San Gabriel Valley will see the impact of districts pushing out toward the Inland Empire with legislators and congressional representatives fighting over a reduced population.

Contrast these gluts of politicians and few seats with the absence of statewide elected officials in big parts of the Central Valley.  

This region has been successfully gerrymandered to protect Democrats and incumbents. Yet, as Republican consultant Matt Rexroad points out, in the Central Valley you can draw an area from north of Bakersfield to Stockton, Fresno to the Nevada border, encompassing 2,500 square miles, 13 counties, 2.3 million residents and not find one state senator who lives there.   This is Republican territory, with a 42 percent to 37 percent registration advantage.

In the state’s interior, Republicans seemingly hold the cards, but it isn’t all aces for them yet.  

The Inland Empire has been a Republican safe ground, but it also has districts that severely violate the principles of the new redistricting reform. Several of its legislative seats expand two or even three counties.  And half of its eight congressional representatives area are from either San Diego or Los Angeles.  

Darrell Issa is doing well as a member of the Majority party in D.C., but will there be a district for him in San Diego in 18 months?  Mary Bono, who live is Riverside, has the most super-sized district with nearly a million residents, but in slimming that district down she could shed her Republican base and end up in a Democratic seat.

For legislators and congressional representatives, next year’s redraw is going to be like a game of musical chairs. Except in this game, seats have been yanked from Los Angeles and San Francisco, while extra seats have will be hidden somewhere in the Central Valley and Inland Empire.  On a statewide scale we can see the contractions and expansions, but how this impacts any given legislator or representative is still to be determined.

The challenge before elected officials is this: How can they survive the musical chairs by either impacting the redraw, moving into another district, or taking on a neighboring incumbent?  

In the coming months the elected officials that understand the game will start to treat the public process like another campaign, while others will stand on the sidelines and hope that the redraw either helps them, the commission fails entirely, or districts get thrown out by the courts.  But like in musical chairs, those that stand around too far outside of the circle rarely win.

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