Opinion: The redistricting commission gets under way

Slowly and cautiously, the new Citizens Redistricting Commission created by the voters to redraw political districts in 2011 is coming to life.  All 14 members have now been chosen and last week they began assembling their staff.

But the launch has not been without its problems.  The first 14 members quickly became 13 when Elaine Kuo, one of the Democrats chosen by lot in December, resigned citing time restraints.  This is quite surprising since she went through a rigorous selection process to make the commission in the first place, and she should have known that the job of creating new legislative and congressional districts would be time consuming.  But now the commission must choose a new Democratic member.

And the commission has chosen its initial staff through a secretive process overseen only by the secretary of state.  The public has had no idea who applied for neither staff slots nor how they were chosen.  That is not helpful for a redistricting process that is supposed to be transparent.

But beyond these bumps, what can we say about the commission at this point?  First, the selection process produced bright and engaged people who should be able to do this job.   But the selection, overseen by the Bureau of State Audits, did not give us a commission reflective of the diversity of California.  The 14-member commission has only three white members while whites represent almost half the population.  Latinos are slightly underrepresented as well.  The commission can rectify this to some degree in choosing the new 14th member.

This imbalance is the fault of the Bureau of State Audits not the commissioners.  When the first applications emerged the pool was overwhelmingly white; and the Auditor overreacted to criticism that too few minorities were in the pool.  The result was that when the first eight members were chosen, half were Asians and only two were whites, exactly opposite the actual state population statistics.

The big losers in this process were white Democrats – there are none on the commission – and they seem likely to be the big losers in the redistricting itself.  Perhaps this is justified; in the 2001 bipartisan gerrymander white Democrats were taken care of at the expense of minorities, most notably in the Los Angeles congressional districts.  Michael Berman, brother of Rep. Howard Berman, drew the districts and not surprisingly diluted Latinos in the San Fernando Valley to make sure his brother would not face primary opposition.   That and numerous other tricks in 2001 will be reversed by the commission in 2011.  

But before the commission actually focuses on maps, it will undergo a lengthy period of public comment and suggestions.  Citizen interest in this process is probably higher than it has ever been before.  Count on nearly every city and county to come to the commission with a favored map for its area.  That is all well and good except that all the districts have to fit together.  A fine map for dividing Santa Clara County could cause population ripples all the way to the Oregon border.  We can’t borrow half a district from another state or enfranchise fish in the ocean, so the commission will quickly learn the complexities of actually placing 37 million Californians into legal and workable districts.

At the end of the process who are the likely winners and who are the likely losers?  Interestingly, Democrats and Republicans could be both winners and losers.  The Rose Institute at Claremont McKenna College has produced estimates of current district populations.  They show that coastal California has grown slowly and will lose representation to interior California.  The most under populated congressional district in California is that of House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi.

So some safe Democratic districts will disappear in the San Francisco Bay Area and Los Angeles, and re-emerge in the Inland Empire and Central Valley.  Will the Republicans gain from this, since their areas are likely to gain districts?  Maybe, maybe not.  The fastest growing large county is Republican-leaning Riverside County, but much of its growth is Latinos moved outward from Los Angeles.  Look for the commission to create new Latino Senate and congressional districts in the Inland Empire.  And currently safe Republicans might find their districts a lot more Latino given overall population changes.

But the real winners could be the people of California who have experienced a decade of legislative and congressional elections comparable to the old Supreme Soviet.  The early signs are that the commission will try to apply the criteria written into the law in a fair and rationale manner.  If they do, everyone could end up a winner.

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