Political fight over redistricting spills into the Capitol, ballot

California voters have become all too familiar with the ferociously partisan, once-a-decade drawing of political boundaries. Even so, the 2010 election holds something new. Two wildly different measures targeting redistricting are on the ballot and an independent commission is poised to craft legislative districts for the first time.

It all makes for an unusual political mishmash, even for Sacramento: A fight between party professionals and incumbents on one side, and voters and reformers on the other. It’s the outsiders vs. the insiders.

“Anybody but the Legislature should be drawing the districts,” notes Bob Stern, president of the Center for Governmental Studies and the first general counsel of the Fair Political Practices Commission, the state’s political watchdog. “It’s a case where legislators are picking their voters, rather than voters picking their legislators.”

Others disagree, voicing suspicions of any non-elected body handling redistricting. What is certain is that the fight over redistricting, however unexciting to the general public, is a hot issue indeed to politicians in both parties and political reformers.

All rivals remember what consultants called the “sweetheart gerrymander” of the 2001 redistricting, an agreement negotiated by political leaders that safeguarded office holders by packing districts with the incumbents’ party registrants. A piece of that deal – the Congressional seats – was blessed by the White House, said participants, who traveled there personally to get an okay.

By law, the boundaries must be drawn every 10 years to reflect changes in population and assure proportional representation. Until 2008, that chore was done by the Legislature – meaning the majority party – for California’s Congressional districts, the state Senate and Assembly and the four-district Board of Equalization. But the process evolved into a bitterly partisan bloodletting, as lawmakers drew districts to maximize their leverage and throttle challengers. The mapping has frequently wound up in the courts.

“Legislators draw districts to protect the incumbents of both parties,” said Charles T. Munger, Jr., the principal backer of Proposition 20, which would expand the voter-approved, independent Citizens Redistricting Commission’s powers to include Congressional seats. “There is often a struggle within each party to determine who will be allowed into the Congressional club,” said Munger, who so far has donated $3.54 million to the campaign.

Rigging political districts is nothing new, especially the Congressional seats.

“The gerrymandering of Congressional seats in California is the worst in the United States and it’s lasted more than 60 years,” said political historian Tony Quinn, a former legislative staffer and a co-author of Target Book. “The most brutal redistricting was in 1981 when (the late Congressman) Phil Burton did it. The Democrats were afraid they would lose control and they pushed it through.” At the time, Burton assured Democrats that they would “be as safe as in your mother’s arms.”

This year’s redistricting fight is three-sided.

First is the independent commission, which voters approved as Proposition 11 in 2008, to draw boundaries for the Legislature and Board of Equalization. Under Proposition 20 on the Nov. 2 ballot, the commission also would expand its authority to include California’s 53 Congressional districts. Those districts were excluded from the commission’s jurisdiction two years ago amid pressure from Congressional leaders. There had been speculation that California actually would lose a seat amid national population shifts, but that no longer appears likely.

Second is Proposition 20, financed by Munger, the son of the long-time financial adviser to billionaire investor Warren Buffet.

Third is Proposition 27, which seeks to abolish the redistricting commission and return map-drawing to the Legislature.

The pro-Proposition 27 forces include Rep. Judy Chu, an L.A.-area Democrat who contributed $500,000 to the campaign, and Haim Saban, who donated $2 million, in part to protect Rep. Howard Berman, a powerful West L.A. Democrat whose district could face a major rewrite from an independent panel.  Berman nearly lost his district after 2000, but a challenge mounted by Latinos ultimately was resolved – but only with a warning that they would be back next time around. Now is the next time around.

Ironically, Berman’s brother, Michael Berman, is a legendary mapping wizard and has drawn districts in California for four decades. One of his first chores is to protect his brother.
That voters dislike and mistrust the Legislature is clear: Capitol lawmakers rank even lower in the public’s view than the governor.

 Turning over redistricting to the Citizens Redistricting Commission raises another set of problems, although the panel itself, assembled by State Auditor Elaine Howle, is getting high marks for achieving ethnic, political and gender balance. “The auditor has done a top-notch job. The commission clearly is reflective of California’s diversity,” Stern said.
 But the fundamental role of the commission raises questions.

“Those on the commission as well as those selecting the commission are not accountable to voters. They are not elected, they are not appointed, they are pulled out of a hat by bureaucrats. It is fundamentally wrong to have people designing districts who are totally unaccountable to voters,” said veteran Democratic political consultant Steve Maviglio.

“You have to create some kind of system that allows voters to approve the districts so they can have a direct say on how these things are done. It would make the process much more open,” Maviglio added.

Howle’s staff, charged by Proposition 11 with putting together the Citizens Redistricting Commission, has screened more than 31,000 applicants and is down to its final interviews of 120 people, evenly divided between Democrats, Republicans and independents.

The process is oddly complex, reflecting fears that someone, somewhere, somehow is going to figure out how to game the system for partisan advantage.

From the list of 120, the names of the 60 most qualified – again, equal parts of Democrats, Republicans and independents – will be sent to the Legislature, where the two top leaders in each house have the option of removing up to two names each – for a total of eight – from each group of 20.

If the leaders fully exercise their option, the groups of 20 each would be cut to 12 each. Those three groups of 12 each would then be returned to the auditor, who would randomly select the first eight members of the commission.

Finally, those eight members would select the remaining six members. By law, all 14 members must be in place by Dec. 31, 2010.

The commission selection process came in for criticism early on for being dominated by white males, but that charge has abated.

The key unanswered question is how much money political leaders, including House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, will pour into the campaign to block, or abolish, the commission. Will there be funding for a tough campaign?

“It’s coming,” Munger said.


Editor’s Note: CORRECTS  reference to Munger’s father, 12th paragraph, and deletes reference to University of Phoenix.

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