Redistricting flap: ProPublica story flawed, Republican strategy questioned

We have all had those days where you are in a location where you can’t immediately get all the details, but you know something wild is happening because your phone will not stop lighting up. Mine was the Wednesday before Christmas.

It had nothing to do with my family or any client. It was the initial publication of the piece on redistricting that claimed somehow the Democrats had gamed the system. At the time, I thought it was just my Democrat friend Paul Mitchell attempting to get one more headline before people forgot about redistricting until 2021.  Then my news alerts started to include Santa Cruz, the California Republican Party and even John “f’ing” Burton.

I met with the ProPublica journalists many months ago in Sacramento.  At the time we finished the meeting, I thought they were either going to make Paul Mitchell and me out to be villains that tinkered with holy redistricting ground, or well-informed professionals who understood redistricting.  

Well, it turns out that ProPublica’s report reaches the same conclusion that I have espoused: The only ones in the room who did not know what was happening were the commissioners.

Redistricting junkies are a small group. While some will argue that the “gold standard” public process by the California Redistricting Commission involved thousands of people, the reality is that most of the people that came to testify had a motive that was something the commission was not legally able to consider.  Usually it was a partisan bent, protecting a certain incumbent, or giving hope to the aspirations of some future candidate.

The very first public input hearing that the commission held was at Shasta College in Redding. That day, a group of people led by failed congressional candidate Jim Reed argued that the far northern end of the state should have districts that run east-to-west across the top of the state instead of the traditional north-to-south alignment.  

Do you think it was really a desire to see a community of interest across the counties that border Oregon? No. It was a Democrat in Redding who was looking to get rid of Republican Sutter and Yuba counties and replace them with Democratic Humboldt County so Reed would have a chance at beating Congressman Wally Herger in the next election.

This sort of thing happened all over the state. It was done by Republicans, Democrats, labor, gay and lesbian organizations, environmental groups, the business community, and elected officials at every level of government.

Redistricting is a policy decision that matters to political people. Political people all have similar play books. The plays include fake support groups, using emotion, presenting numbers or facts that tell your side of the story, and playing the race card where appropriate. That is what we do.  All of those things were done during this redistricting cycle.

The best summary on this issue came from Scott Lay in the Nooner:

“Whether it’s city council meetings, legislative hearings or, yes, redistricting commission meetings, people that speak in public comment are usually organized by some other individual or organization. Only the crazy folks show up on their own. The redistricting commission had public comment for a reason, and people showed up to testify for a reason. And, if you haven’t used an Astroturf organization in your advocacy or political campaigns, you’re not a professional.”

The issue that really galls me is that Republicans can cry foul all they want, but legislative leadership made it very clear that they did not want any Republican consultants to engage on redistricting. I was told that a meeting would occur where that would be the order. But here’s a lesson I learned in the Marine Corps: If you knew you were going to disobey the order that was coming, then do everything in your power not to receive the order. Then it is not disobedience on my part – it is a lack of command and control on your part.

When the redistricting commission was meeting in Sacramento in late March, the California Republican Party was meeting right across the street at the Hyatt.  That is probably 300 yards away. How many Republicans thought it was important enough to come over and testify? I can think of about 10, including Ron Nehring, Tom Del Baccaro, Shawn Steel, Board of Equalization member Michelle Park Steel, David Salaverry, and three people from the area around Simi Valley.  

The one thing I clearly remember from that day was excellent testimony by Michelle Park Steel.  She spoke clearly about the business community without even mentioning the word “Republican.”  Was she hiding anything? No. She was making her point in a non-political and effective way.

When you start the process telling people not to be involved and then end the process complaining that others were too involved, you have created your own emergency. In the end, the ProPublica story was something about nothing.

Did Paul Mitchell and the Democrats win in redistricting? Maybe, but it was not because of some corrupt process. It was because they showed up and engaged with good data when the issues were presented to the commission. Meanwhile, the only active Republican engagement with the commission was actually from the business community with little or no involvement from either the party or the legislative caucuses.   

As Republicans, if we did get beat at redistricting, we should blame ourselves for being outworked by people that engaged the process while our party stood by waiting for things to happen.

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