Redistricting: Tense political leaders watch, wait

By the campaign-cash standards of 2010, the battle over redistricting is small beer – perhaps $20 million total.

But the two redistricting measures on the Nov. 2 ballot, Propositions 20 and 27, are significant beyond their dollars and push to the core of California’s political world. Both target the drawing of political boundaries, both pose high stakes to political leaders and both have the potential to affect California’s political landscape for decades.

“When it comes to redistricting, politicians act on naked self interest,” said Jack Pitney, a political scientist at Claremont McKenna College.

That’s because the boundaries of a political district – who’s in and who’s out – determine who gets elected.

Every 10 years, the districts are redrawn to accommodate population shifts reflected in the census for the Assembly, Senate, Board of Equalization and Congressional districts. It is the most partisan of political activities as politicians of both parties battle to create districts with favorable voter registration.

Drawing political maps may seem like a dry, detail-driven exercise – which it is. But it is also intensely partisan. Essentially, the map-drawing is a process of data-mining census tracts and pooling results.

In 2001, Gov. Gray Davis and legislative leaders from both parties reached a deal that protected most incumbents – of both parties.

But it doesn’t always work that way: Democratic lawmakers engineered the 1991 redistricting maps, which were promptly vetoed by Republican Gov. Pete Wilson – a key reason that top Republicans wanted him elected. In the end, Wilson demanded that the Supreme Court intervene – it did – and maps crafted by a special master went into effect for the 1992 elections.

Proposition 20 would expand the power of an independent redistricting commission to include California’s 53 seats in the U.S. House of Representatives. Voters created the commission two years ago by approving Proposition 11, which set up the 14-member panel to handle map-drawing for the Legislature and the four-district Board of Equalization. In part, the California commission was inspired by a similar panel in Arizona.

Under Proposition 20, once the commission draws the maps, that’s it: They go into effect for the 1992 elections. If they are challenged, however, they could be placed on the ballot in the form of a referendum and be placed before voters.

There had been a move in 2008 to include the House seats in the California commission’s jurisdiction. But that attempt was beaten back by state and House party leaders, who threatened to launch a counter campaign unless the proponents backed off.  They did.

Proposition 27 would abolish the new commission entirely, returning all redistricting powers to the Legislature. The driving forces behind Proposition 27 are the Berman brothers – Howard and Michael – backed by Los Angeles businessman Haim Saban and key Democratic political leaders, including House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, Assembly Speaker John Perez and former Assembly Speaker Karen Bass.

Those political leaders, all Democrats, believe drawing political maps should be handled by elected politicians and their staffs. They believe an independent commission, its members not beholden to the public, has the potential to raise mischief, cost money during a tight economy and could weaken California’s House delegation vis-à-vis other states that don’t have such panels. Adding to the frenzy: If the House goes Republican, as expected, Democratic political leaders will be even more motivated to hang on to every Democratic seat possible.

“There has to be some public accountability for the members of the commission,” said Steven Maviglio, a veteran political consultant and former top communications aide to legislative and executive leaders. “If the legislators are bad, you can fire them. But you can’t fire the members of the commission.”

Thanks to the post-2000 gerrymander, however,  no incumbent lost a general election during the entire decade.

“Personally, I think if you’re going to do it, it should be done nationally. Otherwise, it disadvantages California,” he added.

Howard Berman, a Democrat, is a member of Congress representing a West L.A. district, and his brother, Michael, is a redistricting expert who has crafted Democratic maps for decades in California. Backers listed on the campaign’s website include the California Teachers Association and California Federation of Teachers, the League of Conservation Voters and the California Nurses Association – all traditional Democratic backers.

“If they can kill Proposition 20, they still will have a very, very difficult time saving Howard Berman,” said political historian Tony Quinn, a former Republican redistricting official and a co-editor of the Target Book, which tracks legislative and Congressional races.

Howard Berman’s 28th Congressional District, increasingly Latino, narrowly escaped a court challenge in 2000 from angry Latinos who felt that political leaders had engineered an unfair redistricting. A challenge is all but certain to erupt this year, however, unless Michael Berman comes up with some creative map drawing or a deal is cut between Berman’s backers, the Latino forces and others.

That deal may already have been reached, brokered by Sen. Alex Padilla, D-Pacoima, Assemblyman Felipe Fuentes, D-Los Angeles, and Berman’s allies. Latino powerbrokers in the San Fernando Valley backed Berman’s former staffer, Bob Blumenfield, for Assembly in 2008. Speculation has swirled that, if left in the hands of the Legislature, it may be Rep. Brad Sherman, and not Berman, who is left without a district as a seat is carved out for Valley Latinos.  

 Some 14 members of Congress, including House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, together contributed about $160,000 to the pro-Proposition 27 campaign.

The pro-Proposition 27 forces have raised about $7.4 million, while the  opponents, through a single committee that backs Proposition 20 and opposes Proposition 27, has raised some $12.8 million, with nearly $11 million coming from one person – Charles T. Munger Jr., the son of Warren Buffet’s partner, Charles Munger.

“Munger has spent $12 million of his own money, and it’s very difficult to compete with a campaign that is funded by a billionaire,” said Victoria Hoang, campaign coordinator for No on 20, Yes on 27.

“Proposition 11 barely passed in 2008, so I wouldn’t say it’s a mandate from the public,” she added. “In reality, how you draw the lines has less of an impact than most people think because incumbents represent their constituencies and they do what they have to do to stay in office.”

For political leaders, the notion of an outside commission handling redistricting is anathema. The idea of expanding that commission to include House seats is worse still.

If Proposition 20 is approved, then the options for the political leadership include going to court to challenge individual districts or financing referendum campaigns to place the maps before voters.

“I can’t think of a worse policy than having a map drawn up by an outside, independent group and then let the partisans tear it apart,” Quinn said.

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