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Redistricting: This time around, where is the Burton team?

Here is a factoid to give pause to California’s Congressional delegation:  2011 will mark the first time in 50 years that the Congressional redistricting will not be in the hands of the brothers Burton or their allies.  

And there are other elements that could contribute to Congressional unease.  In 2011 an independent commission will handle legislative redistricting, so Sacramento will be free to focus on Congressional redistricting, which for the first time in nearly a century will not add a new House seat.  Moreover, more than 40 legislators will be termed out in 2012, all of whom have spent several years dealing with massive budget deficits with very few comforting words from their 53 colleagues in Washington DC.

Every 10 years, following the federal census, boundaries of House districts must be adjusted to ensure, among other things, population equality.  This redistricting process is the responsibility of state legislatures – not the Congress.  But starting in 1960, California effectively ceded the job to Phil and John Burton and their allies.  Phil Burton had an encyclopedic knowledge of the state’s political geography and a personality that brooked no opposition.  As an Asssemblymember, he oversaw the 1961 redistricting.  By 1971, Burton was in the House but nonetheless single handedly drafted the Congressional plan, though he graciously allowed the Assembly and Senate to draw their own districts.  His work came to naught after  Governor Ronald Reagan’s  vetoes sent the job to the state Supreme Court imposing its own plans.  Burton came back with a vengeance in 1981 when the Assembly and the Senate passed his plan without ever seeing the actual maps.  By 1991, Phil Burton had passed but his brother John and staunch  allies, Willie Brown and the Berman brothers of Los Angeles (Howard the Congressman and Michael  Phil’s redistricting protégé) were firmly in control of Congressional redistricting.   Thanks to Pete Wilson’s vetoes, the Court again intervened, but the 2001 redistricting was another successful Burton production.  This time it was brother John as the Senate Pro Tem hiring Michael Berman for the job.  The Assembly went along and Michael dutifully protected the DC delegation, Republican and Democrat alike.

But what about 2011?  After five decades of having their districts and political careers protected by the Burton-Berman axis, some House members may assume that the future will be the past and a complaisant Legislature will again rubber–stamp Michael Berman’s plans.  Others are hedging their bets, quietly supporting an initiative to abolish the independent redistricting commission.   

The fact is that 2011 will be different.   Neither Assembly Speaker John Perez nor Senate pro Tem Darrell Steinberg are particularly close to what’s left of the Burton-Berman machine.  Thus they may not be inclined, as John Burton was in 2001, to subordinate the Potomac dreams of their term-limited caucuses to the interests of the brothers Berman.  Speaker Perez will have about 22 Democrats and eight Republicans looking for someplace to go in 2012 while Senator Steinberg will have about four Democrats and four Republicans looking at the end of the trail.  Granted, many will be eying Senate seats and some of the Senators could return to the Assembly.  On the other hand, who commands more attention in Sacramento, Pete Stark or Mary Hayashi? Buck McKeon or George Runner?  Brad Sherman or Filipe Fuentes?

Another factor is the budget and the perception of Washington indifference.  The current verbal clashes between  Governor Schwarzenegger and California’s Congressional delegation are entertaining, but fundamentally misleading.  Federal spending is not driven by ineffectual representation but by a state’s demographics and arcane federal funding formulas.  On the other hand, it’s disingenuous to ignore the fact that California’s 208-09 budget blew up largely because of the global financial meltdown, which can be traced to Wall Street and DC but not Sacramento.

The debate does, however, reflect a general feeling that we are not getting our fair share from Washington.  California has powerful and effective members in Congress who do very well by their individual districts.  But the delegation is also notorious for being less than the sum of its part and not being that successful in protecting statewide issues from the anti-California bias in Congress.  For example, has the delegation collectively made the argument that California is so critical to national economic recovery that it deserves as much attention as Nebraska?  Why was it that when state Treasurer Bill Lockyer asked U.S. Secretary of Treasury Timothy Geithner to simply guarantee our short-term notes so we could avoid excessive Wall Street interest rates, the loudest Congressional voice in support of California came from Barney Frank of Massachusetts?  Indeed, with the exception of Doris Matsui, Brad Sherman and a few others, the delegation was largely MIA?  

I suspect that it is one factoid many House members hope fervently will be forgotten by 2011.


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