The power and importance of redistricting

Photo illustration of a map focusing on coastal Southern California, (Image: jimrainbow, via Shutterstock)

Last week, I started as the vice president of Redistricting Partners, a Sacramento-based firm known for its advocacy before the California Redistricting Commission and work doing voting rights analysis and redistricting for local governments.

As I take this leap, I am constantly thinking about one person, Congressman Darrel Issa, and the story that for me really crystalizes the importance of the redistricting process.

It was 2010, right after power in the House of Representatives fell to Republicans following the midterm elections, and Issa – who was constantly nipping and clawing at President Obama as Ranking Member in the House Oversight Committee – was about to take Chairman-sized bites at the Democratic administration.

Up until the last decade, incumbents of both parties benefitted from a symbiotic, closed-off process that allowed politicians to directly choose who their voters were.

The president of the national AFL-CIO called on Lorena Gonzalez, my boss then at the San Diego Labor Federation, with a single question: Can Issa be beaten? 

She laughed.

As chief executive of the San Diego Labor Council and a major campaigner in the region, she knew the facts as they were in 2010. All the campaign resources in the world couldn’t oust Issa from that seat.

Issa’s district was a bizarre, L-shaped polygon, stretched by corners in Oceanside and Camp Pendleton on the coast, Julian in San Diego County’s backcountry, the well-off retiree communities in the City of San Diego’s Rancho Bernardo neighborhood, and the all the way north to conservative towns like Temecula, Perris and Lake Elsinore in Riverside County.

If you were to drive on Interstate 15 from one end of the district to the other, you would cross in and out of the district three different times to accommodate its carefully selected partisan contours.

Issa won his 2010 re-election by a 63-32 margin.

Then came redistricting. And now Issa is a former congressman. Just like Ed Royce, Dana Rohrbacher, Gary Miller, Jerry Lewis, David Dreier and Jeff Denham – all of whom spent a decade or more winning safe re-elections in carefully crafted boundaries that were arguably designed to protect incumbents of both parties.

They all earned an emeritus status for a number of reasons – changes in local demographics and a national backdrop that disadvantaged Republicans, to name a few. But none of their defeats or surrenders/retirements would be possible without the citizen-led redistricting process.

That’s the power of California-style redistricting, which is now replicated across hundreds of local governments across California and even into other states.

Up until the last decade, incumbents of both parties benefitted from a symbiotic, closed-off process that allowed politicians to directly choose who their voters were. They had the luxury of picking their bosses.

Since voters passed Propositions 11 and 20 a decade ago, Californians have benefitted from having their representatives in Washington and Sacramento compete in boundaries that were drawn independently by citizens with the benefit of dozens of public hearings held all around the state. In 2011, more than 2,700 people attended and weighed in. Even more – 20,000 – submitted their ideas in writing.

In 2018 Darrell Issa determined he could no longer win in that seat and retired (although, he is now competing in the neighboring 50th district where his politics will play better).

Some public testimony was from self-interested parties, obviously. (Who flies to Sacramento to sit in a six-hour hearing to give a two-minute comment unless they have some self-interest?)  But the big shift in the process was the neutering of the official channels through legislative leadership and elected officials that drew lines, and a new power of the public – whether that is a Latino grassroots organization, an LGBTQ advocacy group, local homeowners or renters, environmentalists, farmers, social justice organizations.

Outside of the official commission work, the press covered it with the same scrutiny and insight as they would a state budget or groundbreaking legislation, helping drive the public engagement that was missing in the previous redistricting processes.  Nonprofit organizations put real dollars into outreach and public engagement to give even more fuel.

Through this process, Darrell Issa’s House seat was redrawn. His district was transformed from a hodgepodge of Republican communities to a single string of coastal cities with very similar economic, geographic and recreational characteristics along the coast.

It wasn’t drawn to be competitive among the political parties for the sake of being competitive – the law doesn’t bend that way —  but it did ensure the district reflect communities of interest in the region so voters could set their own agenda instead of remaining captive to a safe incumbent politician.

After closer and closer elections, in 2018 Darrell Issa determined he could no longer win in that seat and retired (although, he is now competing in the neighboring 50th district where his politics will play better).

While this experience is one of a Democratic operative and a Republican incumbent, there are plenty of places around the state and the country where this might have been the other way around. Or, where it was the Latino activist, Asian community, LGBTQ leadership, environmentalist, or other set of community members who, through redistricting, finally became unstuck from their otherwise entrenched politicians.

And it doesn’t even have to be a congressman or legislator – around California it could be that entrenched city council member who used to have a safe seat, the school board member who was elected only because of at-large elections, or that set of water board members that no longer represent their community.

The boundaries of the playing fields are now drawn openly in the public sphere. Not just for California’s highest offices, but legislation like the California Voting Rights Act and the FAIR MAPS Act of 2019 also means this public process is available to counties, cities, school boards, community college districts and water agencies across the state. Around the country, other states have put the power in the hands of citizens as well.

Today, I’m thrilled to begin my work in redistricting for the 2021 cycle, to assist communities here and around the country as they work through their processes.

What we’ve learned in California can be very valuable over the next two years as governments are required to let in more sunlight as they develop their redistricting plans. I’m thrilled to share those experiences and lessons and learn new ones over the next several years. Government works better when communities, local leadership and grassroots activists choose their leaders, not the other way around.

Editor’s Note: Evan McLaughlin is the vice president of Redistricting Partners, widely known for its electoral analyses and representation of  interests before the California Citizens Redistricting Commission.

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