WASHINGTON — Assembly Speaker Willie Brown made it clear to the California congressional delegation Tuesday that he and the Legislature would have the final say on how new political districts will be drawn this year.
In two unusual meetings with Republican and Democratic lawmakers, the San Francisco Democrat sounded conciliatory but made no promises about district boundary lines in the upcoming reapportionment.
The meetings come at a time when members of California's congressional delegation are said to be edgy about designs state legislators may have on their districts because of the new limits on legislators' terms imposed by Proposition 104. Congressional Republicans, in particular, hold bitter memories over the last reapportionment plan, basically drafted by the late Rep. Phillip Burton, that they believe set them back politically 10 years.
Under the California Constitution, the state Legislature has the responsibility for redrawing the boundary lines of congressional, state Senate, state Assembly and Board of Equalization districts in the year following each decennial census. But in 1981, the responsibility for redrawing the congressional district lines was handed over to Burton, a San Francisco Democrat who wielded enormous political power and influence.
If Brown had one message for Congress members, it was that there will be no Burton reapportionment this year. Brown promised a plan that would be "way up there in the good government category," although some are concerned it would favor the interests of state legislators over those in Congress.
"The final decision will have to be the Legislature's," Brown told reporters after the second of two meetings. "The lines will be drawn only in the committee offices in Sacramento. I don't think there will be any more people walking in with handcrafted proposals, at least elected officials walking in with handcrafted proposals."
As a result of last year's census, California is expected to gain at least seven House seats. Final census figures are not expected to be released until July 15, when redistricting efforts will begin in earnest. Since the Legislature is expected to end its session Sept. 3, Brown said he will ask Gov. Pete Wilson to call the Legislature into special session to give lawmakers extra time to work out a plan.
In addition to creating the seven new seats, which reflect California's huge population growth during the 1980s, other factors will complicate this year's reapportionment plan. Unlike 1981, when Democrats were free to do what they wanted because they controlled both houses of the Legislature and held the governor's office, the majority party this year must deal with Wilson, a Republican who could veto any plan he believes is unfair.
Minorities and interest groups such as the League of Women Voters are also expected to challenge any plan they do not believe is fair in representing the broad diversity of interests in California.
Brown cautioned a large group of both House members and state lawmakers, who accompanied the Speaker to the meeting, that discussions they hold with each other may ultimately be brought out in a court case. He cited subpoenas issued to Los Angeles County supervisors in a legal battle over the county's redistricting plan. Brown said they could be questioned in court about "any conversation held anywhere on reapportionment between any two people."
The possibility that seven additional seats may be vacated by Congress members who are lining up to run for California's two seats in the Senate may ease some of the political tensions that could grow between state and federal officeholders. With seven new seats as a result of the census and as many as seven vacated for the Senate races, enough seats may be open to satisfy state lawmakers wanting to jump to the House to escape the term limits approved by voters last November.
Against that backdrop, Brown met first with a small group of Republicans led by Rep. John Doolittle (R-Rockland), the lawmaker designated as the GOP point man in deliberations over the congressional reapportionment. Both Brown and Doolittle called the meeting unprecedented.
Afterward, Doolittle said he was very pleased with the meeting.
"Ten years ago, when we didn't have a Republican governor or a Deukmejian-appointed Supreme Court, we didn't have much to say about reapportionment. We were basically shut out of the process. I remember that very vividly. Things are a little different this time."
Doolittle said that with the congressional delegation expected to jump from the current 45 members to 52 after the reapportionment, he believes a 26-26 split between Republicans and Democrats "will be fair." Currently, Democrats hold a 26-19 edge. Doolittle said that before the Burton plan 10 years ago, Republicans pulled within a 22-21 margin in the House. So he considers his 50-50 goal in the ballpark.
When the subject of a 50-50 split came up, Brown was noncommittal, lawmakers at the meeting said.
After the Doolittle meeting, Brown met with an unusual gathering of more than 40 state and local lawmakers to discuss reapportionment. Brown also invited a small group of reporters into the room.
On the Democratic side, the lead negotiator will be Rep. Vic Fazio (D-West Sacramento). Fazio said Democrats accept the role that Brown and the Legislature will play in drawing up the congressional plan.
"This is the post-Burton era, so we don't have any one person making the decisions," Fazio said.
Fazio conceded that "term limits may motivate some state legislators to look to a future in Washington," but he said such challenges "have always been there."