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The Real November Stakes: Who Controls Reapportionment

October 18, 1998|Tony Quinn | Tony Quinn, a business consultant, was a member of the Legislature's reapportionment staff in 1971 and 1981

SACRAMENTO — When political insiders look at the California governor's race, they see far more than two nice guys sparring over crime and education. They see two elections next month: one for governor and one to decide much of federal policy for the next decade. For the next governor will preside over the redrawing of legislative and congressional districts in 2001, and that reapportionment might decide which party controls the House of Representatives and thus congressional policymaking.

Three times in the past 50 years, California has dominated reapportionment politics in Congress and, indirectly at least, control of the House. In 1951, a Republican gerrymander to maximize seats gave the GOP just the number it needed to seize the House after Dwight D. Eisenhower's landslide in 1952.

In 1961, Assembly Speaker Jesse M. Unruh drew a Democratic gerrymander and delivered nine new liberal Democratic congressmen to a grateful Kennedy administration, which used them to break the old Southern Democratic hold on key House committees. In 1981, the late Rep. Phil Burton engineered another Democratic gerrymander and sent six new Democrats to the House, slowing President Ronald Reagan's momentum.

The winner of next month's gubernatorial election will be similarly positioned to boost, or protect, his party's clout in the next century. If Democrat Gray Davis wins and the Democrats hold onto the Legislature, they can undo the court-drawn legislative and congressional reapportionment plan adopted when Gov. Pete Wilson and Democrats couldn't agree in 1991. Republicans benefited from that plan because it rewarded GOP-leaning suburban growth areas with additional seats.

On the other hand, if Republican Dan Lungren is victorious, even saddled with a Democratic Legislature, he could forestall a Democratic gerrymander or force the issue back to courts. Republicans will again be looking for ways to reward growing suburbs with more seats, and a court-drawn plan would probably grant that wish.

Perhaps the key issue of the next reapportionment will be Latino representation, sure to rise because of the fast-growing Latino population and its increased political awareness. If the courts redraw the districts, they will have to increase Latino representation, but not necessarily in ways that Democrats would prefer.

Los Angeles County will be the key battleground. Given current demographics, a court-designed reapportionment would redraw the lines to give Latino voters greater clout in districts now held by such Anglo Democrats as Reps. Howard L. Berman, Henry A. Waxman and Brad Sherman. It is conceivable that such a plan could reduce Anglo Democrats in the San Fernando Valley and on the Westside to a single seat. A court plan could also reduce black political representation as black districts become more Latino.

But if Davis is governor, Anglo and black Democrats would see to it that increased Latino representation comes at the expense of L.A. Republican districts. With clever penmanship, the Republican districts of Reps. James E. Rogan, David Dreier and Steve Horn, as well as of current Assemblyman Gary Miller (who defeated Rep. Jay Kim in the primary and is favored to win in November), which border growing Latino neighborhoods, could be dismembered or compacted into one or two safe GOP districts, leaving the remainder to Latinos. Add to the total the seat of departing Democratic Rep. Jane Harman, which Republican Assemblyman Steve T. Kuykendall is favored to win, and there are five GOP districts that could be collapsed in a Democratic gerrymander. Other GOP seats around the state could be similarly endangered, so it is not hard to make up half the distance to a Democratic House just by line-drawing in California.

Since the last reapportionment, there has been a general decline in registered Republicans in the L.A. Basin and a transformation of Anglo Democratic neighborhoods into Latino ones. Accordingly, eight white guys will be looking for ways to save their political scalps in the next reapportionment. Add to that the fact that the districts of black Reps. Maxine Waters and Juanita Millender-McDonald are or will shortly be majority Latino, and the caldron of 2001 reapportionment begins to take shape.

Democrats face the prospect of Republican governors in almost every other big state, some with GOP legislative majorities as well. Thus, they must win the California governorship both to balance likely House losses in these other states and to protect their senior Democrats like Waxman and Berman from being swamped in their own districts.

But Republicans must hold onto the governorship because their current narrow margin in the House depends on it. A shift of six seats in California from Republican to Democratic control, combined with potential losses of Republican-held districts in the Northeast and Rust Belt states over the next decade, could deny them their House majority.

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