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California and the West | CAPITOL JOURNAL

A Warning That Shouldn't Fall on Deaf Ears

October 29, 1998|GEORGE SKELTON

SACRAMENTO — Republican Dan Lungren is shouting into the mike--again--and beseeching the party faithful to listen up:

"Think of Gray Davis in the governor's chair and Democrats holding control of both houses of the Legislature. It's a scary thought, because the last time that happened Jerry Brown was sitting in that chair and at his right hand was none other than Gray Davis.

"We got one of the worst gerrymanders in the history of California."

There are some low-level hisses at the mention of the enemy. But even this ballroom assemblage of roughly 250 campaign volunteers-- disappointingly half the size expected--is reflecting the public at large: Eyes are glazing at the suggestion that one-party rule might return to Sacramento. And mentioning "gerrymander" mostly just conjures memories of droning poli-sci lectures.

Indeed, Lungren tends to drone, but at high volume--same inflection, same rapid speed, regardless of whether he's talking about regulation or redistricting. So it's often hard to detect his principal priorities, his main message.

"Not only can they change the face of California," Lungren warns of Davis and the Democrats. "They can change the face of America."

Yawn. Pick up another chicken wing from the munchies spread.

Change the face of California--the face of America? More political hyperbole?

No, on this one, Lungren has it about right.

*

I'll be the skunk at the picnic and point out that while voters are comfortably considering the familiar front-burner issues--education and crime, environment and abortion, taxes and guns--there'll be no greater impact from next Tuesday's election than the conveying of power to redistrict the state.

Whoever is elected governor will preside over the 2001 redrawing of California's legislative and congressional seats. That will determine the state's political power balance for the next decade--which, in turn, will affect tax levels, school funding, criminal sentencing, road building. . . .

Moreover, California will gain three to five U.S. House seats after the 2000 census, on top of the present 52. Right now, Democrats are only 12 seats short of taking back the House and dumping Speaker Newt Gingrich. With a partisan redistricting in Sacramento, California could provide most of the missing Democratic seats, assuming they're not already recaptured by 2002.

"I could move 10 seats from Republicans to Democrats," says Assembly Democratic strategist Bill Cavala, a redistricting veteran. "But probably 10 voters in California care about this."

GOP reapportionment expert Tony Quinn thinks 10 seats may be a reach. But six, he says, is a snap. He'd immediately target L.A. County Republican Congressmen James E. Rogan and Steve Horn, plus Steve Kuykendall, if he's elected Tuesday.

"In an afternoon, I can eliminate Rogan, Horn and Kuykendall," Quinn says. "It's elementary. I can eliminate six Republicans from the state delegation and do it all in one afternoon."

But he'd need a Democratic governor and a Democratic Legislature. All the signs are that's what there'll be. Davis is the front-runner. And Democrats on Tuesday are expected to retain their majorities in both legislative houses, probably even expand them. That will make them even stronger going into the crucial 2000 election.

If Lungren wins, however, reapportionment probably will wind up in the courts, as it did in 1991 after Republican Gov. Pete Wilson and the Democratic Legislature failed to compromise.

Davis, naturally, denies he'd gerrymander for crass partisanship.

"I'm going to do what's fair," he told me. "My hope is to have a redistricting plan so fair the courts would simply approve it. The days of 'to the victors go the spoils' have long since passed.' "

Right. I doubt the Democratic Party would agree--or the GOP either, for that matter.

*

Republican Secretary of State Bill Jones has a good government idea. If he's reelected--and right now that's very iffy because Jones is in a tight race against Democrat Michela Alioto--he'll sponsor legislation turning over reapportionment to a court-appointed panel. If that bill failed, as it surely would, he'd sponsor a ballot initiative in 2000.

Voters previously have rejected such proposals, but Jones thinks they now may be persuadable. After all, he notes, in this decade Californians have imposed term limits and created an open state primary.

But for now, everybody should listen to Lungren, regardless of their politics. On election day, they'll not just be voting for a person or a personality. They may well be placing a party in power for many years--perhaps even changing the political face of America.

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