SACRAMENTO — Deciding where to place California's new congressional seat, and which politician's territory should splinter to make room for it, will likely spark a protracted battle as Democrats seek to maintain their state domain while Republicans defend their shrinking turf.
Several Democrats here and in Washington said the state's 53rd House seat may lie somewhere in Southern California, site of much of the state's recent growth, or perhaps in the burgeoning Central Valley. Possibilities in Southern California include the Inland Empire, the South Bay and the fast-growing suburbs of north Los Angeles County, they said.
Beyond that, only one thing is clear: With wide majorities in the state Senate and Assembly and a Democrat in the governor's office, Sacramento's ruling party will control the redistricting process when it heats up this summer.
"Legislatively, they [Republicans] can't get much lower than they are," said Senate President Pro Tem John Burton (D-San Francisco). "Congressionally, clearly there will be some lost seats. We're not looking to be Sherman's march through Georgia, necessarily."
The flip side, some say, is that Democrats may not be able to go much higher. After wresting five seats from Republicans in the fall elections, said GOP Assemblyman Bill Leonard of San Bernardino, Democrats should beware of straying from their urban political strongholds and spreading themselves too thin.
"Mathematically, it will be hard for them to win any more, and it will open them up to some vulnerability," Leonard said. "You create a situation where, if it is a good Republican year, we could take a whole bunch of seats back."
Washington political analyst Charlie Cook put it more bluntly. "If they get too greedy, this could backfire on them," Cook said.
Mindful of how narrowly they achieved their recent gains, Washington incumbents are pushing for a more cautious path.
"Our first intention is sustaining the 32" seats that the GOP already holds in California, said Rep. Sam Farr of Carmel, leader of the state's House Democrats.
Other factors besides partisanship promise to make the redistricting debate exceptionally complex.
For example, Latino activists are calling for increased representation, noting that their population gains are largely responsible for the state's growth.
Most of that growth has occurred in Riverside and San Bernardino counties, and on the eastern side of the San Joaquin Valley. Yet there has long been speculation among Democrats that there could be another district created in Los Angeles where a Latino could win.
"If our community is growing in these areas . . . expectations are naturally going to be that the communities receive larger representation," said Marisa Demeo, Washington-based regional counsel for the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund.
Although Latino candidates have increasingly been successful winning state office in districts without Latino majorities, they have struggled at the Congressional level, Demeo said.
"That is why the redistricting is so important for us," she added. " . . . The fact is we still need districts where the majority of voters are Latino to guarantee Latino representation."
Another factor is California's term limits for state legislators, which have turned Sacramento into a relatively short stop for politicians.
For the first time next year, many of those voting to decide where the congressional boundary lines fall will be facing term limits--and some may be interested in creating House seats tailor-made for themselves.
Senate President Pro Tem Burton--whose late brother Phil, a powerful Bay Area congressman, once lorded over California redistricting plans--will play a major role in the process.
Burton can remain in the state Senate until 2004. He is being assisted by reapportionment experts Michael Berman and Carl D'Agostino. Berman is the brother of Rep. Howard L. Berman (D-Mission Hills).
Assembly Speaker Bob Hertzberg (D-Sherman Oaks), who will be "termed out" in 2002, will also play a major role. He said Thursday that it is too early to talk of how the districts will be redrawn.
"It's not appropriate to even think in those terms," Hertzberg said, promising a fair process in which Republicans can participate. "All there is is speculation, and I ain't speculating."
Some party loyalists are clearly relishing the political combat that is about to take place. "We love having this problem, deciding where all our cars are going to be parked," said Bob Mulholland, a California Democratic Party official. "The Republicans' parking lot is empty."
Rep. Steve Horn is one Republican incumbent who could have trouble winning after the new boundaries are drawn, Mulholland said. Horn, who represents the South Bay area, won in November by fewer than 2,000 votes.
Other Republican incumbents, such as Reps. Elton Gallegly of Simi Valley and Howard P. "Buck" McKeon of Santa Clarita, could find their districts crunched so that they have to run against one another.