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After the Elections, the Redistricting War Begins

November 05, 2000|A. G. Block | A. G. Block is editor-in-chief at State Net, publishers of California Journal

SACRAMENTO — Although Tuesday's elections are on most people's minds, the political map of California will soon be stuffed into a Cuisinart and blended with recent population figures to create new legislative and congressional districts. Yet, this time, redistricting will be complicated by factors previous map-makers did not have to consider: term limits, sophisticated advances in technology, dramatically altered demographics and the gutting of the Voting Rights Act.

At its most primal level, redistricting is about power: who has it and how they plan to keep it. A meandering line can make or break a political career, so placing that line has historically been under the thumb of those with the most to lose: incumbents and their surrogates.

In the past, redistricting played out in a straightforward manner. If one political party controlled both houses of the Legislature and the governor's office, it crafted enough safe districts to perpetuate its power, although the result was not always elegant. In 1981, for example, Democrats forged a congressional seat contiguous by land only at low tide in San Francisco Bay and a state Senate enclave notable for bundling Yosemite, Carmel Valley and a coastal swath near Santa Barbara. Republicans successfully challenged that plan via a referendum.

If one party does not control all the levers of power, the outcome tends to be more neutral, as happened in 1991, when a plan by the Democratic-controlled Legislature was vetoed by Republican Gov. Pete Wilson. As a result, current districts were drawn by a team of special masters appointed by the state Supreme Court.

In 2001, power once again is concentrated in Democratic hands, and much of the game will proceed along conventional lines. Incumbents will fight to protect turf, Republicans will try not to be rolled, interest groups will demand an open process and a larger voice, and the general public won't care a whit until the dust has settled--and perhaps not even then.

The Senate, Assembly and congressional delegation used to draw their own districts. But that was before Proposition 140 and term limits hit the Legislature. Even in 1991, a year after 140 passed, term limits were still an abstraction. Today, it's hard-core political reality. An Assembly incumbent now wants to shape the surrounding state Senate district because that is the next rung up the political ladder. And all state lawmakers will angle for a safe congressional harbor to suit themselves, perhaps at the expense of an incumbent congressman. Even if, as expected, California gains one or two new seats, there won't be enough congressional districts to go around, prompting potential brawls across the entire map.

How legislative leaders such as Assembly Speaker Bob Hertzberg (D-Los Angeles) and Senate President Pro Tem John Burton (D-San Francisco) deal with these term-limit-driven tensions remains to be seen, but potential conflicts will be difficult to suppress. Burton reportedly has hired redistricting maven Michael Berman to spearhead the Senate effort.

The situation is further complicated by potential results from the 2000 election. For instance, if Democratic congressional hopefuls Jane Harman and Adam Schiff oust incumbent Republicans Steve Kuykendall and Jim Rogan in Torrance and Glendale, Democrats will face a bigger problem than if the Republicans had won. Democrats can carve up Kuykendall's and Rogan's districts in 2001 and help neighboring Democrats to boot. But if Harman and Schiff win, Democrats will have two more white, Jewish incumbents to protect. Latinos may like one or two new L.A. districts for themselves, but that becomes more difficult if you have to protect Harman and Schiff.

These intraparty battles will be watched closely by representatives of various ethnic groups who want their own seat at the redistricting table and who face potential conflicts among themselves, as well as with entrenched incumbents. Adding to these concerns, some ethnic groups see their positions weakened because their leverage in past redistricting wars--the Voting Rights Act--no longer wields the same force in 2001.

The Voting Rights Act imposed some common ground rules through fear of being dragged into court. That fear has been gutted by the U.S. Supreme Court in cases such as Shaw vs. Reno, which struck down a North Carolina congressional district drawn solely on the basis of race. Race can be a factor but not the only factor, a distinction the court did not clarify. Furthermore, the dilution of the act's power may lead to the revival of the practice of either cramming ethnic neighborhoods into one district or splintering them into several districts that cannot elect an ethnic representative.

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