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DECISION 2000 / CALIFORNIA | LEGISLATURE

Democrats in Control of Redistricting

With election gains and Davis as governor, the party is poised to consolidate power by drawing district lines for the next decade.

November 09, 2000|MIGUEL BUSTILLO and CARL INGRAM | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

With Tuesday's gains in the California Legislature, Democrats are assured of dominating the politically lucrative process of redrawing the state's legislative and congressional districts for the next decade.

Republicans, however, could console themselves that final election results early Wednesday showed them fending off Democrats' well-financed push to win two-thirds majorities in the 80-seat Assembly and 40-seat Senate.

Such a super-majority would have allowed Democrats to pass the state budget without appeasing GOP opponents, and to override the governor's vetoes. It would have made it simpler for Democrats next year to pass a partisan redistricting plan that was immune to a referendum or court challenge, though Democratic leaders said talk of such stratagems was overblown.

Nonetheless, the Democrats' sizable election victories--four additional seats in the Assembly, taking them to 50, and possibly one more seat in the Senate, taking them to 26--mean that one political party will have virtually unchecked power over redistricting for the first time in 20 years.

To a great extent, Republicans will be at the mercy of the Democratic majority.

"If [Republicans] think they are going to reverse anything, they are nuts," said Tony Quinn, a GOP veteran of past redistricting efforts.

The Democratic gains represent the most Assembly seats held by the party in the lower house since 1976, and helped increase the Democrats' powerful Latino Caucus from 20 to 22 seats.

As a result, "It's going to be a different kind of reapportionment," said Sen. Richard Polanco (D-Los Angeles), leader of the Latino Caucus. "With the increase in [Democratic] membership, the reapportionment plan will be a much less complicated process" than when district lines were last redrawn in 1991, he said.

Democrats controlled the Legislature in 1991, but Republicans held the governor's office, and Gov. Pete Wilson vetoed their redistricting plan. In the fracas that followed, a panel of judges was put in charge of the process, but wound up using much of the Democrats' original plan, particularly in suburban areas. Those areas have now become the battleground for control of both houses--and their shifting demographics have increasingly tended to favor Democrats.

With Democratic Gov. Gray Davis, Democrats will be able to pass a redistricting plan--enacted after each decennial census--next year without worrying about a veto. And Republicans may have to seek a referendum or ask the courts to intervene.

"Redistricting is the single most partisan act a political party can undertake," Senate GOP Leader Jim Brulte (R-Rancho Cucamonga) said. "Asking people to be less than partisan when they do that is asking a lot. But we will ask. And we'll see what happens."

Assembly Speaker Bob Hertzberg (D-Sherman Oaks) downplayed the Democrats' advantage, promising fairness in the redrawing of borders that can make or break political careers.

"We just captured 50 seats by wide margins. That's fairness," Hertzberg retorted when asked whether his pledge meant Democrats would not attempt to shore up their majorities.

In the Assembly, Republicans succeeded in defending all of their incumbents despite badly losing the money race. But they lost three seats opened up by term limits or GOP attempts at higher office.

Monterey County Supervisor Simon Salinas easily beat Republican Jeff Denham to claim a coastal seat long coveted by Democrats. Outgoing Assemblyman Peter Frusetta (R-Tres Pinos) had beaten back several Democratic attempts to unseat him, but was eventually forced out by term limits.

Democrat Rebecca Cohn beat out Republican Sue Jackson to win a highly sought-after Silicon Valley seat being vacated by Assemblyman Jim Cunneen (R-San Jose), who was running for Congress. Cunneen lost the hotly contested House race to Assemblyman Mike Honda (D-San Jose).

Democrat Gloria Negrete McLeod beat Republican Dennis Yates to fill the Pomona-area seat vacated by Nell Soto this spring to move to the Senate in a special election.

And Alameda County Supervisor Wilma Chan, a Democrat, crushed independent Assemblywoman Audie Bock of Piedmont, who embarrassed Democrats a year ago by winning the Oakland-area seat as a Green Party member in a stunning upset.

In the Senate, Republicans lost one seat when incumbent Sen. Richard Rainey (R-Walnut Creek) was handily defeated by Assemblyman Tom Torlakson (D-Antioch) to represent Contra Costa County in the season's priciest legislative race, topping out at well over $5 million.

Republicans were in a dead heat to win the Stockton-area seat being vacated by Sen. Patrick Johnston (D-Stockton), who is being forced out by term limits. Assemblyman Michael Machado (D-Linden) led his Republican opponent, Lodi Councilman Alan Nakanishi, by only 543 votes with all precincts reporting. But late ballots were still being counted Wednesday, leaving the outcome uncertain.

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