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Redistricting Defanged by Energy Crisis

Democrats and Republicans may actually get along.

April 22, 2001|SUSAN F. RASKY | Susan F. Rasky is senior lecturer in the Graduate School of Journalism at UC Berkeley

BERKELEY — If it weren't for the energy crisis, which is rapidly becoming a budget crisis, the subject consuming Sacramento about now would be redistricting. Redistricting season opened officially late last month, when the U.S. Census Bureau released the detailed population figures the Legislature will use to redraw district lines for its members and for members of the California congressional delegation.

No process in government is more nakedly or purposefully political. The U.S. Supreme Court, perhaps inadvertently, underscored that point last week in its decision on a long-disputed congressional district in North Carolina. In effect, the court ruled that state legislatures can gerrymander to their hearts' content as long as the purpose is to enhance partisan advantage rather than solely to boost the chances for election of candidates from a particular race or ethnicity.

The party with enough votes to decide where the new political lines go can determine the partisan makeup of the Legislature and the House of Representatives not only for the next election, but for the next decade. That's why the stakes were so high in the 1998 gubernatorial race and in last year's legislative elections.

Gray Davis' gubernatorial victory and Democratic gains in both election cycles make California one of 21 states in the country in which both the legislature and the governorship are controlled by the same party, and one of only eight states where that party is Democratic.

But the sweet visions of a partisan gerrymander that danced in the heads of Sacramento Democrats for 18 months, and the various schemes for revenge by ballot initiative or court challenge that comforted Sacramento Republicans, have given way to a new, shared nightmare:

What if voters angry over skyrocketing energy prices, rolling blackouts and now the threat of higher taxes or budget cuts in popular programs decide to throw the bums out in 2002? And not just the Democratic bums who are supposed to be in charge of the Legislature, but the Republican bums who supported energy deregulation in the mid-'90s?

Nothing concentrates the political mind like the prospect of involuntary retirement. The energy mess is opening the way for a very different kind of gerrymander than anyone in or out of Sacramento expected. As one leading Republican on the elections and reapportionment committee put it, "Given the uncertainty about Gray Davis' strength, and given the uncertainty about blackouts next year, the Democratic definition of a safe seat changes."

Consider the current situation in the state capital. Davis may be bearing the brunt of media scorn and voter anger for not delivering on his vows to hold electricity prices down, ensure adequate power supplies or punish energy producers that have manipulated the markets. But the Legislature hasn't got much to show either for a four-month "emergency" session that has produced exactly one new conservation law--two if you count the technical correction of the first one--and a series of measures granting the governor authority to engage in energy-supply purchases that now appear to be costing millions of dollars more than anyone anticipated and eating away the budget surplus.

Before the phrase "average cost of a kilowatt hour" entered the political vocabulary, this year's assorted redistricting scenarios shared a few common themes. First, a presumption that Democrats would re-carve the congressional districts artfully enough to shore up swing seats, like those of Reps. Ellen O. Tauscher in the Bay Area, Lois Capps in Santa Barbara and Jane Harman of Rolling Hills.

Second, that the essentially Democratic district in Long Beach now represented by moderate Republican Rep. Steve Horn would be redrawn to assure Democratic victory, or more likely collapsed and parceled out to best suit other Democratic needs. Third, that California's new 53rd congressional district would be lodged somewhere in San Bernardino or Riverside and would, however it was configured, result in a net gain to Democrats, who dominate the current congressional delegation 32 to 20.

In the state Assembly and Senate, where Democrats are shy by only a few seats in each chamber of the two-thirds majorities, the decision about where and how to rearrange the map was essentially a calculation about greed. That super-majority is attractive, because it is both veto-proof and sufficient to pass the budget and other important bills--including redistricting plans--without any need for Republican votes.

On the other hand, how close to the magic two-thirds number is it worth getting when the governor belongs to the same party, and how brazenly can existing GOP districts be sliced and diced when Republican votes are still necessary to approve this year's redistricting legislation?

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