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Democrats Rule the Redistricting Roost in California

Politics: The GOP holds no majority in the Legislature. But kicking them while they're down could backfire.


For California's battered Republican Party, good news is a relative thing. And when it comes to redistricting, the best news is that things can't get much worse.

In gaining seats in the last several elections, Democrats have knocked just about all the vulnerable GOP incumbents out of Washington and Sacramento.

The Democrats now enjoy virtually unfettered control of the process to remap the state's congressional and legislative lines: For the first time in nearly 20 years, the same party holds both the Legislature and the governorship. So they might be tempted to try to pad their majorities by drawing the maximum number of Democratic seats possible, giving them a shot at a veto-proof two-thirds super-majority in both houses of the state Legislature.

But doing so could put some of their own incumbents at risk. "It becomes a zero-sum game," said Tim Hodson, director of the Center for California Studies at Cal State Sacramento.

'Only a Finite Number of Democrats'

"There's only a finite number of Democrats, and if you divide them too thinly, you may pick up extra seats, but suddenly you've got a number of marginal seats that in a bad year can be lost."

Democrats now control the Assembly, 50 to 30, and the state Senate, 26 to 14. They hold a 32-20 margin in the congressional delegation, with California gaining a seat next year.

At one time, Democrats spoke of gaining half a dozen or more California congressional seats in 2002, enough to almost single-handedly win back control of the House of Representatives. But now party strategists expect a more modest pickup, topping out around three seats.

One problem is the scandal surrounding Democratic Rep. Gary A. Condit of Ceres, which robs his party of what has been a safe seat in the Central Valley.

Another problem is how to deal with the party's restive ethnic constituencies. Democrats are facing pressure both to protect California's few remaining black legislators and to expand the ranks of Latino lawmakers to reflect Latinos' explosive population growth over the last decade.

Much of that growth occurred in the South-Central Los Angeles area, long the hub of black political power in California.

Last week a pair of Latino advocacy groups presented the Legislature with a plan to create several congressional districts with heavily Latino populations. The plan would also protect the state's historically African American congressional districts.

"The primary source of growth in California was in the Latino community," said Steve Reyes, an attorney with the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, which helped draft the proposal. "We want to make sure that any plan adopted by the Legislature does reflect that voice."

But Democratic leaders in Sacramento and Washington have made it clear that their priority will be protection of the party's sitting lawmakers, even at the expense of increased Latino representation.

GOP Inclined to Back Incumbent Protection

Republicans, struggling to keep a California toehold, are inclined to go along with such an incumbent protection plan, insiders say. The party has all but conceded to Democrats the one new congressional seat.

Approval of the new congressional map is up to state legislators, who must finish the job by the time their session ends in mid-September. Though Democrats have a solid majority in both the Assembly and state Senate, party strategists would like to secure passage of the map on a two-thirds vote, a margin that would eliminate the chance of a ballot measure next year challenging the remap plan. That two-thirds vote would require at least some Republican support.

One GOP strategist involved in talks with Democrats said his party has a modest bottom line, given its poor bargaining position: "The plan hopefully won't leave us worse off than we are now and perhaps give us a chance to pick up some seats over the next decade."

Indeed, the greatest conflicts may arise between Democrats in Washington and those in Sacramento, who face term limits and may be eyeing the next rung up the job ladder.

"Why should a termed-out legislator buy a deal that's been cooked up by a bunch of congressmen when that termed-out legislator might very well have an interest in going to Congress?" asked Tony Quinn, a GOP expert on redistricting.

Drawing additional Democratic seats might be one way to alleviate some of the intramural tensions, giving eager aspirants more career opportunities outside Sacramento.

Among GOP lawmakers, Reps. Doug Ose of Sacramento, Richard W. Pombo of Tracy and Stephen Horn of Long Beach are seen as the most vulnerable to Democratic map-makers. Instead of taking Democrats from Condit's district, analysts say, strategists might instead draw them off from Rep. Robert T. Matsui of Sacramento, who probably could spare the votes and still win easily.

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