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State's Redrawn Congressional Districts Protect Incumbents

Politics: Remapping has eliminated a handful of 'swing' areas and diminished competition. Lack of close races has serious effects, pundits say.

February 09, 2002|JEAN MERL | TIMES STAFF WRITER

When the California Legislature redrew the boundaries for congressional districts last year, insiders promptly labeled the result the Incumbent Protection Plan.

In a rare burst of bipartisan cooperation, legislators did their best to make all districts either safely Democratic or safely Republican; thus they sharply curtailed the likelihood of competition this year.

As a result, most of the action will come in the March 5 primary battles, when candidates compete for their party's nomination.

"The redistricting makes the November elections all but meaningless," said Allan Hoffenblum, publisher of the California Target Book, which tracks the state's congressional and legislative contests.

That is not to say there is nothing on the election horizon to interest voters. Central Valley Democratic Rep. Gary Condit's relationship with missing Washington intern Chandra Levy has set up a tough primary fight in the 18th District, and some Democrats fear that they might lose the supposedly safe seat in November if Condit wins the primary.

A few other hot primary races are shaping up, especially in the two districts with open seats, including the 39th in southeast Los Angeles County.

Still, the overall lack of competition is bound to affect the political process in both positive and negative ways. On the plus side, it can foster experience, give representatives the clout of seniority and allow them to focus on issues and less on getting reelected.

But it can also discourage worthy challengers and dampen voter interest, experts say. Many believe that the disadvantages of safe districts outweigh the benefits.

The once-a-decade reapportionment process eliminated the handful of moderate, "swing" districts that, in the 2000 elections, helped make California a key battleground in the two major parties' continuing fight for control of the House of Representatives.

Democrats prevailed in all five of the state's fiercest contests, fending off a strong Republican challenge in the Central Valley, capturing an open formerly GOP seat in the Silicon Valley and knocking off three Republican incumbents in Southern California.

Democrats, who control the Legislature, decided against trying to pick up more seats. They opted to protect all 32 of their incumbents while preserving the GOP's roster of 20 seats; Republicans went along with the plan. Maps for state Senate and Assembly districts followed similar incumbent-protection patterns.

(Population gains reflected in the 2000 census gave California a 53rd seat, and the maps were drawn to ensure that it goes to a Democrat this fall.)

None of this surprised political veterans, including former Rep. Leon E. Panetta, a Democrat who represented Monterey and Santa Cruz before joining the Clinton administration in 1993.

'First Order ... Is to Protect Your Rear End'

"With redistricting, the first order of business is to protect your rear end," said Panetta, now director of the Panetta Institute at Cal State Monterey Bay.

"Everybody kind of winks at each other. They all know it is basically about protecting seats, but I think there is a price to be paid for that" in voter apathy, he said.

"The more competitive the districts are, the more people get involved in our system of government, and the representative also has to be more involved and more sensitive" to district needs and sentiments, Panetta said.

The changes in Los Angeles County's coastal 36th District illustrate how the remapping worked to the benefit of incumbents from both parties.

With registration nearly evenly split between the two parties, it wasn't a safe seat for either. Democrat Jane Harman won in 1992 with a high-spending campaign and a politically moderate platform. When she gave it up in 1998 to make an unsuccessful run for governor, middle-of-the-roader Steven T. Kuykendall took it into the Republican column.

Two years later, in a nearly $4-million contest that attracted money and attention from across the country, Harman defeated Kuykendall, winning by less than 2 percentage points.

Now map makers have lopped the heavily Republican Palos Verdes Peninsula from the district and added Democratic neighborhoods on the north and east. That increased the Democrats' 41%-39% registration edge to 46% to 33%. The peninsula went to the new 46th District of Rep. Dana Rohrabacher, maintaining a strong GOP base for the Orange County Republican.

Similar scenarios occurred in other once-competitive districts. In the suburbs northeast of Los Angeles, then-state Sen. Adam Schiff (D-Burbank) defeated Rep. James E. Rogan (R-Glendale) in an $11.5-million contest that broke the spending record for a House race.

Map makers widened the Democrats' advantage, 46% to 33%, in Schiff's new district and gave the largely Republican city of La Canada Flintridge to Rep. David Dreier (R-San Dimas), which helped give the GOP an 11-point registration edge in his new district.

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