SACRAMENTO — The same grass-roots group that launched the successful recall of Gov. Gray Davis turned its attention to the Legislature on Thursday and kicked off an initiative drive to reconfigure legislative districts so that politicians face tougher competition on election day.
Ted Costa, chief executive officer of the conservative antitax group, People's Advocate, has taken the first step toward putting an initiative before voters next November that would take redistricting out of the hands of the Legislature and give it to a panel of retired judges.
Costa does not want to wait eight years to get rid of the district boundaries drawn by the Legislature in 2001, which he describes as "bipartisan gerrymandering." If his initiative is enacted by voters, he said, the first election using a new map will be held in 2006.
California redraws the boundaries of its congressional, Senate, Assembly and Board of Equalization districts every 10 years on the basis of new census data. The last redistricting, which won the votes of both Democratic and Republican lawmakers, largely preserved the status quo and protected incumbent politicians.
On Tuesday, for example, Assemblywoman Hannah-Beth Jackson (D-Santa Barbara) said she would not run against Sen. Tom McClintock (R-Thousand Oaks) because his district had been reconfigured in 2001 to give Republicans a majority.
Costa said reform is needed to give outsiders a crack at winning seats in the Legislature.
"This issue is as good for the Democratic Party as it is for the Republican Party," he said, "because it is healthy for the two-party system, and the two-party system is healthy for everybody."
He said he expected California voters, energized by the recall election, would be ready to overhaul a once-a-decade process that fascinates few people outside of political circles.
"Redistricting -- there's no doubt about it -- when you take polls, it's hard for people to understand," Costa said. "But I think the time is right now."
Costa said the People's Advocate, based in Sacramento, would ask the same network of 150,000 volunteers that circulated petitions in the recall to collect the nearly 600,000 signatures needed to put the constitutional amendment on the ballot.
If the initiative is cleared by the attorney general and the secretary of state in the next 45 days, as expected, signature-gathering can begin in January, said Costa. He said People's Advocate would solicit donations on its Web site and from the 93,000 people on its mailing list to pay for the signature-gathering.
Under Costa's proposed initiative, the Democratic and Republican leaders of the Legislature would nominate a dozen retired state or federal judges who had never held partisan political office and had not changed their party affiliations in the previous five years. The nominees would have to pledge not to accept government posts or run for political office for at least five years.
From that pool of 12, three "special masters" would be chosen by the state's Judicial Council -- the policymaking panel for the state courts, led by the chief justice of the state Supreme Court. The three-member panel would then hold public hearings to consider redistricting plans. The panel would choose a plan, which would have to be approved by voters in a statewide election, even if it were adopted by the Legislature and signed by the governor.
Critics have long said redistricting makes seats too safe for lawmakers and creates a polarized Legislature full of strident Democrats and Republicans but few moderate lawmakers.
"Structure dictates behavior, and the structure we have created is that elected officials are picking who they want to represent, instead of the people electing their government," said Assemblyman Kevin McCarthy (R-Bakersfield), the newly chosen minority leader.
Last year, McCarthy introduced a bill to have the state's political district boundaries redrawn by a panel of five retired judges and submitted to voters for approval. The bill died in the Assembly's Elections Committee on a 2-2 vote. McCarthy said he would campaign for Costa's proposal.
Costa may find another supporter in Republican Gov.-elect Arnold Schwarzenegger, who takes office next month. During the recall campaign, Schwarzenegger proposed a constitutional amendment to have political districts reconfigured by three retired judges chosen by lottery.
"There are some details in Mr. Costa's initiative that we have not included in our proposal, but we are taking a look at it," said Schwarzenegger spokeswoman Karen Hanretty.
"We agree with the general tone," she said, "which is to create more fair and competitive districts throughout California."
Last month, a bipartisan group of nine Assembly members backed another reform bill. ACA 19, by Assemblyman Alan Lowenthal (D-Long Beach), modeled after an Arizona initiative, would create an independent redistricting commission of five people nominated by retired judges. Lawmakers are expected to consider the bill when they return in January.
Democratic leaders most likely won't favor an attempt to take away their control of a process that has given their party a strong majority in the Legislature.
Assembly Speaker Herb J. Wesson Jr. (D-Culver City) dismissed Costa's latest reform proposal.
"The speaker has more important things to do than to comment on Mr. Costa's initiative du jour," said Wesson spokeswoman Patricia Soto.