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GOP Fears a Redistricting Backfire

Schwarzenegger plan is seen as jeopardizing control of Congress.

February 08, 2005|Peter Nicholas | Times Staff Writer

SACRAMENTO — Worried about losing clout in Congress, influential Republicans in Washington are telling Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger that he should drop his effort to redraw congressional voting districts in time for next year's elections and limit his focus to reshaping the state Legislature.

National Republican Party leaders -- even Schwarzenegger's closest ally in the congressional delegation, U.S. Rep. David Dreier (R-San Dimas) -- are pressing the governor to exempt Congress from his map-making.

The fear is that tinkering with the California congressional boundaries could jeopardize Republican control of the U.S. House. By some estimates, the state's 20-person GOP congressional delegation opposes the governor's effort 4 to 1.

The Republican backlash underscores a reality of redistricting: What's most important to incumbents is ensuring their own survival. Even with California Republicans confined to minority status in both the legislative and congressional delegations, many members would rather keep the existing lines than gamble on a plan that could plunk them in unfriendly districts where they would have trouble getting reelected.

Schwarzenegger has made redistricting a centerpiece of his 2005 agenda, contending that the lines now drawn protect incumbents to such a degree that races are no longer competitive and parties stand virtually no chance of losing seats they control. He would sooner scuttle redistricting altogether than agree to a compromise in which Congress is spared, the governor's aides said recently.

Schwarzenegger likes to cite a fact from last year's election: Of the 153 congressional and legislative seats that were at stake, not one changed parties.

He has been increasingly frustrated in his dealings with the Legislature, to the point where, aides say, he would like to recast the 120-member body so that centrists have a bigger voice. A common complaint about the Legislature is that it is polarized along ideological lines, with members so assured of winning reelection that they have little incentive to compromise or moderate their views.

Schwarzenegger's plan is to strip the Legislature of the power to redraw voting districts and give the job to a panel of retired judges. In theory, the judges would be less guided by partisan concerns.

Republican National Committee Chairman Ken Mehlman has told the governor's aides that he would like to see California's congressional voting districts untouched until after the 2010 census -- the normal timetable for the decennial redrawing of voting districts -- according to a person close to the Schwarzenegger administration. Tracey Schmitt, an RNC spokeswoman, declined to discuss such a conversation, saying, "We're still in the information-gathering stage."

If Schwarzenegger stands his ground, congressional Republicans may have the option of supporting a state ballot initiative later this year that would excuse Congress from any mid-decade redistricting effort.

Such a measure was submitted to the state last month by David Gilliard, a Sacramento political consultant who has discussed it with members of the state's congressional delegation. Before it could go before voters, Gilliard's proposal would need to pass review in the state attorney general's office, and then he would need to gather about 600,000 valid signatures.

No one can be certain what Schwarzenegger's proposal would mean for the power balance in Congress. In the state's delegation, Democrats outnumber Republicans 33 to 20.

"California now has more clout in the House of Representatives than at any time in previous history," said U.S. Rep. John T. Doolittle (R-Rocklin), referring to the committee chairmanships held by California Republicans.

"It would seem to me self-defeating if we set in motion forces that could result in the loss of seats in California, which in conjunction with a loss of a handful of seats elsewhere in the country could spell a return to the minority for Republicans in the House. I just don't think that's a risk worth taking."

Doolittle bristled at an argument made by proponents of new voting districts, who say that the move would bring more moderates into elective office.

"As a conservative Republican, it makes me very nervous when I hear people say that their overt objective is to remove the conservatives," Doolittle said. "I don't want to see that happen. I will fight to the death to make sure that does not happen."

The intraparty quarrel could hinder Schwarzenegger's bid to raise $50 million that would be used in his campaign for sweeping changes in the state's political order, aides said. In addition to carving new voting districts, Schwarzenegger wants to introduce state spending restrictions, merit pay for teachers and a 401(k)-style pension system for state employees.

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