YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections

Did Democrats lock themselves out of the House?

October 15, 2006|Tony Quinn | TONY QUINN is a former consultant to legislative Republicans on redistricting and was an expert witness in the lawsuit challenging the Legislature's redistricting plans in 2003.

WITH THE Mark Foley sex scandal dropping on congressional Republicans like a brick on a teacup, bipartisan decisions made five years ago to gerrymander congressional district lines in California and other states may be all that's left to save the GOP from losing control of Congress.

When the California Legislature redrew the state's political lines in 2001, the priority of both Democrats and Republicans was to put a lock on their respective districts.

Four GOP incumbent congressmen had lost in the 2000 election, and the party, fearful of losing even more in increasingly blue California, was desperate to hold on to its 20 seats in the House. Republicans offered Democrats a deal: Give us 20 safe seats in the redistricting plan, and you can do anything you want with the remaining 33.

Districts must be equally populated. But in a bipartisan gerrymander, other factors -- protecting racial minorities, ensuring compact districts -- can be easily ignored, as they were in the 2001 redistricting. Job security was uppermost in the minds of the Democratic and Republican mapmakers.

Rep. Howard L. Berman, for example, wanted to dilute the number of Latinos in his San Fernando Valley district to avoid a Latino primary challenger, and he got what he wanted. The whole deal was cemented in a meeting between Democrats and White House political guru Karl Rove.

Among the big losers was Rep. Nancy Pelosi of San Francisco, the House minority leader.

The gerrymandered lines in California amount to a Republican firewall against losses even in the worst of times, and for the GOP, these are the worst of times. The national political environment could hardly be more favorable for Democrats. Pelosi's party needs to win only 15 GOP-held districts and she would become the first Californian and first woman to be speaker of the House.

But the gerrymandering of congressional districts in California and other states is so extreme that Democrats are having trouble finding enough targets to win control of the chamber. Some analysts think that Democratic chances of winning the Senate are better because candidates run statewide.

The bible for House races is the Rothenberg Political Report, published by Stuart Rothenberg, which tracks the 435 House districts. The report lists only 41 "highly competitive" districts this fall throughout the country, 37 of which are held by Republicans. None of them are in California.

In general, the number of competitive House seats in the sixth year of an incumbent administration is much higher. President Bush is far less popular than in 2004, so one would expect him to be a drag on Republican incumbents. In 1994, the unpopular Clinton administration was the main reason that Democrats lost 52 House seats, including three in California.

But the 20-seat deal crafted by state Republicans in 2001 was part of a broader gerrymandering effort to ensure that their party would be the majority in the House even in a terrible political year. The icing on the cake was the 2003 Texas redistricting engineered by former House Majority Leader Tom DeLay. He turned a previous Democratic gerrymander into one that produced six additional GOP congressmen from Texas in 2004. That followed earlier GOP-directed gerrymandering in such states as Michigan and Pennsylvania.

Republicans, thinking strategically, combined these and other safe seats with the 20 in California to produce their majority. Congressional Democrats, by contrast, seemed more interested in protecting individual incumbents, which undercut their chances of winning nationally.

One of only two mildly competitive congressional districts in California is the 11th in the Stockton area, held by Rep. Richard W. Pombo, the controversial Republican chairman of the House Resources Committee, whom Democrats and environmentalists accuse of trying to dismantle the Endangered Species Act.

Before the 2001 redistricting, Pombo's district included heavily Democratic downtown Stockton. These voters were given to a neighboring Democrat, and Pombo's new district meandered all over the map in pursuit of Republican-voting suburbanites.

In 2003, Stockton residents sued, claiming that Pombo's district violated a California constitutional provision requiring that districts should respect city and county boundaries and be geographically compact. California's congressional Democrats and both parties in the Legislature spent a nice hunk of taxpayer dollars defending their handiwork, and Pombo's district survived.

In 2005, Democrats successfully fought to defeat Proposition 77, which would have provided for an immediate redrawing of legislative and congressional districts, despite the fact that their efforts were propping up a number of otherwise vulnerable GOP incumbents, among them Pombo.

Pelosi and other Democrats think they can defeat Pombo in November, and perhaps they will if a huge Democratic wave builds. But they certainly have made his reelection easier by giving him a highly gerrymandered district.

Without the gerrymandered districts, Democrats would certainly make some gains in the state.

So, if Pelosi comes up short of the 15 seats needed to make her the next House speaker, she'll know where to place the blame. She can just look in the mirror.

Los Angeles Times Articles