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Nunez defies Pelosi on districts

Against her wishes, the Assembly speaker proposes that a panel redraw state and federal voting boundaries.

April 19, 2007|Nancy Vogel | Times Staff Writer

SACRAMENTO — Assembly Speaker Fabian Nunez defied his counterpart in Congress on Wednesday by proposing that a bipartisan government watchdog commission redraw both legislative and congressional districts.

The proposal by the Los Angeles Democrat, which voters could decide in February, risks the wrath of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, a San Francisco Democrat who has warned Nunez that giving up the Legislature's ability to draw political districts could jeopardize the fragile majority Democrats won in Congress last November.

Nunez said that he spoke Wednesday morning to Pelosi's chief of staff, and that he would work to convince her and other members of Congress that his approach would prevent political power grabs by either party.

"What we're looking for here is balance; what we're looking for here is fairness," Nunez said. "It includes Congress. Why? Because if it's good enough for the state Legislature, it ought to be good enough for Congress."

Pelosi spokesman Drew Hammill said she hadn't seen specifics of Nunez's proposal. But Pelosi has made it clear, Hammill said, that she prefers a national standard that would establish independent redistricting commissions in all states.

Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D-San Jose), chairwoman of California's Democratic congressional delegation, said California risks disadvantaging itself by redrawing political boundaries without regard to partisan politics when other state legislatures remain free to deliberately distort districts to favor the party in power.

"Right now California is very advantaged," Lofgren said. "We have the first California speaker. We have an electorate which very much favors the new direction Californians are leading the Congress."

Nunez may find an ally in Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, a Republican who has long called it a blatant conflict for lawmakers to draw the boundaries of districts in which they run.

Schwarzenegger communications director Adam Mendelsohn praised Nunez's commitment to reform and said the governor looked forward to working with all lawmakers on the issue.

Though arcane to most voters, redistricting details are crucial to politicians. Political maps determine the ratio of Democratic and Republican voters in each district, and thus dictate how hard politicians must work for reelection.

Districts currently are redrawn by the Legislature every 10 years after the federal census.

Schwarzenegger and others complain that California's current boundaries were drawn in 2001 to protect incumbents, in essence allowing politicians to choose who they would represent instead of the other way around.

The proposal Nunez unveiled Wednesday fulfills a promise he made in 2005 after he successfully worked to defeat Proposition 77, a redistricting overhaul measure backed by Schwarzenegger. Nunez said at the time that he disliked the details of Proposition 77, which would have used retired judges to draw political boundaries, and he vowed to draft his own independent redistricting plan.

Two-thirds of the Legislature would have to approve placing the Nunez plan on the Feb. 5 presidential primary ballot. Nunez said he would work to pass such legislation within the next few weeks.

Winning Republican votes might be difficult, based on early reaction.

Assembly Republican Leader Mike Villines of Clovis welcomed the inclusion of Congress in Nunez's plan but took exception to who would draw the lines.

"Turning redistricting powers over to a commission that is comprised of partisan political appointees -- including former lawmakers and political insiders -- will do nothing to restore a healthy democracy in California," Villines said. Republicans, he said, will insist that ordinary citizens be given the job.

Under the Nunez legislation, authority to adjust the boundaries of 177 legislative, congressional and Board of Equalization districts to reflect population shifts would be taken from the Legislature and given to nine members of a 13-member body known as the Little Hoover Commission.

The Little Hoover Commission, created in 1962, is charged with investigating state government operations and recommending improvements. It periodically issues reports -- which are generally considered fair and thorough by policymakers -- on topics such as prison reform, foster care and disaster preparedness.

Current members of the commission include a retired developer, a utility executive, a former assemblywoman and a former legislative staffer.

Five members of the Little Hoover Commission are appointed by the governor. The Assembly speaker and the Senate president pro tem each make two appointments. Two Democratic and two Republican lawmakers also sit on the panel, but under Nunez's proposal, those legislators would have no involvement in redistricting.

The law that established the Little Hoover Commission dictates that no more than five members can belong to the same political party. Under Nunez's proposed legislation, any final maps must be approved by at least three Republicans and three Democrats.

nancy.vogel@latimes.com

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