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Go, Fabian, Go

Sacramento politics might alter the presidential race, and that would be a good thing for all Californians.

February 15, 2007

FROM LOS ANGELES to the Sierras, from Crescent City to the Colorado River, Californians have been united in their demand for one thing: more elections.

OK, not really. Not at all, in fact. But the state Senate's action Tuesday to move up next year's presidential primary to February while hanging on to the state primary in June and the general election in November is good news for voters three times over. Stay with us for a moment.

The big prize is the chance to eliminate from California politics a quietly cynical and corrosive conflict of interest: the power of elected officials to cherry-pick their own voters by drawing their own district lines. Redistricting reform may not be the hottest of topics in the grocery store checkout line, but if the state gets it, and if it's done right, it could spur a more responsible era of lawmaking and more confidence in our democratic process.

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger presented a good redistricting plan in 2005, but voters who had grown weary of the governor's tactics and rhetoric -- and of his foisting another election on them -- soundly defeated it. Now lawmakers have zeroed in on a plan to give line-drawing power to a citizens commission, although they are trying to retain too much power over selecting panelists. If the politicians back off and leave the state with a truly independent panel, it would be a giant step forward.

Lawmakers, for their part, will give up power to pre-select their voters only if they get to relax term limits. As it happens, looser term limits are at least as good for the state as they are for politicians, who still would be held to a total 12 years in the Legislature. That would give them more than the current six years in the Assembly or eight in the state Senate, but less than the combined 14 they now can serve in both houses. We'd prefer doing away with term limits altogether, but that is deemed a political nonstarter.

Assembly Speaker Fabian Nunez, serving his last term, wants one more, so he is embracing redistricting reform to get it. All he needs to do is get the package to California voters before he's termed out in December 2008. The June primary would be too late because that's when he would be running for reelection, if he could. He needs an earlier ballot, one that would include term limits, redistricting and, of course, a presidential primary. The presidential race offers Sacramento politicians a high-minded rationale for moving the primary. It's not about them, you see, but about the interest of the state to be a player in the presidential election.

It's all good, though. California weighs in early for president, relaxes its term limits and, most important, finally strips lawmakers of the power to shape districts. Yes, there is an element of crass politics to this Fabian Nunez Memorial Primary, but it's crass politics in the service of three -- count 'em -- goals. If only self-interest in Sacramento could regularly pay such dividends.

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