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Dems may thwart remap effort

Opposition from Democrats in Congress could derail plans that would change the way the state's voting districts are drawn.

February 25, 2007|Nancy Vogel | Times Staff Writer

SACRAMENTO — The new dynamic in Washington, with Californian Nancy Pelosi as House speaker, threatens to thwart an effort by state political leaders to overhaul the way voting districts are drawn.

Fresh from their victories in the November election, Democrats in Congress don't want to risk their fragile majority. Many Republicans don't want their relatively safe seats threatened either.

Their opposition promises to crimp an effort by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, state Assembly Speaker Fabian Nunez (D-Los Angeles) and others to change how California draws political boundaries every 10 years to accommodate population shifts.

Nunez said he thinks he will have to exempt Congress from legislation he is crafting to have California's political boundaries drawn by a nonpartisan panel, rather than by politically driven state lawmakers.

Then only state legislative districts would be drawn independently.

Otherwise, Nunez said, opposition from the powerful Pelosi (D-San Francisco) and others would be enough to derail his efforts.

"The best way to secure its passage is to not have a $10-million campaign against it," Nunez said. "And Congress will wage a $10-million campaign against it."

California could threaten the slim Democratic majority by giving up the ability to draw districts advantageous to Democrats, said Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D-San Jose), chairwoman of California's Democratic delegation.

"We're finally about to deal with the Iraq war issue, we're finally taking on global climate change, energy independence -- things we've been stonewalled on for a dozen years -- and there's great interest that these efforts not be short-circuited," Lofgren said.

Redistricting is crucial to politicians. It determines the ratio of Democrats and Republicans in each district and thus how hard politicians will have to work for reelection.

Sometimes the process shapes their futures: The district in which someone hopes to run can be drawn to exclude his or her home. And the mapmaking can have far-reaching effects on the balance of power in state legislatures and Congress.

Nunez said Pelosi didn't tell him directly that she would fight a redistricting initiative if it included Congress. He said he "heard it from many other people" that she and other members of Congress would campaign to kill it.

Pelosi spokesman Drew Hammill said the speaker prefers a national overhaul of the redistricting process and would need more details than Nunez has offered before she could consider his plan.

Lofgren is writing legislation that would require every state legislature to yield redistricting authority to an independent group of citizens, as several states, including Arizona and Idaho, already do. Lofgren carried similar, unsuccessful legislation last year that was backed by Pelosi.

Nunez said he understood Pelosi's and Lofgren's position: "They've got to have a national view on this."

But in appeasing those powerful potential opponents, Nunez may create another much closer to home.

Schwarzenegger spokesman Aaron McLear said the governor believes that districts for Congress, not just the Legislature, should be drafted by people who are not lawmakers.

"That's what his goal is right now," McLear said. "Comprehensive redistricting reform."

McLear said it was unclear whether the governor would support a redistricting measure that did not include Congress.

Schwarzenegger's backing is critical. He has said he would endorse a relaxation of term limits -- a pet project of the speaker's that could stretch his stay in office -- only if the Legislature comes up with a redistricting overhaul.

The governor ran into resistance from Washington in 2005, when his special election agenda included a ballot initiative that would have used retired judges to draw districts. Many of Schwarzenegger's fellow Republicans in Congress urged him to abandon the measure because it could have jeopardized their party's control of Congress.

Some Democrats, including Pelosi and Rep. Howard L. Berman of Valley Village, also opposed the measure.

They joined with a Republican, Rep. John T. Doolittle of Roseville, to urge the Federal Elections Commission to allow them to raise unlimited amounts of money to fight the proposal.

Voters rejected the initiative, as they have rejected four other redistricting proposals since 1982. Any overhaul the Legislature passed this year would also be subject to voter approval.

But the governor has not given up. In December, he announced support for a proposed constitutional amendment that would use an 11-member panel of politically diverse citizens to draw boundaries.

At the time, Schwarzenegger noted that in the last three general elections, only four of 459 congressional and legislative seats up for grabs in California changed party hands.

That is partly because the last time the Legislature redrew boundaries, in 2001, Republicans and Democrats agreed to maintain the existing ratio of power.

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