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Drawing the line

Democratic leaders in Sacramento and D.C. need to quit hedging and back nonpartisan redistricting.

February 27, 2007

THE DRIVE TO GET California politicians out of the business of selecting their own voters by shaping their own districts may be derailed by the speakership of Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco). Although not long ago it was Republicans who didn't want to risk losing any of their California seats, it's now Pelosi and nervous Democrats who are threatening to scuttle badly needed reform by putting their own interests first. They should back down, and quickly.

Redistricting reform may be a low-profile issue, but it's an important one. Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger has twice called for an end to the unacceptable status quo in which Sacramento lawmakers divvy up state and congressional districts among their parties when new census figures come out every 10 years.

The party leaders who control the line-drawing reward friends -- and politicians who prove to be especially adept at raising money -- by designing legislative districts that incumbents can easily defend. But that's not even the seamy part. With the genius of chess masters and the artistry of Renaissance painters, creative partisan mapmakers plot the moves of their favorites from the Assembly to the state Senate and then on to the promised land: Congress, the land of no term limits.

Early this year in Sacramento, in the euphoria of bipartisanship, Democrats grudgingly signed on with Schwarzenegger in his latest call for redistricting reform.

Momentum built as state lawmakers put their chess-playing skills to work linking district reform to rolling back their own term limits. With the prospect of more time in office, politicians found the loss of their district-shaping power palatable.

But Senate President Pro Tem Don Perata (D-Oakland) was candid from the start: He wasn't going to sign on to any plan that could cost Democrats their newly won control of Congress.

So now Democrats are hedging. Sure, they say, let a citizens commission draw the lines for the Assembly, the state Senate, the state Board of Equalization. But not Congress.

Without Congress, though, there is no meaningful reform. Leaving state party leaders with the power to draw congressional lines leaves them with the power to reward and punish candidates rising through the ranks today. Raise a lot of money for the party and they just may draw a congressional district chock-full of voters predisposed to vote for you. Disregard your fundraising chores or vote the wrong way on an important bill and your political future may be over.

Congressional lines must be part of the package. Schwarzenegger is right to insist on it. It would be foolish to expect voters to loosen their grip on state term limits if lawmakers cannot relinquish their stranglehold on districts.

As for Pelosi, here's a radical notion: Trust the voters to pick the people they want to represent them.

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