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GEORGE SKELTON / CAPITOL JOURNAL

Prop. 11 foes waging Orwellian campaign

October 09, 2008|GEORGE SKELTON

SACRAMENTO — The award for the most cynical, mendacious, Orwellian campaign of the state election season goes to the opponents of Proposition 11, the redistricting reform initiative.

Prop. 11 would strip away the Legislature's power to draw its own districts, which means the authority for lawmakers to select their own voters. It's a blatant conflict of interest.

The once-a-decade chore would be turned over to a 14-member independent citizens commission.

The ballot measure is sponsored by a long list of nonpartisan good government groups -- Common Cause, AARP, the League of Women Voters, the Los Angeles Area Chamber of Commerce, California Forward -- and backed by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger with $2.5 million of his political money.

Some Democrats also support the measure. They include former state Controller Steve Westly, former Gov. Gray Davis and former Assembly Speaker Robert Hertzberg. But most of the current Democratic hierarchy is terrified of the initiative.

After giving up on the Legislature's ever surrendering the power to shape districts -- despite its leaders' promises to do so -- the reform groups collected signatures and placed Prop. 11 on the Nov. 4 ballot.

Let's cut to the chase:

* If you believe that legislators should be held accountable at election time and face more than token opposition, Prop. 11 is a must. If you're thinking that Sacramento requires some reforming to become more responsive to California's needs, here's an excellent place to start.

* Conversely, if you believe that Sacramento is cruising along just fine and doesn't need much tinkering, vote against Prop. 11. But then you'd probably have been living in a coma.

The only intellectually honest reason to vote against Prop. 11 is that you're a true blue Democrat who toes the party line in every election and believes we'd all be much better off if Democrats totally controlled the Legislature. Democrats then would retain the power to gerrymander districts in 2011 and strengthen their majorities in the next decade.

Of course, Democrats did have that opportunity in 2001 and botched it. They conspired with Republicans to rig the districts -- and thus the elections -- to protect incumbents and the political status quo. General-election competition was kept to a bare minimum. Since then, only four seats have changed parties in 495 California legislative and congressional races.

If there'd been even a fair redistricting in 2001 -- let alone a Democratic gerrymander -- Democrats could be cleaning up in legislative and congressional races this fall.

All indications are that the California electorate will be solidly pro-Democrat on Nov. 4, and party officials are confident this will result in voters rejecting Proposition 11. The latest poll by the Public Policy Institute of California shows widespread voter ambivalence: 38% yes, 33% no, 29% undecided.

But opponents aren't making an honest partisan pitch. Instead, they're being disingenuous, to put it politely.

The very name of the opposition campaign committee -- Citizens for Accountability -- sounds like something from the pen of George Orwell. The rationale is that the independent redistricting commission would not be accountable to the voters -- as if current legislators now really are.

At least the citizens commission would be required to hold public hearings. The Legislature's redistricting always is fashioned and bartered behind closed doors.

Opponents cynically call the measure "a power grab by politicians" -- when the anti-11 honcho is a longtime politician, termed-out Senate leader Don Perata (D-Oakland). More even than losing the opportunity to increase Democratic majorities, the biggest fear of Democratic politicians -- and a few redistricting consultants -- is that they'll be stripped of power. Any power.

"Some of these things are just inherently part of the system," Perata said last week when asked about legislative redistricting at a conference on, ironically, the "crisis" in public confidence in government.

Yes, and the system isn't exactly working.

Opponents even have the chutzpa to complain that Prop. 11 "doesn't require competitive districts." No, but unlike the Legislature, its goal would not be to make districts noncompetitive.

In fact, the commission would be prohibited from discriminating against or favoring any candidate or party.

And, unlike the Legislature, the citizen body would be required to keep intact "communities of interest" and neighborhoods. It's routine in gerrymandering to split communities between two or more districts to reduce the clout of a particular group.

This occurred in 2001, when redistricting guru Michael Berman -- working temporarily for the Legislature -- removed a significant number of Latino voters from his brother Howard Berman's congressional district in the San Fernando Valley. The purpose was to protect the Democratic congressman from a potential Latino challenger.

Under Prop. 11, congressional lines still would be drawn by the friendly Legislature. Backers felt they couldn't also fight California's congressional delegation.

My favorite example of gerrymandering abuse in 2001 was the linking of Beverly Hills and Oxnard in one Senate district, the 23rd, held by Sen. Sheila Kuehl (D-Santa Monica). That occurred so map-drawers could carve a safe Republican district for Sen. Tom McClintock (R-Thousand Oaks).

McClintock's 19th District stretched up Highway 101 from Thousand Oaks through Camarillo -- skipped around Oxnard -- and continued north to Ventura and Santa Barbara. It even included the Channel Islands and Simi Valley, but not Oxnard, where Democrats outnumber Republicans 2 to 1.

Oxnard -- the state's largest strawberry producer, where nearly half the voters are Latino -- was lumped in with Beverly Hills.

Oxnard Boulevard turns into Rodeo Drive. Only Sacramento politicians could draw that map.

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george.skelton@latimes.com

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