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Celebrating new voting districts

Despite complaints and Republicans' threats of a challenge, almost anything would be better than having legislators once more design the districts to protect themselves, their pals and the status quo.

August 18, 2011|George Skelton | Capitol Journal
  • California Citizens Redistricting Commission members sign the resolutions certifying new voting districts on Monday. From left are Maria Blanco of Los Angeles, Jodie Filkins Webber of Norco and Libert Ontai of San Diego.
California Citizens Redistricting Commission members sign the resolutions… (Rich Pedroncelli / Associated…)

There has been grousing, moaning and buyer's remorse about the independent citizens' commission that just redrew California's political districts. But, overall, the remapping should be celebrated.

The commission faced a very low bar, of course. Practically any product would have been better than legislators again rearranging the districts to protect themselves, their pals and the political status quo.

That's what the Legislature did in 2001 during the last redistricting of legislative and congressional seats. So self-serving was that bipartisan gerrymandering that only five of the total 173 seats have changed parties since.

Before that, Democrats usually would just draw districts to blatantly benefit themselves, increasing their power in Sacramento and numbers in the California congressional delegation. They did that in 1981, when Democrats controlled both the Legislature and the governor's office during Jerry Brown's first reign.

California voters finally had enough and created the independent commission in 2008. It had 14 members — five Democrats, five Republicans and four independents.

"Gone are the days when redistricting was driven by party affiliation and incumbent protection, when over 90% of California's elected officials could count on landslide wins despite low approval ratings," Kathay Feng, executive director of California Common Cause, commented Monday as the new maps were released. Feng was a leader behind the ballot initiative that imposed the reform.

Give former Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger credit, too. He messed up other things but got this one right. His tenacious support and fundraising helped pass both redistricting reform and the new "top two" open primary system that will take effect next year.

Between these two major upheavals in California's political system, there should be a path for the election of a few more moderate and pragmatic lawmakers, an infusion necessary to reboot the Capitol and make it functional again.

Ironically, for decades Republicans led the charge for an independent redistricting commission. Understandably, they didn't trust the ruling Democrats.

Now, they're the ones squawking with buyer's remorse.

"Unfair if not unconstitutional," says state GOP Chairman Tom Del Beccaro. He says the party will "wholeheartedly support" a ballot referendum to repeal the state Senate maps. And if there's also an effort to repeal the congressional maps, the GOP will back that too, he adds.

Nobody's really complaining about the Assembly lines.

The attack on the Senate maps was launched by, naturally, Republican state senators who fear they'd lose two GOP seats under the plan. That would give Democrats a two-thirds majority, enough to pass tax increases.

Two thoughts about this:

One, the California Republican Party barely has enough money for postage, let alone paying a petition circulator at least $2 million to collect voter signatures for a ballot referendum.

Republican senators are talking big about tossing in their money, but this isn't exactly a prime fundraising time for the GOP in Sacramento. The party's not a particularly good investment for special interests. Republicans possess little power and seem incapable of exercising what they do have.

Moreover, the business community is not likely to spend money on helping Republicans overturn the citizen commission's work. It's looking to elect some pragmatists. More likely, it will write checks in next year's elections for pro-business moderates —Republicans and Democrats.

Two, it's not the district lines that are the GOP's problems. It's the party's declining share of the electorate and its losing message outside the old gerrymandered districts.

Since the 2001 redistricting, the Democrats' share of the electorate has dropped by roughly 1% to 44%, but the GOP's has fallen by 4% to 31%. The big winner has been "declined to state" independents, up nearly 6% to more than 20%.

As Schwarzenegger once admonished delegates at a GOP state convention, the party "is losing at the box office."

The GOP is turning off voters — especially the fast-growing number of Latinos — with its narrow message that sounds like immigrant bashing and doesn't permit flexibility on taxes and investment in California's problematic future.

Maybe the current crop of GOP lawmakers can't win in some of the new districts. But more centrist Republicans perhaps could, campaigning on education reform, infrastructure investment and business development, not merely demagoguing about anti-tax and anti-government.

"If Republicans would stop whining and take a look — and if there really is an anti-Obama wave coming, and if they don't run Michele Bachmann up and down the state — they've got a chance to at least hold their own and perhaps do better," says UC political science professor Bruce Cain, a redistricting expert who has helped Democrats gerrymander in the past.

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