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California's redistricting panel can't escape partisan pressure

The voter-created commission is set to hire a map-drawing expert. But both applicants have been accused of bias by Republicans and Democrats. The fracas could be a glimpse of things to come.

March 19, 2011|By Seema Mehta, Los Angeles Times

Frustrated by blatant gerrymandering and politicians protecting incumbents above all else, voters took the redrawing of congressional and legislative districts away from state lawmakers and handed it to a new independent body. But as the new Citizens Redistricting Commission hires key staff, it is becoming clear that partisans will not give up power without a fight.

As the commission worked this week to hire voting-rights attorneys and map-making experts, accusations flew that nearly all of the applicants were too biased to shape what is supposed to be an independent process. Election-law experts say this is not surprising, given the small pool of people with deep knowledge about such matters.

"It's hard to find someone with expertise who is not a partisan," said Richard Hasen, a visiting law professor at UC Irvine.

He added that the accusations are glimpses of the political pressure the commissioners will face as they draw political boundaries for the state's 53 members of Congress, 40 state senators and 80 Assembly members by Aug. 15.

On Saturday, the commission is set to hire a map-drawing expert. The two people and firms competing for the job — Karin MacDonald of Q2 Data and Resources and Douglas Johnson of the Rose Institute — have drawn opposition from the state's Republicans and Democrats.

Interactive map: Check demographic changes in California's political districts

Democrats have argued that the Rose Institute is right-leaning, and that Johnson is a registered Republican who worked for a GOP congressman and has been involved in prior redistricting efforts that favored the GOP.

"Not only is he a Republican, he is a Republican with strong ties to Republicans," wrote Jess Durfee, chair of the state Democratic Party's redistricting subcommittee. If the commission hires Johnson, it must also hire a Democrat, Durfee said, and MacDonald does not count since she is a registered nonpartisan.

Johnson said claims that his party affiliation would taint his work are "silly." He pointed to past work in Arizona, where he said his team drew both the plan the redistricting commission adopted and the plan favored by a faction that sued the commission.

"A good consultant doesn't decide what the lines are," Johnson said. "A good consultant offers options."

State GOP Chairman Ron Nehring has argued that MacDonald is biased in favor of Democrats because of her ties to UC Berkeley professor Bruce Cain. Nehring said Cain hired MacDonald for Berkeley's Statewide Database and Research Center, is her business partner and worked as a consultant for Democrats during prior redistricting.

MacDonald, the center's director, disputed allegations of bias. In a letter to the commission, she said that she has never worked for Democrats and that Cain would play no role in drawing maps if she was hired.

The commission tangled with a similar issue Friday, when it selected a Voting Rights Act counsel. Six of the nine firms that applied for the position were alleged to be partisan. Commissioners ultimately picked Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher, which has been criticized because one of the bidding attorneys worked for Gov. Pete Wilson and was active in the state Republican Party.

Commissioners have said that they will consider bias when reviewing candidates and that a super-majority of the 14-member panel — three Republicans, three Democrats and three decline-to-state — must approve such hires and all maps.

"It's almost impossible for anything to come out of that that's partisan," said Commissioner Maria Blanco.

seema.mehta@latimes.com

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