If… if… if…

Joe Mathews
Connecting California Columnist and Editor, Zócalo Public Square, Fellow at the Center for Social Cohesion at Arizona State University and co-author of California Crackup: How Reform Broke the Golden State and How We Can Fix It (UC Press, 2010)

The arguments on redistricting offered earlier this week by Joel and Tony really amount to a series of hypothetical statements that don’t square with California’s political reality:

If the “yes’ campaign” were to convince voters that the redistricting ballot initiative is something it’s not (populist and anti-politician)….

If the redistricting issues were to attract detailed, thorough coverage from a shrinking California media that now shuns serious topics…

If Don Perata were the Easter Bunny…

I’m not a doctor, but I enjoy practicing medicine without a license. Recently, I’ve begun diagnosing a California disease called Redistricting Fantasy Syndrome. Most of the population doesn’t know enough about redistricting to be susceptible to the disease. But in certain elite precincts, RFS has become a minor epidemic, striking down otherwise sensible moderate “goo goos” who persist in the belief that good process is good for you.

The symptoms of RFS include all manner of excessive pining for redistricting reform and an elevated heart rate whenever someone recites the statistics on how few legislative seats change parties in California elections. RFS is spread through a thought virus that goes something like this:

“This wonderful, beautiful state — the state that Earl Warren and Pat Brown nobly built — is so terribly broken. Its politics don’t work. The legislature can’t reach consensus. We’ve got expensive and ineffective health care, struggling schools, jam-packed roads, crumbling waterways and a prison system so overcrowded that the feds are running much of it. The only way I see us addressing any of these problems is to change the way districts are drawn, so we might get 6 new competitive seats out of 120. Then we can turn the state around!”

This disease at first seems harmless, but because it disproportionately affects our state’s most civic-minded thinkers, it has caused outsized damage. Redistricting — and the unreasonable hopes that it can be achieved — are consuming time, energy and even Fox and Hounds space that would be better devoted to some of the state’s deeper problems. The opportunity costs of RFS are huge.

That said, I hope Tony’s right and redistricting passes. It potentially could make a small improvement in the state’s politics. But the success scenarios he offers are preposterous. This year’s initiative has the same supposed advantages that previous efforts did — media sympathy, bipartisan endorsements. There’s little reason to think that this time will be any different.

Let’s look at his arguments:

So how is the tenth time different? First, the genesis of the measure is not a political party nor a politician, but reform groups like Common Cause.

Memo from Planet Reality: Previous efforts had plenty of goo-goo support as well. In fact, the most recent failed redistricting initiative, Prop 77 in 2005,, had the backing of Common Cause’s then-president and CEO, Chellie Pingree. My reporting suggests that the 2005 push for redistricting reform began with a conversation between Pingree and Schwarzenegger in the green room of Dennis Miller’s cable TV show. Yes, when you think about it, it is fitting that an arcane political reform can boast this connection to a cultural priest of the arcane. (To be fair, it should be noted that redistricting reform has demonstrated more staying power than the comedian’s career.)

 

It can expect major editorial board and media support.

Planet Reality: redistricting will be ignored by media outlets that, to the extent they devote space and time to politics instead of celebrity, will cover the presidential campaign, the gay marriage initiative, the budget mess (and any resulting ballot measures), and probably the Humane Society’s farm animal confinement initiative (those poor little chickens in those awful cages) before they ever mention the redistricting initiative. Reapportionment might have a chance to be the 4th most important political story in the state this fall. And it says here that “Free the Poultry!” is a more interesting campaign than “Let’s Elect a Few More Moderates to The California State Legislature!” (Yes, there’s some overlap in those two campaign slogans).

And sure, the redistricting initiative may get a bunch of endorsements. That, a gallon of $4.50 gas, and $3.50 gets you a cup of joe at Starbucks. True story: in 2005, one California ballot initiative was endorsed by all 36 of the 36 largest newspapers in the state. The initiative? Prop 77.

 

If proponents can tap into voter distemper, they can make even an obscure topic like redistricting an attack on the privileges of the political class.

Planet Reality: This initiative is fronted by the increasingly unpopular Gov. Schwarzenegger and a former state controller, Steve Westly, who couldn’t beat Phil Angelides, who lost a Democratic state by nearly 20 points in a Democratic year. Tony helpfully notes that it also has the support of Gray Davis. I’m sure that will make the difference.

OK, so linking redistricting to public anger at the political class might boomerang. Of course, the redistricting cause will have the assistance of the new reform organization California Forward, headed by that noted populist and political outsider, former Congressman and Clinton chief of staff Leon Panetta. Send your pitchforks to Monterey.

Deep breath and repeat after me: Redistricting is a good idea, but it’s not a populist, anti-government idea. As a cause, redistricting is kind of like good dental hygiene. It’s something that the public should embrace, but tapping into the anger of the folks ain’t gonna make anybody floss.

 

… unless of course the proponents make the same mistakes that killed the last nine chances at reforming this arcane process.

On this point, I agree. The redistricting effort shouldn’t repeat the mistakes of previous campaigns. Unfortunately, seeking high profile endorsements and media support were how the previous campaigns were run. So let me suggest a truly new approach which avoids the mistakes of the past.

1. Get Arnold to take the dark political cloud over his head and campaign against redistricting reform. The public seems to know one thing about the governor these days: his budget proposals are bad and somehow cut education. If the public could be convinced that a vote for redistricting reform would hurt the governor and his budget plans, redistricting would have a chance.

2. Convince the editorial boards to come out against the initiative. In fact, it might be helpful to have as many media outlets and politicians as possible denounce redistricting reform as the worst idea ever. The public has so little trust in elite opinion that if the elites come out against redistricting reform, the initiative might win.

3. Threaten the public. Promise voters that if they vote this redistricting initiative down, it won’t matter, because the goo-goos will simply put yet another redistricting reform initiative on the ballot. A “Vote Yes So We Don’t Make You Vote On This Again in Two Years (Or Next Year If There’s A Special Election)” campaign might have some iconoclastic appeal.

And if nothing else, it would be honest.

 

After my previous post on this subject, I heard from a number of redistricting supporters. They suggested all kinds of other ways the initiative could win. I found the following scenario somewhat promising. What if both Obama and McCain both endorsed it? That’s unlikely, but not entirely out of the question. McCain campaigned for Prop 77. And Obama says he’s a bipartisan reformer. Endorsing redistricting would be a cheap way for the Illinois senator to prove it.

I, for one, would love to see a TV ad with the two presidential candidates giving each other a terrorist fist bump while they talk about the wonders of having a citizens’ commission draw the lines.

But even then, the initiative probably still loses.

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