The Real Story Behind the Attempt to Kill Redistricting Reform

Tony Quinn

Political Analyst


Sacramento Bee columnist Dan Morain let the cat out of the bag last Sunday.  In his Bee column, he discussed the sudden passion of billionaire entertainment mogul Haim Saban for getting rid of the Citizens Redistricting Commission that is supposed to draw new legislative district lines in 2011.   The Commission was established by Proposition 11, passed in 2008, but a number of congressional Democrats are pushing a ballot measure for this November to repeal the commission and return line drawing to the legislature.

This dubious measure, fronted by UCLA law professor Dan Lowenstein, comes at a time when approval for the legislature is hovering at about 10 percent.  So it seems unlikely the people will vote to restore to indolent incumbents the right to draw their own district lines.  But that’s not really what’s at stake here; this is about a reach for raw political power, and thanks to the $2 million contribution from Saban, the power grab initiative will make the fall ballot.

Why would Saban, who actually supported Proposition 11 in 2008, want to kill it in 2010?  Morain provides the answer: “Saban makes no secret of his passion and it is not reapportionment.  ‘I’m a one issue guy and my issue is Israel,’ Saban told the New York Times in 2004.

So there you have it, California redistricting reform must be killed to save the State of Israel.  I kid you not.  You see, Israel is deeply threatened by another measure that will be on the November ballot.   What does this measure do, arm Iran, give nukes to Hamas?  No, it brings congressional districts under Proposition 11, meaning the sweetheart plan passed in 2001 to save every member of congress from pesky voters would not be possible in 2011.  And how does this threaten Israel?  Answer: Congressman Howard Berman.  Berman is the chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee and a strong supporter of Israel. 

Problem is that Berman remains in the House by the clever pen of the 2001 redistricting.  In 2001, his San Fernando Valley district was drawn to dilute Latino voters and assure his re-election.   There was nothing subtle about it; Latinos were specifically removed from his district to deny the Latino population of the San Fernando Valley a chance to elect one of their own to Congress.  A Voting Rights Act suit was brought against this obvious violation of the Act, but a panel of the 9th Circuit Court of Appeal, made up of justices with political ties to the West Los Angeles political machine, conveniently “overlooked” the dilution and Berman survived for the decade.

Now he faces an even bigger challenge, as Latino population continues to grow in his district.   He can only survive if he draws his own district, and he has a secret weapon to make sure he gets the district he wants: his younger brother Michael Berman. 

Michael has been drawing district lines for Democrats since 1971, and in recent years getting rich doing so.  Here’s how the Brennan Center for Justice described the 2001 process, “Democrats paid Michael Berman more than $1.3 million to create the redistricting plan. In addition, thirty of California’s 32 Democratic members of Congress each gave Berman $20,000 in order to custom-design their individual districts for safety. As Rep. Loretta Sanchez explained: ‘Twenty thousand is nothing to keep your seat. I spend $2 million (campaigning) every year. If my colleagues are smart, they’ll pay their $20,000, and Michael will draw the district they can win in. Those who have refused to pay? God help them.’”

Whether or not God helped them, Michael certainly did.  Not only did all Democrats get safe seats, he even inoculated neighboring Republicans from the voters’ wrath in 2006 and 2008 when only one GOP congressman in a Berman-drawn seat was defeated.

But Berman’s gilded coach would turn into a pumpkin if the legislature’s ability to draw district lines were taken away.  By putting a measure on the November ballot to do away with citizens’ redistricting, they hope to confuse voters into voting against the measure to give congressional districting to the citizens’ panel.  Divide and conquer by confusion is an old trick in California ballot measure politics.  This is what’s going on here.

By shouting “Israel is at risk without Howard to save it,” they managed to extract $2 million from Saban, a useful billionaire whose obvious support for Israel is deep and sincere.  But the idea that Israel is at risk if a Latino beats Howard Berman in a Democratic primary election is pure nonsense.  And this is not the first time the pols have employed this fraud; in the 1980s Berman and company beat back redistricting reforms by playing the Israeli card, claiming reform would decimate Jewish representation in Congress.

But maybe it won’t work this time.  The latest polling shows disapproval of Congress at 71 percent, and an angry electorate is in a very anti-incumbent mood.  It seems a stretch to assume voters will fall for a corrupt plan to savage the Citizens Commission while saving a despised political class from the wrath of the voters.

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