Redistricting Panel Still an Improvement

John Wildermuth
Journalist and Political Commentator

If you want some chuckles, watch the various pundits reel in
horror from the news that the state’s new citizens’ redistricting commission
won’t be releasing a second draft set of maps for California’s legislative and
congressional districts.

A group of black activists is calling
it
an "egregious decision to perform their public charge without public
scrutiny."

The Sacramento Bee’s Dan Walters warns
darkly
of the problem of expecting amateurs — i.e., real California voters
- to deal with something as complicated as redistricting and suggests the state
would be better off if the state Supreme Court picked up the pieces of the
commission’s likely failed effort.

And Tony Quinn, one of my cohorts on this blog, declared
Monday
that "the Citizens Redistricting Commission has decided to exclude
citizens from the process."

Reading these guys, it’s like they’re looking back
nostalgically to those golden days of redistricting of, say, 10 years ago, when
the Democrats in the Legislature could hold a couple of public hearings, then
go behind closed doors and draw whatever lines they wanted.

By the time the public got a chance to see the lines, the
new districts were a done deal, just waiting for a rubber stamp by the
Legislature and the governor.

"Transparency?" the legislators might say. "We don’t need no
stinking transparency!"

In a blast from the past, here are some of the greatest hits
from the 2000 redistricting, which might serve as a reminder of why California
now has a redistricting commission.

Legislators moved the lines for the 19th Assembly
District, where veteran Millbrae Assemblyman Lou Papan was termed out, just far
enough south so that San Mateo County Supervisor Mike Nevin’s Daly City home
was no longer in the district. Nevin, who had raised more than $300,000 to run
for the Assembly seat, dropped out of the race, clearing the path for Gina
Papan, Lou’s daughter (who eventually lost the Democratic primary, but that’s
another story).

Then there was the creative artwork that shifted around
enough Latino voters to allow longtime Democratic congressmen Howard Berman and
Brad Sherman to keep their San Fernando Valley seats, despite a growing
minority population. Latino groups sued in a futile attempt to block that one.

And that entire congressional redistricting plan was based
on a pragmatic, closed-door political deal between California Democrats and
national GOP leaders that let the Dems draw safe district for four members who
had grabbed Republican-held seats in 2000, in exchange for not taking shots at
other Republicans in an aggressive redistricting that possibly could have cost
the GOP control of Congress.

"This new plan basically does away with the need for
elections," Quinn
said back in 2001
.

He wasn’t entirely right. Democratic Jerry McNerney did beat
Republican Dick Pombo of Tracy in 2006, the only time in the decade that a
congressional seat changed parties.

And that’s what folks are arguing is a better way to handle
redistricting, arguably the decade’s most important political decision?

Not surprisingly, the commission has had plenty of bumps in
the road, many of them highlighted, if not arranged, by Democratic and
Republican partisans, who have a vested interest in derailing any non-partisan
redistricting effort.

Still, the commission held well-attended hearings across the
state, put out a set of draft maps for public review in June and then held
another round of statewide meetings to hear the inevitable complaints about
those proposed district lines. Now they’re racing the clock to deal with those
concerns and meet the August deadline for the final maps.

While folks, especially those who find their ox gored, can
always complain there wasn’t enough public comment, no one can argue that the
public wasn’t more involved in the process this time than they ever were when
the Legislature was drawing the maps.

Ten years ago, the San Francisco’s Chronicle’s Carla
Marinucci and I had breakfast with Terry McAuliffe, then head of the Democratic
National Committee.

McAuliffe, an enthusiastic partisan, was talking about how
Democrats could use the coming redistricting to get four or five new seats out
of California, giving the party a chance to take back the House.

But Art Torres, then chair of the state Democratic Party,
quickly said that wasn’t going to happen because "our objective all along has
been to create stronger Democratic seats" in California.

And that was fine with GOP state Sen. Jim Brulte, who was
working to hang on to the seats he had and keep his party in control of
Congress.

In all those conversations, politicians talked about which
plan would be best for the Democrats and which plan would be best for the
Republicans.

Not one person, though, ever suggested that he or she was
looking for the redistricting plan that would be best for all the people of
California, Republicans, Democrats, independents and non-voters alike.

Voters passed Prop. 11 in 2008 because they wanted the political
lines for the next decade drawn by ordinary people who were thinking of
California first, not politicians concerned with what’s best for their friends,
their party or their next job.

 

The jury’s still out on how that’s going to work out. But if
the measure of success is coming up with something better than the Legislature
turned out a decade ago, that bar is set none too high.

John Wildermuth is a
longtime writer on California politics.

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