The Citizens Redistricting Commission, built upon a hopeful ideal of enhancing political competition in legislative and congressional districts, has now descended into a cesspool of corruption, and the promise of fair new districts has been compromised by brutal partisan politics instigated by the commission itself.
At its Sacramento meeting last weekend, the commission was given a
chance to choose for the vital project of actually drawing the new districts
two firms, each of whom had ties to past partisan activities. Ignoring the
need for political balance in its line drawing, the commission chose a firm
with, in the words of Sacramento Bee political columnist Dan Walters,
"indirect but unmistakable ties to Democrats."
This firm is called Q2 Data and Research, based in Berkeley and
headed by Karin MacDonald, who also heads the Statewide Database, the census
and political data bank for use in redistricting. The political tie to the
Democrats comes from Professor Bruce Cain, an owner of Q2, who started the
database when he worked as chief consultant for Assembly Democrats in the
That was a long time ago, but more recently in 2003, Cain testified in
support of the current legislative and congressional districting gerrymander
in a lawsuit challenging that plan. (Disclosure: I was an expert witness for
three cities challenging the district lines). Cain, then still indirectly
involved with the legislature through the database, tried to convince the
court it was not a bipartisan gerrymander.
The whole reason for creating this commission was voter unhappiness
with the lack of choice in the current gerrymandered plans. The commission
seemed uninterested or unaware of Cain’s past support for gerrymandered
districts, although it did vote to wall off Cain from any involvement in
this year’s plans.
More disturbing was the manner in which the commission excluded from
consideration the bid of the Rose Institute, academic redistricting experts
at Claremont McKenna College, which like Q2, has "indirect but unmistakable
ties", this time to Republicans. (Disclosure: I am on the board of
governors of the Rose Institute).
This was done by commission staff writing the bid in such a way that
the bidder had to disclose all sources of income over the past ten years.
This was not hard for a small firm like Q2; it was impossible for the Rose
Institute, part of a large college with thousands of contributors whom it
could not disclose for IRS reasons even if it wanted to. The Rose Institute
certified that none of its financial backers posed a conflict of interest,
but that was not enough for the commission.
In a performance that would have done Casablanca’s Captain Renault
proud, the commission found itself "shocked, shocked" that Rose could not
disprove a negative, that it had a conflict, and summarily dismissed their
bid, thus forfeiting any chance for political balance in its line drawing
This might be hardball politics, but it was not illegal. However,
the next step almost certainly violated the commission’s own rules and
regulations, if not state contracting law.
The original bid required a bidder to show experience in
redistricting at the level of California’s most populous metropolitan
areas, a sensible requirement in a state of 37 million people. This was
later refined to mean a Metropolitan Statistical Area, a census term for
large urban areas. But after the bid had gone out, on the last day to file
an intent to bid and with no prior notice to the commission or to the public,
the commission staff changed the requirement to simply experience in a large
This supposed technical change was of major importance, and the
commission’s executive director wrote this author that it was done to expand
the pool of bidders. What he did not say was that Q2 Data and Research
could not meet the original commission-approved and published standard. So
that standard was changed to qualify the one bidder that was otherwise
disqualified. Of course, nothing in the bid package or in commission
regulations gave the staff the right to rewrite the bid so its favored
bidder could qualify, but that is what happened.
This action was brought to the attention of the commission, but they
simply chose to ignore it, concentrating instead of ridding the line drawing
staff of any semblance of bipartisanship.
Was this action illegal? That will be up to a court if a lawsuit is
brought. It is, however, beyond question that the bidding process was
corrupted by rewriting the bid to qualify an otherwise unqualified bidder.
So how did we get to this point where the commission staff felt it
had to taint the bidding process to get the job for its favorite? For that
we must go back to the initial process of establishing this commission, a
role assigned in the law to the State Auditor.
The Auditor, a politically appointed official, quickly came under
pressure from racial and ethnic activist groups to assure that the
commission was reflective of the state’s population and its racial
diversity. I noticed that the Auditor was eliminating white and
conservative applicants from the pool who could not show an "appreciation of
the state’s diversity." For a short time in 2010, I participated in meetings
with some of the activists and at one point I naively opined that the
objective of the new law was to create competitive districts. I was quickly
corrected; the objective is to give representation to "underrepresented"
minorities. This is not an illegitimate goal, but it soon became the only
The result was a pool of weak Republican candidates and highly
ideological Democrats, and that is what emerged when the commission was
finally chosen. The five Republicans include two smart and sophisticated individuals, but also two with no sense of the state’s political complexity
and who are led around by the ideologues. The independent pool,
contributing four commission members, includes three people who are
registered decline to state because the Democratic Party is not left-wing
enough for them. The Democratic pool includes one Democrat who seems
interested in doing a good job and four who clearly came to the commission with an
ideological agenda from the left.
A good example is Commissioner Maria Blanco, a political activist
long involved with left-wing interest groups. Blanco was for three years
executive director for the Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights, a group that
spends its time on ideologically driven legal issues like immigrant asylum
and voting rights for convicted felons. Last week, Blanco helped engineer
the selection of a Voting Rights Act attorney who also serves on the Lawyers
Committee for Civil Rights. That the Auditor could have viewed Blanco as
"impartial", the prime qualification for commissioners, defies common sense
and illustrates the dismal job done by the Auditor. Nowhere among the pool
of candidates or the commissioners do we find an activist with tax groups,
crime fighters, or any of the usual suspects on the political right.
Not only was the selection of the members flawed, but so was
selection of the staff. After the Auditor finished its work, Secretary of
State Bowen’s office took over to select the permanent staff. The process
was conducted entirely in secret and out of this process came Daniel
Claypool, the commission’s new executive director, who on his own Facebook
page describes himself as a "progressive Democrat." When asked by this
author about his political affiliations, Claypool declined to answer.
So it should come as no surprise that an ideologically driven
commission and staff would fight to exclude from its line drawers any
representation from the political right. While Karin MacDonald is a decline
to state voter, a close look at the team she assembled shows only a
background in causes dear to the political left, as one would expect of an
outfit located in Berkeley, and nothing remotely associated with the center
or the right. MacDonald too has done work for the Lawyers Committee for
The districts that emerge from this process are likely to reflect
ethnic politics, not the broad based political competition intended by the
voters in creating this commission. Excluding Republicans from the line
drawing process, as was done by manipulation of the bid, opens the door to a
peculiarly odious form of racial gerrymandering called "influence
districting". These are districts where populations of reliable Democrats
are spread among the districts in the name of minority voting rights, but where
the actual effect is not to elect more minorities, but more Democrats.
(This is different from creating legitimate Voting Rights Act districts,
which is required under law.)
The racial/ethnic criteria will trump the compactness and geographic
criteria, to justify drawing racially oriented districts intended to achieve
a political end. The political end is to strip Republicans of their
remaining clout in the legislature by assuring that the final map will give
Democrats two thirds majorities in the both houses. That this will be attempted is beyond question since racial politics were the motivating factors
in forming the commission in the first place. I have been down this road
before, and I will know it when I see it.
The sad story of California’s first redistricting commission is also
embryonic of the hatreds and bile plaguing American and California politics.
The ethic activists who have taken over the commission view Republicans as
almost a white colonial power denying an emerging California population
their rights through racist immigrant bashing, and tax and spending policies
that deprive people of color their share of the public goodies.
Whether Republicans deserve this fate is certainly debatable and
today’s California Republican Party commands little affection or respect
among the vast majority of California voters. That said; it was the intent
of the voters that even scoundrels should have a fair shot. It was never
their wish or desire that the redistricting commission they hopefully
created would be so obviously biased and dishonest in its actual behavior.