Dante condemned those who betray a public trust to the hottest place in hell. My candidate for Dante’ inferno this week is State Auditor Elaine Howle, who created the poll of candidates that formed the Citizens Redistricting Commission, now thankfully in its final weeks of existence.
Howle’s primary criterion was “racial diversity” in the pool, and not surprisingly the commissioners who emerged from her process made racial districting their primary goal. And now we have the final plans developed by this commission, and the product further Balkanizes California into racial enclaves. These lines will contribute to continued political polarization of this state, and will give us a legislature in the next decade less able to craft compromises and function as a deliberative body than the one we have now.
Race and ethnicity are difficult in California, a state with no racial/ethnic majority – far from it. And Latinos, who suffered from the 2001 gerrymander that denied them fair representation, deserved additional seats as this commission has created. But over the last month the commission has made race and ethnicity almost the only factors in its line drawing, and the final product can be accurately called a racial gerrymander.
Often the commission went to ridiculous extremes in its racial line drawing. Libert Ontai, a San Diego commissioner, made it clear he would not vote for the Senate plan unless two San Diego Asian areas miles apart were placed in the same district. The result is an absurd Senate district that’s probably unconstitutional as a violation of compactness.
The worst example of racial gerrymandering is in Los Angeles where the two African American commissioners made it clear their votes for the congressional plan required drawing three black congressional districts, even though Los Angeles black population, now only 8.3 percent of the county’s total, allowed for hardly more than one black district.
African-Americans had initially complained about being ignored, but when it became clear the congressional plan would fail without the votes of the two black commissioners the commission acquiesced to the three black districts, although not without a tearful and bitter debate. And now it turns out that a white Democratic congresswoman is threatening to run in one of the black seats; the commission will probably be forced back to the drawing board to stop that.
The racial gerrymander has one probably unintended consequence: the Republicans were generally saved from extinction. As they created hugely minority districts, lily white Republican districts emerged on their periphery. I had hoped this would not happen; that Republicans would be forced to run in districts with more middle class Latinos, and that Democrats would have to respond to suburban concerns: in other words: the creation of truly competitive districts.
That is not the result. Republicans will hold ultra safe rural and suburban districts; Democrats heavily minority urban districts, and there will be fewer moderates, or anyone who can makes deals. This is the single greatest failure of this commission; and it did not happen by chance.
The first draft plan, released June 10, had a fair number of marginal and competitive districts. They came under immediate attack. Democratic Assemblyman Manuel Perez got a very competitive Riverside seat in the Coachella Valley that put him together with GOP Assemblyman Brian Nestande. Perez’s people flooded the commission with demand he get a safe seat, and Commissioner Cynthia Dai, who handled Democratic Party needs on the commission, engineered a safe seat for Democrat Perez, and in the process for Republican Nestande. In the Assembly at least, both parties have a huge number of safe seats that probably guarantees an Assembly partisan split for the decade about like we have now.
But the commission did soil its reputation by partisan line drawing, although thankful only in the Senate plan. Commissioner Gabino Aguirre managed to obtain a Senate district for his friend, Democratic Assemblyman Das Williams, in Santa Barbara and Ventura Counties. Aguirre made a campaign contribution to Williams after he was in the running for membership on the commission, and then helped craft the new Williams district without disclosing his contribution to anyone. He also helped draw the district intended to end the career of GOP Sen. Tony Strickland. Aguirre hosted a fund raiser in 2008 for the candidate running against Strickland’s wife, the then Ventura Assembly member. These are the kind of people Howle thought were “impartial,” the primary criterion for a commissioner.
The Senate plan gives the Democrats a two thirds margin in the Senate for the coming decade. It should be referred so the people can vote on it; but not for that reason. The commission operated in a partisan manner; but hey it’s only business, nothing personal, as Michael Corleone would say.
The Senate plan should be referred because it is such a lousy plan; with districts running willy nilly throughout the state and one unconstitutional district stumbling over another. Sacramento County is divided into six Senate districts by the plan, one that runs to the lava beds on the Oregon border and one that runs to the outskirts of Las Vegas. The working class folks in Martinez, county seat of Contra Costa County, find themselves in the same district with Calistoga. I suppose the commission felt that working families spend their weekends sipping chardonnay at the $400 a night mud bath spas of the Napa Valley.
Early on some people believed the commission’s plans would look like the universally praised plans drawn by the Supreme Court Masters in 1991. Sadly they do not. In fact, in area after area, especially in the State Senate plan, the maps retain the odious gerrymanders of the legislature’s 2001 plans. That is this commission’s fault, but it all goes back to Auditor Howle who missed the opportunity to create a commission pool of people who would show more respect for state constitutional criteria of geographic compactness and districts composed of adjacent populations. This commission’s product simply does not meet that constitutional goal.