Crossposted on CalWatchdog

Over the summer, Calwatchdog published a series of articles documenting the way that the political Left exploited the redistricting process to assure strong gains for the Democratic Party. The report included an exclusive interview with a redistricting commission member who alleged partisan behavior by his supposedly non-partisan commission colleagues, but the series didn’t cause much attention in the media, the Capitol or among the public. Apparently, no one was surprised that a commission formed with the best of intentions — i.e., taking backroom political deal-making out of the process by which political lines were drawn — was cynically manipulated to create a partisan advantage.

But the story is getting renewed life now that the left-leaning ProPublica investigative journalism website published a new report called “How Democrats Fooled California’s Redistricting Commission.” If you weren’t cynical about the state of California’s political system before reading it, you will be now. It reveals several lessons for California political observers, ranging from the ruthlessness of the state’s powerful Democratic Party, to the utter incompetence of the state’s fading Republican Party. It also reminds us that even the best-intentioned good-government reforms may make matters worse if proponents of reform don’t grapple with political reality.

Calwatchdog’s series by reporter John Hrabe focused on the deep partisan interests of one of the commission’s supposedly non-partisan members, Gabino Aguirre, and the successful way he abused the public trust to secure the desired political results. Hrabe quoted political observer Tony Quinn:

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…. 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.

In my column about the Left’s redistricting victory, I quote former Republican Party Chairman Shawn Steel, who said:  “The Democrats knew what they were doing, and Republicans were asleep at the switch.” People shrugged or dismissed our allegations as the work of conservatives. But now ProPublica came up with equally damning conclusions based on a look at email correspondence, internal memos, interviews with participants and an analysis of the final district maps:

In the weeks that followed, party leaders came up with a plan. Working with the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee — a national arm of the party that provides money and support to Democratic candidates — members were told to begin “strategizing about potential future district lines,” according to another email.

The citizens’ commission had pledged to create districts based on testimony from the communities themselves, not from parties or statewide political players. To get around that, Democrats surreptitiously enlisted local voters, elected officials, labor unions and community groups to testify in support of configurations that coincided with the party’s interests.

When they appeared before the commission, those groups identified themselves as ordinary Californians and did not disclose their ties to the party. One woman who purported to represent the Asian community of the San Gabriel Valley was actually a lobbyist who grew up in rural Idaho, and lives in Sacramento.

The Democrats played hard-ball politics, undermined the spirit of redistricting, and caught the Republican Party flat-footed. Many Republicans I talked to during the redistricting situation viewed Democratic gains as inevitable, which no doubt explains their lack of political skill and effort in combating what the Democrats were doing.

But as ProPublica reported, “Statewide, Democrats had been expected to gain at most a seat or two as a result of redistricting. But an internal party projection says that the Democrats will likely pick up six or seven seats in a state where the party’s voter registrations have grown only marginally.”

Instead of losing a small number of seats, Republicans will be losing big because Democrats played them for fools. Wrote ProPublica, “What emerges is a portrait of skilled political professionals armed with modern mapping software and detailed voter information who managed to replicate the results of the smoked-filled rooms of old.” Republicans couldn’t match this dishonest tactic, but it’s a tactic that they should have seen coming.

So many moderate Republicans and good-government reformers promoted redistricting as the reform that would usher in a new era of moderation in California politics, but they didn’t realize that the state’s highly sophisticated Democratic machine would rig the game so strongly in their own favor. Good government activists, such as Charles T. Munger Jr., who donated $7 million the Prop. 20 redistricting ballot initiative, believed that such a measure would really help take the politicians out of the redistricting process and empower citizens.

Read this article about it and see how naive it all sounds now. Republicans such as Arnold Schwarzenegger and Pete Wilson actually believed redistricting would increase the power of the GOP, but the end result is a massive power shift to the Democratic Party. Let this be a reminder of how easily any reform — no matter how appealing it may sound — can and will be manipulated by those who are skilled at the political game. In California, reform measures promoted by political novices will undoubtedly be manipulated by the pros.

It’s really impossible to take politics out of politics. The ProPublica report, combined with Calwatchdog’s series last summer, will remind political observers of the enormous obstacles to reform. Not only must reformers come up with a good idea, they must figure out a way to outsmart a ruthless political machine.