Gov. Should Veto Bill That Adds Partisan Politics to Local Government

Tony Quinn
Editor, California Target Book

Among California’s great strengths is that our local government offices are nonpartisan, unlike many states where partisan politics dominates at the local level. But once in a while aspects of our Progressive Era reforms come under attack; and that is the case with Senate Bill 958 currently on Gov. Brown’s desk. It is a bill he should veto with vigor.

SB 958 sounds like a good idea, it sets up a 14 person commission to redistrict the five-member Los Angeles Board of Supervisors at the next round of redistricting in 2021. The problem is that it would be done by a partisan panel; the commission the bill establishes would have to reflect the partisan make-up of Los Angeles County.

The commission would thus have to be made up of seven Democrats, reflecting the 52 percent Democratic registration in Los Angeles County, three Republicans, reflecting the 19 percent GOP registration and four non-partisan members for the 29 percent non-partisan and others.

But local government interests are not measured in partisan terms. In the 1990s a court case required Los Angeles to draw supervisor districts to unite its Latino neighborhoods, and that district is now represented by Latina Supervisor Hilda Solis. Los Angeles has an historical black district, represented by Supervisor Mark Ridley Thomas that acknowledges the long African American role Los Angeles politics – California’s first black legislator was elected from South Central Los Angeles in 1918.

Two of the other districts are basically suburban, and the fifth district is centered in the many communities of West Los Angeles. This formula has worked well, and Los Angeles redistricting has not been a big issue in the past two redistrictings.

So SB 958 is a solution in search of a problem that does not exist, as the Los Angeles Supervisors pointed out to Gov. Brown in their letter asking him for a veto. The bill is also opposed by the Board of Supervisors in Kern and Riverside Counties, the Urban Counties of California, and the California State Association of Counties. Among the reasons for opposition from these local government bodies is that this bill is a camel’s nose under the tent to inject partisan politics into California local government, which thankfully has been free of it.

Partisan politics at the local level has historically been the source of political corruption, from Tammany Hall to the Chicago machine. Many political scientists believe partisan local races are a terrible idea, as the Texas experience shows.

More than a century ago, Texas developed what was called the “White Primary,” a primary election system where only white voters could participate. Texas justified this system by insisting the primary election was “private affair”, just simply nominating candidates of a political party.   In order for that to work, every election in Texas had to be run through a partisan primary.

Although the courts years ago threw out the White Primary as obviously discriminatory, the partisan primary structure has survived to this day. Republicans now totally control the state of Texas so all of its state and local office holders – including all justices to the Texas Supreme Court – must first be nominated in the Republican primary. Since 1994, the general election has been perfunctory; winning the Republican primary has been everything.

Judges and local government officials thus have every reason to fear they might lose the party primary, and this year a Supreme Court justice was opposed in the Republican primary as being “not Christian enough.”

Do we want this kind of a system in California? Of course not. Our politics have stayed cleaner than most states because we keep partisan politics out of local and judicial offices. SB 958 would interject partisan politics where it does not belong, and for no good reason. It should be vetoed.

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