Capitol Journal

Charles Munger Jr. stands ready to protect democracy

Charles Munger Jr. has pumped tens of millions into politics to promote causes he considers good public policy

Charles Munger Jr. isn't waiting around idly for the U.S. Supreme Court to act on congressional redistricting. He's hoping for the best but planning for bad news.

The political activist has resurrected his old reform coalition and is getting ready, if necessary, to bankroll another ballot measure to preserve citizen redistricting of congressional seats in California.

Five years ago, Munger spent about $13 million of his own money to help pass Proposition 20, which ended a long, shameful history of legislative gerrymandering and placed the once-a-decade redistricting of congressional seats in the hands of an independent commission.

Now that major reform is threatened by an Arizona case in the U.S. Supreme Court. It will be decided before the court's summer recess.

"I'm a redistricting reform zealot," Munger told me.

Munger, 58, is a Palo Alto physicist, a moderate Republican and very rich. His father is billionaire Charles Munger Sr., partner of Warren Buffett.

Charles Jr. has pumped tens of millions into politics, not to gain office for himself — he recently rejected the notion of running for the U.S. Senate next year — but to promote causes he considers good public policy.

Not all these causes are universally accepted. In 2012, he spent $37 million on two losers: a ballot measure to cripple labor unions and the fight against Gov. Jerry Brown's soak-the-rich tax increase.

But usually, he's pushing to make the political system less corrupt.

In 2008, he donated about $1.3 million to Prop. 11, which seized the redrawing of legislative districts from self-interested legislators and gave it to the citizens' commission. That measure was the precursor to Prop. 20.

He also spent $3 million in 2010 registering independent voters, figuring they'd support Prop. 14, which enacted California's "top-two" open primary.

Those two reforms — redistricting and open primaries — have made more California races competitive and tended to help pragmatic centrists.

Under gerrymandering, district lines were drawn in a clever way to rig election outcomes. It was usually done to muscle up the majority party. Lawmakers of both parties also might enter into an unholy alliance to protect all incumbents.

"I'm trying to uproot this evil," Munger once told me. "Whenever the politicians get into the game of selecting the voters, instead of the voters being free to select the politicians, that's bad for democracy."

In Arizona, voters created an independent redistricting commission in 2000. But the infuriated Republican legislature sued, contending that the Founding Fathers gave the task of drawing congressional districts exclusively to lawmakers.

The Constitution's so-called Elections Clause states: "The times, places and manner of holding elections for senators and representatives shall be prescribed in each state by the legislature thereof…"

Reformers won in a lower court, arguing that where legislatures allowed a citizens' initiative process, the voters could act as a legislature.

That's the issue now before the Supreme Court. Arguments were heard March 2. And reformers didn't come away very optimistic.

Conservative justices appeared to side with Arizona lawmakers. The swing-vote justice seems to be Anthony M. Kennedy, a Californian who grew up in the shadow of the state Capitol, the son of an influential lobbyist.

If Arizona's reform is scuttled, California's inevitably will be too — at least for congressional redistricting. Honest redrawing of legislative maps seems safe.

Munger attended the court session. "I walked out thinking there was a significant chance the Arizona commission would be struck," he recalls. "And I found that disquieting."

Munger began calling the old coalition: mainly reform and business groups.

If the court returns redistricting power to legislators, the coalition will lobby both Congress and the California Legislature.

Additional words in the Elections Clause allow for a possible good government solution, reformers believe. It reads: "…but the Congress may at any time by law make or alter such regulations…" That means Congress perhaps could permit legislatures to assign the redistricting chore to independent panels.

But politicians are seldom inclined to surrender power. So that theory may be wishful thinking. Anyway, Republicans control Congress and also many state legislatures that savor gerrymandering.

The California Legislature, at the least, will be urged to keep the current districts intact until the 2021 remapping. That would be smart PR. Californians, after all, authorized the independent redrawing of congressional districts by a landslide 61% vote.

By 2020, Munger thinks, reformers could analyze the court decision and shape a new ballot initiative to meet constitutional muster. That's what they did after an original open-primary initiative was overturned.

The Democratic-controlled Legislature has sent mixed signals. Senate leader Kevin de León (D-Los Angeles) originally asserted that legislators would be prepared to act fast if the court dumped citizen redistricting. That unnerved reformers.

But De León's chief of staff, Dan Reeves, told me: "Kevin supports the redistricting commission and hopes the court will honor the people's will. If forced to act, we will do so in a manner consistent with the priorities set out in the proposition."

Kathay Feng, executive director of California Common Cause, is working with Munger. "We don't want to be caught flat-footed," she says.

So is Rob Lapsley, president of the California Business Roundtable. "If the Supreme Court overturns this, we in California [business] will join with reform groups and use every tool in our box to make sure [district] lines stay as they are," he says.

Politicians generally detest election reform, at least parties in power do. In California, it's Democrats. In Arizona, it's Republicans. No party has a monopoly on cleanliness.

That's why we need the likes of Munger.

Twitter: @LATimesSkelton

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