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Post-Census Redistricting Means Bitter Struggle for House Seats

Times Political Writer

Reapportionment, another word for political trouble, will follow closely on the heels of the 1990 census.

“That’s where the rubber hits the road,” one Democratic office-holder said of redistricting, “and the pavement is hot.”

Indeed, how legislative and congressional district lines are redrawn to equalize population will shape state and federal legislation into the 21st Century, affecting issues ranging from Social Security benefits to highway construction, air pollution and national security.

Because population in the United States keeps shifting from the Frost Belt to the Sun Belt, California is once again expected to be a big winner in the 1991 reapportionment sweepstakes with a gain of five or six congressional seats. That will give California, already the biggest delegation in the nation, 50 or 51 seats--more than 11% of the 435-member House.

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Bitter, Rancorous

Where those new seats will end up is anybody’s guess at this point, but Republican and Democratic leaders are already positioning themselves for the redistricting battle, a typically bitter and rancorous affair that occurs every 10 years, after each census.

If population growth alone were the basis for drawing the new district lines, Los Angeles County would get an additional one-third of a congressional seat. The surrounding counties of Riverside, Imperial, San Diego and Orange would net slightly more than two seats. The rest of the seats would be spread throughout the state in growth areas such as the Central San Joaquin Valley, the Bay Area and the mountain counties in the north that have experienced phenomenal growth.

Within Los Angeles County, the growth has been fastest in the northern areas of Newhall and Saugus and in certain minority areas, such as East Los Angeles. It has been slowest in the inner city, the Westside and other Anglo neighborhoods.

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Even Distribution

But, as a Democratic redistricting expert put it, “there’s nothing about any population trend that dictates the lines.”

The law requires that population be evenly distributed among the districts. How the district lines are drawn to accomplish that distribution is left to the state Legislature.

That, of course, means that districts are drawn to benefit the party that controls the Legislature, and the only immediate deterrent to a blatant “gerrymander” is the prospect of a gubernatorial veto.

In 1981, when the last redistricting was done, Democrats not only controlled the Legislature but the governorship as well. And when Republicans turned to the state Supreme Court to overturn the redistricting signed into law by Democratic Gov. Edmund G. Brown Jr., they faced a court dominated by Brown’s appointments.

No Basis for Attack

The high court upheld the plan, which withstood a continued Republican assault all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, which decided that the GOP had no legal basis to attack it.

The 1981 plan was primarily the work of the late Rep. Phillip Burton (D-San Francisco), whose now-famous assurance to both Democrats and Republicans anxiously awaiting the final plan was, “You’re in your mother’s arms.” The plan not only protected all Democratic incumbents but also most GOP incumbents--at the expense of a handful of Republicans whose districts were “collapsed.”

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Under the Burton plan, Democrats have maintained majorities in both the Legislature and an even tighter lock on the state’s delegation to the House of Representatives. In Congress, for example, only one seat in the state has changed parties in 180 races over the last decade. That was the 38th District in Orange County, where Republican Robert K. Dornan in 1984 unseated 10-year incumbent Jerry M. Patterson, a moderate Democrat. Democrats now hold a 27-18 edge over Republicans in the delegation.

‘Defies Political Behavior’

In the Legislature, Democrats hold a 47-33 majority in the Assembly and a 24-15 majority in the Senate, where there is one independent.

“In political terms, that’s the most effective gerrymander in the history of the United States,” GOP reapportionment expert Tony Quinn said. Articulating a familiar theme among Republicans who believe that California is becoming more conservative, Quinn added, “The congressional delegation in particular defies the political behavior of the state.”

Quinn said the Burton plan managed to “literally cement everybody in place. Not only are there no shifts, there are virtually no competitive races.”

For the 1991 redistricting, state Republican leaders are now pinning their hopes on two strategies.

First, the GOP is considering several initiatives now being crafted for the 1990 ballot that would force Democrats to draw more compact districts that do not cross city or county lines more than a set number of times. Several “good government” groups, such as the League of Women Voters and Common Cause, support such reforms. Democrats say such restrictions would give Republicans an edge but would not necessarily prevent gerrymandering.

Hold Governorship

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The second Republican strategy is to hold on to the governorship in 1990. After Republican Gov. George Deukmejian decided not to seek a third term, the GOP put heavy pressure on U.S. Sen. Pete Wilson to run. Wilson has announced that he almost certainly will do so and has formed an exploratory committee.

One of Wilson’s first moves as a quasi-gubernatorial candidate was to call for support of GOP-backed reapportionment initiatives.

If elected, Wilson could veto any Democratic plan he did not like. It would require a two-thirds vote of the Legislature to override a veto, and since Democrats do not hold a two-thirds majority in either house, the GOP would be in a very strong bargaining position.

“If there is a Republican governor, then I think the Legislature is out of it,” said James Tucker, chief legal counsel to the Assembly Elections and Reapportionment Committee during the 1981 redistricting. “I don’t think they can come up with a plan that gets two-thirds of both houses.”

Ways to Implement Plan

Quinn said, however, that there are ways the Democrats may be able to put their plan into effect, if only for the 1992 elections, even if the governor were to veto it. In the past, the state Supreme Court has authorized interim use of the new districts proposed by the Legislature when the justices are persuaded that using the old ones would violate constitutional guarantees of equal representation.

“Anybody who believes that the election of a Republican governor can save us from being run through again in 1991 is simply wrong,” Quinn said.

Nevertheless, Democrats are anxious to capture the governorship next year.

“The game is this: If we win the governorship, we can pretty well draw the lines without doing much consulting” with Republicans, said House Majority Whip Tony Coelho (D-Merced), who will take an active role in California’s redistricting.

Coelho said that if Democrats control redistricting there probably will be a 3-2 split favoring Democrats in the estimated five new congressional seats.

‘An Impact’

“Nationally, it would have an impact in that we win a lot of our votes, close ones, with a less than 10-vote margin,” Coelho said. There are now 259 Democrats in the House and 174 Republicans, with two vacancies.

For Republicans, Quinn said, a “fair” redistricting would give the GOP three of the five new House seats and Democrats one. The remaining district would be a tossup.

However, Quinn said, the Democrats could take the same population figures and voting data and come up with four seats for themselves and one for the GOP.

“If we play by the current rules again, we will lose again,” Quinn predicted.

Coelho, Rep. Howard L. Berman (D-Panorama City) and Rep. Vic Fazio (D-Sacramento) will be among those who will try to fill Burton’s shoes in the Democrats’ redistricting of congressional seats. Berman’s brother, behind-the-scenes political strategist Michael Berman, also is expected to have a hand in drawing the new congressional lines.

More Sophisticated Information

This time around in redistricting, Republicans and Democrats alike will be armed with computers, as they were 10 years ago. But the information available to program into the computers will be much more sophisticated.

For the first time in any national population count, the federal Census Bureau will make available to each state within a few weeks sets of three-color, block-by-block maps. In all, the bureau has divided the nation into 9 million blocks, more than three times what was mapped in 1980, according to Marshall L. Turner Jr., chief of the Census Bureau’s Redistricting Data Office.

States that match precincts with blocks will be able to cross-index population information with voting patterns in much greater detail than ever before.

Tom Hofeller, director of computer services at the Republican National Committee, recently told a conference on reapportionment at Claremont-McKenna College that the new technology is going to make even the bloody 1981 redistricting in California “look like amateur night.”


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