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This Year’s Reapportionment Script Is Still Full of Question Marks : Redistricting: Wilson and legislators all have their own agendas--self-protection, self-promotion, maybe even governing. Who knows?

<i> Sherry Bebitch Jeffe is a senior associate of the Center for Politics and Policy at Claremont Graduate School</i>

Every 10 years, politicians go through a life-or-death struggle for survival. It’s called reapportionment, and it’s usually an insider’s game played by legislators on their own terms. This year things will be different.

In other reapportionments, governors used their veto power to protect their party’s incumbents. But in this one, California’s Republican governor may be out to punish some GOP lawmakers.

Speculation continues that Gov. Pete Wilson wants to be President. To run, he’s got to make his brand of “compassionate conservative” activism work in California. Or maybe, as the governor has insisted all long, he simply wants to govern. An obstacle to both goals is the Assembly Republican Caucus--the legislative voice of the party’s right wing. Wilson wants a reapportionment that would create competitive districts, more amenable to moderates.

He has promised to veto any reapportionment bill that doesn’t give Republicans a fair shake and has warned GOP incumbents not to make individual deals with the Democrats. But competitive districts mean fewer safe seats for incumbents. That might make conservative Republicans more likely to cut sweetheart deals--particularly if it means blocking Wilson’s plans for a Legislature full of moderates voting for tax increases and abortion rights.

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In other reapportionments, legislative incumbents fought to hunker down in a safe district in perpetuity. This time, many are maneuvering to get out of the Legislature. Traditionally, incumbent members of Congress have had wide leeway in creating their own districts--even though the Legislature actually has the reapportionment power. But the specter of term limits, passed in 1990, has restored state lawmakers’ sense of constitutional responsibility. Some are looking to thwart retirement by creating congressional districts for themselves.

Previously, California voters defeated proposals to end-run the Legislature in redistricting. This time, the governor unilaterally announced the creation of a bipartisan, demographically and politically correct commission “to prepare a model of fair districts.” Its recommendations will not be made public unless the Legislature can’t come up with districts acceptable to Wilson by Sept. 3. If the Legislature fails, Wilson will submit the commission proposals to the courts for adoption in time for the 1992 primary.

Cynics label Wilson’s deadline a purposeful attempt to set up the Legislature for failure. A Mother’s Day resolution would have trouble getting through that fractious body in six weeks. That makes court consideration of the commission’s alternative almost inevitable. One theory speculates that Wilson cares less about crafting a California legislative plan than delivering a significant number of new GOP congressional districts. That way, the national Republican Party will owe him big in 1996.

Another says the commission is a device for Wilson to court Republican conservatives still livid over Democratic Rep. Phil Burton’s 1981 reapportionment. The California congressional delegation shifted from 22 Democrats and 21 Republicans to 28 Democrats and 17 Republicans. Republicans have managed to win only two more seats in 10 years.

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The GOP wants revenge, its fair share of the seven or maybe eight new congressional districts California will gain as a result of the 1990 census and equity in the entire delegation.

In other reapportionments, district lines were drawn by a few legislative insiders, huddled in secret around a pocket calculator. But this time, the increased accessibility of computers has put the ability to redistrict into the hands of minorities, business and public interest groups, or almost anyone who can crunch data and wants to have a say.

In other reapportionments, Democratic plans could dilute the clout of minority voters by spreading them around to bolster Democratic registration in districts represented by white incumbents. Or, as was often the case in California, Democratic incumbents could pack in high percentages of loyal minority registration. That strengthened the legislators’ hold on their districts but could weaken minority clout in adjoining districts.

“Intent” to dilute was hard for under-represented minorities to prove in court. However, as a result of 1982 amendments to the Voting Rights Act, plaintiffs now need only to prove that dilution is the “effect” of a plan.

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In this reapportionment, that puts some white, Democratic incumbents at risk. These legislators--from districts pressured by population growth in predominantly Republican, suburban areas--could ordinarily stretch out into urban areas to round-up Democrats, peeling off minority voters to save their seats.

But what Congress and the courts have said is, this time, don’t even think about it. That message was clearly spelled out in the recent federal court ruling that the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors’ boundaries drawn in the 1981 reapportionment diluted Latino voting clout.

What about California’s Asian population? It has skyrocketed 127% in the past decade--to 10% of the state’s total--but no Asian sits in the Legislature. And what about legislative districts represented by blacks but that now have Latino majorities? Will black, Asian-American and Latino community leaders be able to keep their unity vow not to demand representation gains for their community at the expense of other minorities?

One school of thought predicts a bloody battle, with the governor playing hard-ball against the Democrats and anybody else who gets in his way. That would once again land reapportionment in the courts. Another sees reapportionment as repeating the budget fight, with Wilson’s tough rhetoric giving way to accommodation.

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Perhaps the governor will strike his own sweetheart deal, giving Democrats the Legislature in return for the Congressional prize. Perhaps, wherever the road to reapportionment winds, what Wilson really wants is for it to end in the judiciary--risking that the Supreme Court, dominated by Republican appointees, will create districts more to his liking.

There is also speculation that Democratic Speaker Willie Brown wouldn’t mind tossing reapportionment to the courts--if it were done late enough so that legislators would be able to run one more time in their current, safe seats.

But here’s one possibility:

The story goes that the nation’s capital was moved to Washington because Congress, unable to stand its muggy summer heat, would automatically leave town in August. Then came air conditioning--and some argue that marked the end of effective, efficient government.

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Maybe the way to ensure that California will be reapportioned in time for the 1992 elections is to turn off Sacramento’s air conditioning until the Legislature passes and the governor signs a redistricting plan. Then the heat will be squarely on the courts. Or--Hell will have frozen over.


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