Redistricting Expertise Brings Berman Back to Sacramento : Politics: The congressman is the key Democratic negotiator for redrawing the state's congressional districts. His knowledge and savvy put him at the center of attention.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Like a Super Bowl coach guarding his game plan, Rep. Howard Berman (D-Los Angeles) clutches a loose-leaf blue binder that may be one of the most important political playbooks in the state Capitol.

Tucked inside are a dizzying array of facts and figures to guide Berman, a key Democratic negotiator, in talks this week on redrawing congressional boundaries. The book defines the state's political geography, from Arcata on the north coast to Avocado Heights in Los Angeles County.

With his knowledge and political savvy, Berman, who lost a wrenching fight over the Assembly speakership a decade ago, is again at the center of the action in Sacramento as lawmakers struggle to reconfigure congressional and state legislative districts.

"It brings back a lot of memories," says Berman, who noted that he has "a lot of old friends" in the state Capitol.

In the 1970s, Berman emerged as a major figure in Sacramento, championing a liberal, pro-labor agenda at a time when his party controlled the Legislature and the governor's office.

It's a much different era with Republican Pete Wilson in the governor's chair and Democratic prospects dimmer, even though the party still controls the Legislature. As a congressman, Berman no longer has a vote in the redistricting process, which is the responsibility of state lawmakers. But Berman still commands attention in the arcane art of drawing political boundaries.

Berman and Rep. Vic Fazio (D-Sacramento) are the negotiators for congressional Democrats seeking to maintain their hold on a majority of the state's congressional seats. They are pressing the Legislature to approve three congressional plans for Wilson to choose among.

The once-a-decade redrawing of legislative lines is adding seven congressional seats to the state's 45-member delegation, now composed of 26 Democrats and 19 Republicans. Most of the new seats are expected to be drawn in fast-growing suburban and inland areas, which tend to favor GOP candidates.

Berman and Fazio are managing their reapportionment campaign from a cramped Capitol office strewn with maps of the state. Between bites of deli food and sips of soft drinks, they are taking calls from colleagues making appeals to fine-tune the proposals just one more time.

In public, the low-key, almost reserved Berman is pressing his case for Democratic plans by testifying at hearings, outlining with a metal pointer various district lines that make up the jigsaw puzzle of reapportionment. But Berman also is talking privately to Wilson's representatives, Assembly Speaker Willie Brown (D-San Francisco) and other legislative leaders.

Berman must perform a delicate balancing act as he courts lawmakers to support the plans he is shopping around. At the same time, some of the same legislators are appealing to him to draw a congressional district favoring them.

After diplomatically listening to congressional aspirants, Berman concedes: "Some people are disappointed there aren't options for them" in his plans.

Assemblyman Phil Wyman (R-Tehachapi), who is hoping to persuade Berman and other map makers to unify the Antelope Valley into a single congressional district in which he could run, praised Berman's political skills.

"He's a master at politics and is the kind of personality who can come in and dominate a situation because he has marshaled the facts as well or better than anyone else. He's a genius in reapportionment.

"He's interested in ensuring Democratic dominance and ensuring that people in his political camp are rewarded," Wyman said.

Indeed, the plans unveiled this week maintain safely Democratic seats for Berman in the San Fernando Valley and for his longtime ally, Rep. Henry Waxman in West Los Angeles. They also create another San Fernando Valley seat tailored for Assemblyman Burt Margolin (D-Los Angeles), who is also part of the loose-knit Berman-Waxman political organization. Los Angeles City Councilman Zev Yaroslavsky also has voiced an interest in running for a new San Fernando Valley seat.

One Democratic lawmaker, who asked not to be identified, said Berman's real role is to protect what he called the congressman's "brood."

Berman dismisses the criticism, saying his purpose "is to fight for the interests of the California Democratic delegation," not just his friends.

The Democratic delegation has retained Berman's brother, Michael, a demographics expert, to draw up a redistricting proposal to submit to the Legislature.

A decade ago, Michael Berman worked with the late Rep. Phillip Burton (D-San Francisco) to fashion a reapportionment plan that boosted a 22-21 Democratic edge to 27-18.

Republicans have been complaining about the so-called gerrymander ever since.

That 1980s plan also created a safe Democratic district in Congress for Howard Berman, who had failed in his bid to grab the job of then-Assembly Speaker Leo T. McCarthy (D-San Francisco).

Armed with his briefing book and knowledge of behind-the-scenes Sacramento, Berman is in a unique position to press the Democratic case, Margolin maintained. "He has a degree of credibility that other lawmakers may not have," Margolin said.

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