Battle Over Poway Typifies Redistricting Tug of War

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Call it the Battle of Poway.

Two San Diego congressmen, Duncan Hunter (R-Coronado) and Bill Lowery (R-San Diego), each with an eye on the political bottom line, are locked in a fierce back-room tug of war over who will end up representing the North County suburb.

The reason: Poway is a veritable gold mine of conservative voters, where Republicans outnumber Democrats nearly 2 to 1.

So it goes during the once-in-a-decade exercise of reapportionment, when lawmakers in Sacramento redraw legislative and congressional boundaries to account for changes in the population.

The goal is for each party to carve up the state in its image, using the new boundaries to capture the highest percentage of registered voters to protect incumbents while gaining new seats in Sacramento and Washington.

How these boundaries are drawn can make or break public careers, as well as dictate which political party controls the Assembly and Senate. And the negotiations often resemble a high-stakes poker game, with party leaders and incumbents eager to discard or pick up communities that strengthen their hands.

"What's at stake are the opportunities to run for certain seats, the opportunity to run for Congress, the opportunity to stay in office," said Sen. Lucy Killea (D-San Diego).

Despite the intensity of the game, all of the political maneuvering could come to nothing. The game plans are tentative, Gov. Pete Wilson could veto any of them, and a court challenge to redistricting is likely.

In San Diego, the game involves some unlikely, as well as predictable, IOUs.

Besides Poway, officeholders have been wrangling over, fretting about or generally coveting places like Lemon Grove, San Diego State University, La Mesa, Borrego Springs, Coronado--and even distant Blythe, near the Arizona border in far eastern Riverside County.

Much of the serious jockeying revolves around just how to draw a new congressional district in San Diego--one of seven California will gain because its population growth has outstripped the rest of the nation. Should the San Diego seat be drawn for a Republican or should it be packed with more Democratic-leaning minorities?

The answer could have important political implications for Lowery, who nearly lost last November's election in a shocker.

But not every officeholder's redistricting wish list is based on pragmatic politics. And not everyone is convinced that reapportionment is as politically significant as it appears.

"I think it's overblown," said Sen. William A. Craven (R-Oceanside), who hardly batted an eye when, in a matter of a week, his coastal Senate district gained--and then lost--Camp Pendleton due to changing district boundaries.

On the other side of the county, Assemblywoman Tricia Hunter (R-Bonita) said she has decidedly personal reasons for wanting to keep Borrego Springs in her sprawling district, which must be trimmed by 148,000 people because of growth over the last decade.

Hunter said she would like to keep the East County resort because she and her husband, a Navy engineer, often fly there on weekends to have breakfast with friends who also own private airplanes.

"We're even thinking about buying some land there for when we retire," said Hunter, who emphasized that she has not been involved in any negotiations to keep or ditch portions of her current district.

Meanwhile, Assemblyman Steve Peace (D-Rancho San Diego) also cited domestic reasons for his unsuccessful attempts last week to undo a redistricting plan that would expand his South Bay and Imperial County seat to include Blythe.

Peace was forced to pick up eastern Riverside County because he had to give up National City and southern San Diego to Assemblyman Pete Chacon (D-San Diego). The swap was made to increase minority voting strength in both of the districts.

But those laudable social aims somehow didn't impress his Peace's wife, Cheryl, whom the lawmaker said was aghast when she learned how long it would take him to cover the proposed new rural district by car.

"It is seven hours from one end of the district to the other," Peace said last week. "Now, it's only 2 1/2."

Politics, however, was definitely in mind as other San Diegans reacted to and dickered over proposals for their districts.

An aide to Assemblywoman Dede Alpert (D-San Diego) said she was pleased with what Democratic Party leaders were trying to do to shore up her reelection chances. Alpert is widely considered to be one of the most politically vulnerable members of the Legislature, as her 75th Assembly District has 52% Republican voters to 32% Democrats.

Proposed boundary changes would dull that edge only slightly, to 50% to 35%. But the key, the Alpert aide said, is that redistricting would give the lawmaker more coastal territory, trading in about 40,000 more conservative Republicans in Poway, Scripps Ranch, Rancho Bernardo, Escondido and Mira Mesa for more moderate Republicans living in Pacific and Mission Beach.

"We preferred having the coast because it is advantageous to us," said Michele Blair, the aide.

Yet the move could create what some sources say is a disconcerting ripple effect for Assemblyman Mike Gotch (D-San Diego), who is also expected to have a rough reelection fight.

Alpert's coastal gain would force Gotch out of the neighborhoods around Mission Bay, where he cut his teeth on politics as a community leader before running for San Diego City Council.

"I don't want to lose the coastal areas because I've been identified with them for over a decade," said Gotch, who could also be forced to give up San Diego State University--his alma mater.

On paper, redistricting would compensate for that loss by extending the southern part of Gotch's district into new territory: Lemon Grove and portions of Spring Valley. The adjustment would be enough to increase the critical ratio of registered voters to 44.6% Democrat and 41.6% Republican.

In more human terms, however, the proposal has already stirred up controversy among some of Gotch's constituents. In Hillcrest, politically active gays have objected to including Lemon Grove, home of several active fundamentalist churches, in the 78th District.

"People in that part of the county have historically had views that were less than supportive of gay and lesbian rights," said Doug Case, president of the San Diego Democratic Club.

But Assemblywoman Carol Bentley said she's more than willing to take what Hillcrest doesn't want.

"I hoped to get Lemon Grove in my district because it makes sense to have all four East County cities in one district," said the La Mesa Republican, adding that she already represents La Mesa, El Cajon and Santee in the 77th District.

The squabble over Lemon Grove, however, pales when compared to the political wrestling match that has been going on over the new boundaries for San Diego's congressional districts.

Peace unveiled his congressional ambitions when he took a highly visible role in Sacramento lobbying of Assembly Speaker Willie Brown (D-San Francisco) to make sure that congressional boundaries in San Diego would leave at least one seat winnable by a Democrat.

At one point, Peace told reporters he was working to stop an apparent effort by Democratic leaders to offer the San Diego congressional seat as a sop to Wilson and the Republicans for gains elsewhere in the state.

"Interests outside of San Diego were trying to give San Diego away," Peace said, between conferences with Brown. "We are convinced that has been stopped."

It worked. The congressional proposals that followed created a new seat that favors Democrat voters over Republicans, 45% to 42%, and embraces all of Chula Vista, Imperial Beach, National City, Bonita and southern portions of the City of San Diego--areas where Peace believes he could be elected.

What Peace didn't mention, however, was that his staff was also working to make sure the Rancho San Diego home of their boss is also included in the proposed congressional seat.

The result: A legislative conference committee Monday night quickly approved an amendment that switched Peace and 88 other residents in his neighborhood into the new district, leaving the rest of Rancho San Diego's population in the district now held by Rep. Duncan Hunter. Although federal law doesn't require a congressman to live in his district, it was a clear indication that Peace is clearing a path to Washington.

Meanwhile, San Diego's Republican delegation has been playing its own version of political bumper cars with the rest of the proposed congressional lines. Part of the maneuvering is intended to fatten or solidify Republican registration for both Lowery and U.S. Rep. Randy (Duke) Cunningham (R-Chula Vista).

Last year, Cunningham scored a stunning upset when he defeated incumbent Jim Bates--who was politically damaged in a sex-related scandal--in the 44th Congressional District, where Democrats outnumbered Republicans 52% to 35%.

One reapportionment proposal would drastically change the district so that Republicans would prevail, 47% to 38%. That was done, in part, by taking Coronado away from Duncan Hunter and packing it into Cunningham's proposed new district.

"I gave away my home city, Coronado--which is 62% Republican, where I own a home that I just refinanced--so we could create a Republican seat in the South Bay," Hunter said in a Sacramento press conference this week.

But Hunter was less inclined to show such partisan charity to Lowery, who also needs new conservative voters to bolster his political career. The 10-year congressional veteran was stunned last November when he polled slightly more than 49% of the vote in his relatively narrow victory over Democrat Dan Kripke.

After that poor showing, Lowery moved his district office from downtown San Diego to Scripps Ranch. And now he hopes that redistricting will follow--giving him new boundaries that would shed hostile coastal areas such as La Jolla and embrace more sympathetic conservative Republicans inland.

U.S. Rep. John Doolittle (R-Rocklin) said he believes the governor and George Gorton, Wilson's political consultant, want to see that happen to boost Lowery's sagging political fortunes.

"I would infer such a concern but it really wasn't stated," Doolittle said recently about his negotiations with Gorton. "It's my understanding that he (Lowery) would be moving east and would be taken care of."

Yet that effort produced behind-the-scenes wrangling between Lowery and Hunter over just who would claim Poway.

Although Hunter was willing to give away his hometown of Coronado, sources said he dug in his heels when it came to giving up the North County suburb of 43,500, where Republicans overwhelm Democrats by a 54% to 29% margin. It is also fertile ground for political fund-raising.

The wrangling came into public view Monday night after congressional maps were made public showing Poway would go to Lowery. Two congressmen asked the conference committee to pass an amendment taking Poway away from Lowery and giving it back to Hunter in at least one of the scenarios.

"There are a differences within the Republican delegation on a number of different points, some of which pertain to arguments between Republican members across boundaries," one of the congressmen, U.S. Rep. Vic Fazio (D-West Sacramento) said after the hearing.

"It (the change) doesn't resolve a problem for one member, but it does another. . . . I think this is an area that is very important to Mr. Lowery and Mr. Hunter," he said.

A Democrat source familiar with the bargaining gave a less restrained reason for the redistricting tug-of-war between Lowery and Hunter:

"The town of Poway is highly coveted by Republicans. It's gold."

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