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Gerrymandering Takes the Drama Out of California’s Election Season

It’s the political season, but just try to find a real election race in California.

The state with the most electoral votes seems wrapped up for Democrat John Kerry, despite his mushy-mouthed appearances every night on national TV. At any rate, he and President Bush aren’t competing here.

Democratic U.S. Sen. Barbara Boxer is running comfortably ahead of Republican Bill Jones in an obscure matchup with neither candidate exciting voters.

There are no statewide races in California during a presidential election, so that brings us down to low-profile U.S. House and state legislative contests.

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Put it this way: The chance of living where one of these races might be interesting is, at best, 1 in 7 for the Assembly, 1 in 13 for the state Senate and 1 in 53 for Congress.

“Last year at this time, during the recall, California was the center of the world. Right now we’re not even on the same planet,” says Tony Quinn, co-editor of the Target Book, which monitors legislative and House races. “We’re having trouble finding any action for the Target Book.”

Blame old-fashioned gerrymandering.

Legislators -- Democrats and Republicans alike -- redrew legislative and congressional districts in 2001 to protect incumbents and the party then holding each seat. Their aim was to lock in the status quo, which favored Democrats. But the Bush White House pushed for it to preserve GOP House seats and safeguard Republican control of Congress.

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The only reason campaign handicappers are even listing some contests as possibly competitive is the “Arnold factor.” They look at districts that voted solidly for the recall of Gov. Gray Davis and the election of Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and see potential trouble for Democrats.

“Republicans are sniffing glue looking at the Schwarzenegger results,” says Allan Hoffenblum, a former GOP consultant who now publishes the Target Book.

How it all plays out is anybody’s guess. A lot will depend on how active Schwarzenegger wants to get in legislative races. A bigger priority for him is the defeat of two ballot propositions -- 68 and 70 -- that would expand gambling and bust his efforts to negotiate state revenue deals with Indian casinos.

He also must worry about maintaining his superman status, his aura of invincibility.

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Democratic strategists have been throwing brushback pitches at the governor -- particularly in Bakersfield, where one of the hottest Assembly contests is being played. There, Republican Dean Gardner, who owns a construction company, is challenging first-term Democratic Assemblywoman Nicole Parra.

The day Schwarzenegger showed up recently to embrace Gardner at a GOP fundraiser, Democrats splattered the candidate with mud, accusing him of filing four bankruptcies and repeatedly failing to pay his taxes and other bills.

“Arnold’s very interested in his own self image,” says a Democratic strategist. “He’s standing there with his arm around some guy and we want him to feel awkward, to feel embarrassed. To say ummm.... “

This also is the season of smoke and spin, hyperbole and head-fakes.

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Both sides are blowing smoke at the news media, hoping to influence potential campaign contributors. This is a crucial juncture when special interests are making political investment decisions. They’re looking for solid bets, candidates with confidence in their voices, not panic.

“Contributors don’t give you money just because they agree with you,” notes Democratic consultant Darry Sragow. “They give you money because they like to pick a winner.”

The campaign pros are very concerned about “independent expenditure committees,” big-bucks outfits unrestricted by spending limits. Legally, campaigns can’t coordinate with these groups, so consultants communicate with them through the media, trying to encourage or discourage their activities.

Thus, Republicans are touting Schwarzenegger as their indomitable weapon.

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Democrats are pointing to GOP candidate vulnerabilities and new voter registration figures that show recent movement toward their party.

(Since the last presidential election in 2000, however, the Democratic percentage statewide has declined by 2.3% to 43.2%; the GOP has risen by one-tenth to 35%. Independ- ents have grown by 2.9% to 17.1%.)

Both sides agree that Democrats benefit from the higher voter turnouts of presidential elections. They’ve picked up Assembly seats in the last three.

Democrats dominate the Assembly 48-32 and the Senate 25-14. That probably won’t change much. Too many contests already have been decided by gerrymandering.

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Perhaps 12 seats in the Assembly and three in the Senate are now in play. By late October -- when the smoke clears and the spinning stops -- the real races will be down to a handful.

Ten years ago, there were twice as many Assembly and four times as many Senate seats that were competitive, Hoffenblum recalls. That’s because the state Supreme Court took over redistricting.

Assembly Republican Leader Kevin McCarthy of Bakersfield and recall initiator Ted Costa are collecting signatures for an initiative that would strip the Legislature of its redistricting power.

“It’s inherently wrong for politicians to draw their own lines,” McCarthy says. “When politicians draw their own lines, they’re beholden to politicians.”

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They should be beholden to voters and accountable at election time -- not writing themselves free passes.


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