GOP Fears a Redistricting Backfire

Times Staff Writer

Worried about losing clout in Congress, influential Republicans in Washington are telling Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger that he should drop his effort to redraw congressional voting districts in time for next year’s elections and limit his focus to reshaping the state Legislature.

National Republican Party leaders -- even Schwarzenegger’s closest ally in the congressional delegation, U.S. Rep. David Dreier (R-San Dimas) -- are pressing the governor to exempt Congress from his map-making.

The fear is that tinkering with the California congressional boundaries could jeopardize Republican control of the U.S. House. By some estimates, the state’s 20-person GOP congressional delegation opposes the governor’s effort 4 to 1.


The Republican backlash underscores a reality of redistricting: What’s most important to incumbents is ensuring their own survival. Even with California Republicans confined to minority status in both the legislative and congressional delegations, many members would rather keep the existing lines than gamble on a plan that could plunk them in unfriendly districts where they would have trouble getting reelected.

Schwarzenegger has made redistricting a centerpiece of his 2005 agenda, contending that the lines now drawn protect incumbents to such a degree that races are no longer competitive and parties stand virtually no chance of losing seats they control. He would sooner scuttle redistricting altogether than agree to a compromise in which Congress is spared, the governor’s aides said recently.

Schwarzenegger likes to cite a fact from last year’s election: Of the 153 congressional and legislative seats that were at stake, not one changed parties.

He has been increasingly frustrated in his dealings with the Legislature, to the point where, aides say, he would like to recast the 120-member body so that centrists have a bigger voice. A common complaint about the Legislature is that it is polarized along ideological lines, with members so assured of winning reelection that they have little incentive to compromise or moderate their views.

Schwarzenegger’s plan is to strip the Legislature of the power to redraw voting districts and give the job to a panel of retired judges. In theory, the judges would be less guided by partisan concerns.

Republican National Committee Chairman Ken Mehlman has told the governor’s aides that he would like to see California’s congressional voting districts untouched until after the 2010 census -- the normal timetable for the decennial redrawing of voting districts -- according to a person close to the Schwarzenegger administration. Tracey Schmitt, an RNC spokeswoman, declined to discuss such a conversation, saying, “We’re still in the information-gathering stage.”


If Schwarzenegger stands his ground, congressional Republicans may have the option of supporting a state ballot initiative later this year that would excuse Congress from any mid-decade redistricting effort.

Such a measure was submitted to the state last month by David Gilliard, a Sacramento political consultant who has discussed it with members of the state’s congressional delegation. Before it could go before voters, Gilliard’s proposal would need to pass review in the state attorney general’s office, and then he would need to gather about 600,000 valid signatures.

No one can be certain what Schwarzenegger’s proposal would mean for the power balance in Congress. In the state’s delegation, Democrats outnumber Republicans 33 to 20.

“California now has more clout in the House of Representatives than at any time in previous history,” said U.S. Rep. John T. Doolittle (R-Rocklin), referring to the committee chairmanships held by California Republicans.

“It would seem to me self-defeating if we set in motion forces that could result in the loss of seats in California, which in conjunction with a loss of a handful of seats elsewhere in the country could spell a return to the minority for Republicans in the House. I just don’t think that’s a risk worth taking.”

Doolittle bristled at an argument made by proponents of new voting districts, who say that the move would bring more moderates into elective office.


“As a conservative Republican, it makes me very nervous when I hear people say that their overt objective is to remove the conservatives,” Doolittle said. “I don’t want to see that happen. I will fight to the death to make sure that does not happen.”

The intraparty quarrel could hinder Schwarzenegger’s bid to raise $50 million that would be used in his campaign for sweeping changes in the state’s political order, aides said. In addition to carving new voting districts, Schwarzenegger wants to introduce state spending restrictions, merit pay for teachers and a 401(k)-style pension system for state employees.

This week, Schwarzenegger is continuing a series of private lunches around the state with wealthy businesspeople, urging them to back his agenda. Donors could be forced to choose between a popular governor and a Republican delegation that holds some of the coveted committee chairmanships in Congress. California Republicans head the House Armed Services, Appropriations, Rules, and Ways and Means committees.

“If you get a call from [Rules Committee chair] David Dreier, you’re going to take it and listen to him carefully,” said Dan Dunmoyer, an insurance industry lobbyist based in Sacramento. “And if you get a call from the governor, you’re going to take it and listen to him carefully. And obviously, your goal in life is to keep both of them happy.”

Dreier, who said he has spoken to Schwarzenegger several times about the issue, questioned the need for immediate action, saying, “We in the U.S. Congress are doing the people’s business very effectively.”

The congressman added: “I’m sympathetic that we haven’t had competitive races, but that’s nothing new.”


Polling suggests the public isn’t clamoring for new voting districts. A total of 44% supported the governor’s redistricting plans in a survey last month by the Public Policy Institute of California; 41% were opposed and 15% voiced no opinion. Support broke down along party lines. Republicans back the governor’s efforts; Democrats are opposed.

State Senate President Pro Tem Don Perata (D-Oakland) said Schwarzenegger’s plan stands no chance of passing in the Legislature, and that the governor’s only hope of getting reapportionment approved is to put an initiative on the ballot.

“This is a nonstarter here,” Perata said. “Right now it’s very tangential -- very much on the margin of what is troubling California. It won’t improve traffic congestion. It won’t arrest the skyrocketing cost of housing.... No one in my district gets up in the morning and makes coffee and says, ‘What are we going to do with redistricting?’ ”

Gale Kaufman, a Democratic political consultant, said Schwarzenegger should shift his focus to wresting more federal money from Washington by tapping the clout of the California Republican delegation. Money matters are expected to be a central theme in a meeting that Schwarzenegger has arranged in Washington with members of Congress and legislative leaders for Feb. 17.

“We need desperately for him to work on these rather powerful Republican members of Congress to help us get our fair share of federal funding,” said Kaufman, who oversaw Democratic Assembly campaigns in last year’s elections.

Schwarzenegger aides say he is not backing down. If the voting districts are flawed, they should be changed as soon as possible and no exceptions should be made, staff members said.


“He understands there will be members of each party that aren’t happy with this,” said Rob Stutzman, the governor’s communications director. “They want the status quo because the status quo ensures everyone the seats they have.... He doesn’t believe there’s a need to wait. It’s a broken system now, and it should be fixed now.”

A few congressional Republicans say they hope the governor succeeds.

U.S. Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Vista) estimated that the GOP delegation opposes the governor’s redistricting plan 16 to 4. But “to assume that I’m the best person to draw up my congressional seat is lunacy,” said Issa, who bankrolled the recall drive in 2003. “And it isn’t better when the majority party of the Legislature does it.”

U.S. Rep. Bill Thomas (R-Bakersfield), chairman of the Ways and Means Committee, said he believes he could win reelection in a redrawn district. He asked why other members are not as confident, given the enormous advantages of incumbency. Thomas said some district lines are so contorted they resemble “a tapeworm.”

He asked whether those congressional representatives opposing the governor believe “the only way they can stay in office is to hang on by their fingernails in a district that was gimmicked to allow them to stay in? Who would be proud to stay in a district” like that?