Gov. Walks a Fine Line on Boundaries
As he mulls the prospect of a special election, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger is facing an important political decision: Just how partisan does he want to be?
One of the most impressive accomplishments of this Republican governor has been his ability to sustain enormous approval ratings in a state that leans heavily Democratic. His celebrity is a large part of the appeal. But so too is the bipartisan image Schwarzenegger has carefully cultivated in his year-plus in office.
That is why the governor and his political advisors are so closely weighing the risks and prospective rewards of yet another statewide vote -- the fourth in as many years -- and, in particular, the touchy issue of trying to redraw the state’s political boundaries.
In today’s State of the State address, Schwarzenegger is expected to call for a special legislative session, starting immediately, to consider a state spending cap and alter the way California’s legislative and congressional districts are drawn.
Aides to the governor say a decision on a fall election is still weeks away and depends on how much Schwarzenegger and the Legislature can accomplish without resorting to the ballot box. At the least, aides say, the governor hopes the prospect of a statewide vote will offer the leverage he needs to extract spending cuts and other concessions from Sacramento’s balky Democrats.
But it is not Schwarzenegger’s budget, as yet unveiled, or the prospect of slashing bureaucracy, as prescribed in the governor’s California Performance Review, that has aroused the greatest ire within the opposition party. Rather, Democrats are stewing over talk of revisiting the legislative district boundaries drawn after the 2000 census, which virtually enshrined their majorities in Sacramento and the state congressional delegation.
In a rare bit of bipartisanship -- and supreme self-interest -- Democrats and Republicans in Sacramento redrew California’s political boundaries in 2001 to make all 53 congressional districts either safely Democratic or safely Republican, eliminating meaningful competition for the next decade. The maps for state Senate and Assembly districts followed a similar incumbent-protection pattern.
Ted Costa, an activist who helped launch the recall of Gov. Gray Davis, is gathering signatures for a constitutional amendment, the Voter Empowerment Act, that would take redistricting out of the hands of partisan lawmakers and turn the responsibility over to a panel of retired judges. Schwarzenegger says he favors that approach, and Republicans in Sacramento would like to see new lines drawn immediately, rather than wait for the next scheduled redistricting after the 2010 census.
To Democrats, that is a challenge of a whole other order.
Political mapmaking is a subject arcane to almost everyone but lawmakers themselves, hitting members of Congress and the Legislature where they literally live and work. The issue has grown even more sensitive in light of Republican success at changing the rules and redrawing the political lines in Texas, which bulked up the GOP’s House majority in the November election.
“If this looks to be a quick fix to give Republicans some advantage they can’t win straight up at the ballot box, it’s going to be serious trouble,” said Democratic strategist Garry South. “Can Democrats beat [the governor] in that game? I don’t honestly know. But he has to remember, this is a pretty considerably Democratic state.”
Redistricting is an issue that has consumed the state’s political class for the better part of a century. For decades, the fault line was geographic, as interests in the resource-rich north sought to fend off the growing political power of the expanding south.
For the last 30 or so years, however, the issue has broken along more traditional partisan lines, with Democrats using their power to marginalize Republicans in Sacramento and the state’s delegation on Capitol Hill.
Would-be reformers have taken the issue to the state ballot more than a dozen times over the years and lost on most of those occasions, including four times since the 1980s.
“The fact is people have no idea what a district is and why they happen to be in it,” said Tony Quinn, one of the state’s leading redistricting experts. “The classic California position is to vote no unless you know what an issue’s about.”
For Schwarzenegger, the calculation is a tricky one.
Elected as an upstart and political outsider, the governor still manages to project that image, even as he raises huge sums from the special interests he claims to abhor.
By shunning the Legislature and going directly to voters with a package of “reforms,” Schwarzenegger could go a long way toward cementing his populist, anti-establishment reputation (and maybe eliminate some of the obstacles that have long stalled progress in Sacramento).
Success in the off year would “pretty much catapult him to a second term,” said one advisor, who suggested Schwarzenegger was leaning toward calling a special election for the fall.
But there is a distinct risk.
The governor’s greatest success has come when he transcended party labels, as a larger-than-life figure in the 2003 recall, and in 2004 when he linked hands with Democrats to push through a borrowing measure and block a rollback of California’s three-strikes law.
Redistricting, as now practiced, is an utterly partisan exercise. Any attempt to change the rules would inevitably be seen the same way.
“Who’s going to be his dance partner?” said Bill Carrick, an advisor to Democratic U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein, who helped Schwarzenegger pass his budget-balancing plan last March. “Before he makes the leap into the initiative war, he has to make the judgment of whether he can keep up that bipartisan patina.”
Another of Schwarzenegger’s advisors conceded as much. “Governor vs. Legislature, the advantage goes to the governor,” said the advisor, who did not want to be named while discussing such internal calculations. “If it becomes Republicans vs. Democrats, that’s the threshold you don’t ever want to cross.”
One way for Schwarzenegger to push redistricting reform and avoid charges of a partisan power grab -- “finesse it through,” as an aide put it -- would be to pit himself against the Democratic Party as well as Republicans in Congress.
It was GOP congressmen, after all, who shook hands on the deal that protected their own seats while consigning the party to a minority in California’s delegation.
Already, the governor has heard from a worried U.S. Rep. David Dreier, the San Dimas Republican who played a key role in the last redistricting and served as an important Schwarzenegger advisor during the recall campaign.
Dreier, who telephoned the governor last week to express his concerns, said he supported Schwarzenegger’s efforts, but would prefer to see no change in district lines until 2011.
Taking on congressional Republicans could present a whole different set of problems for Schwarzenegger, already viewed as suspiciously moderate by many in the GOP establishment.
But that may give little pause. Throughout his diverse career -- as a bodybuilder, movie star and, now, governor -- Schwarzenegger has shown he relishes a challenge, the tougher the better. The fact that so many people say he can’t possibly tackle redistricting without hurting himself politically may be all the more incentive for him to try.