ASSEMBLY REPUBLICAN leader Mike Villines knows one way to create more sensible political districts in California. Just go to a restaurant and pick 12 people at random, he said on the first day of the Assembly's new two-year session, and they will do a better job than state lawmakers of drawing rational lines on a map.
Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger on Tuesday unveiled a plan that is a bit more complex and eye-glazing than that -- an 11-member Citizens Redistricting Commission (consisting of four Democrats, four Republicans and three others) will be chosen at random from a pool of 55 candidates selected by a panel of 10 current or former county registrars, for starters.
But the point is that both Villines and Schwarzenegger want to eliminate the conflict of interest inherent in allowing incumbent politicians and their party leaders to draw their own districts and choose their own voters.
It makes sense that the minority party would want to change a system that preserves the status quo, and the governor has, to his credit, been pushing for redistricting reform since taking office. Now it's time for Democratic Assembly Speaker Fabian Nunez to get onboard with serious talks. He signaled something far short of enthusiasm Tuesday with a statement outlining his top priorities, making it quite clear that redistricting was not one of them. At least he acknowledged that he would take a fresh look at the issue.
Nunez often claims that Californians ask him to reform healthcare, education and the environment, but no one ever tugs on his sleeve and pleads for changes in the way districts are drawn. But voters do care about their closed political system, even if they don't spend their time studying the ins and outs of legislative mapmaking.
Redrawing political boundaries to make them more rational won't cure all of California's ills. But sensible geographic districts are easier for lawmakers to represent, promote stronger civic participation and would go a long way toward releasing the stranglehold of party leaders on candidates and their futures.
The way it is now, with term limits in the mix, top Democrats and Republicans can plot out the careers of their colleagues years in advance. Vote my way on every bill, the party boss might say, or you'll find that the legislative district you had your eye on is being redrawn to favor someone else.
Some Democrats are withholding support for redistricting unless they can also extend the limits on their terms in office. Villines, so far, has indicated an absolute thumbs-down on the linkage. He should reconsider. Lengthening lawmakers' stays in Sacramento should not be a prerequisite for redistricting reform. But if it's the last obstacle to making better government, it shouldn't be completely off the table.