Redistricting Plan a Long Shot, but a Promise Is a Promise

We still can’t be sure whether a promise made by Democratic legislative leaders last year was sincere or merely sweet talk in the heat of passion.

Was it a real commitment? Or just that all’s fair in politics?

This was the promise, you may recall: If voters would reject Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s political redistricting reform -- stripping lawmakers of the power to draw their own district lines -- the Legislature would place a better measure on the 2006 ballot.

Schwarzenegger’s Proposition 77 was soundly rejected in November by nearly 60% of the voters.


The pledge was unequivocal:

“There’s a lot of merit to taking this out of the hands of the Legislature, but [Prop. 77] is a joke,” Senate leader Don Perata (D-Oakland) told me back then. “Our commitment, if 77 goes down, is to fashion a bipartisan solution in a thoughtful way and put it on the ballot next year.

“This can be done.”

But not easily.

Two strong instincts are working against it: The reluctance of majority Democrats to surrender power, especially over their own political fates. The temptation of minority Republicans to stick it to Democrats by preventing them from honoring their word.

Any reform needs GOP support for two reasons: A two-thirds vote of each house is required. And it’s unlikely the electorate would buy a proposal that didn’t have bipartisan backing.

So what’s the status of this pledge?


This is what’s happening:

* Prodded by Perata, reluctant Democrats on a Senate committee last week approved a measure by Sen. Alan Lowenthal (D-Long Beach), long a crusader for redistricting reform. “Courtesy votes,” two Democrats conceded.

The proposal would turn over redrawing of legislative and congressional districts to a five-member independent commission, mostly appointed by legislative leaders from a list of candidates selected by retired judges. The Legislature would have no say in the redistricting.

Unlike the flawed Prop. 77, there wouldn’t be a mid-decade redistricting; the next one would be after the 2010 census. And each remapping wouldn’t need to be approved by voters.

* Assembly Speaker Fabian Nunez (D-Los Angeles) will attempt to leverage the Legislature’s desire to ease term limits against the reluctance to change redistricting. He’ll push to place a term-limit proposal and a separate redistricting plan on the November ballot as a reform package.

“We can’t put one on the ballot without the other,” he says.

Currently, there’s a limit of three two-year terms in the Assembly and two four-year stints in the Senate -- a max of 14 years. Nunez says he’s inclined to cut the total number to 12 years, but allow all to be served in one house if a lawmaker wanted.

Recent private polling, Nunez says, finds that most Californians support term-limit flexibility. They agree that the current limits have led to unintended consequences.

The most salable rap on the limits, a poll by the Mellman Group shows, is that legislators spend too much time playing musical chairs, positioning themselves to run for their next job. They don’t focus enough on the public’s business, such as education and deficit spending.

Voters also are swayed, polling indicates, by the argument that these limits prevent the nurturing of legislating experience, policy expertise and institutional memory in a house.

“This is a job that you get in, you learn it and you’re out,” Nunez says. “That has kept us from planning for the state’s future in an effective way.”

Nunez also favors handing over redistricting to an independent commission.

But “it’s hard to sell” voters, he says, “because any type of redistricting commission we construct will be perceived by the voters to be manipulated by the politicians. Voters don’t trust that politicians ever would give power away -- even when we want to give it away. People look at it as fool’s gold.”

Lowenthal is the lead Democrat on redistricting.

“This would be historic,” he says. “No state legislature has ever voluntarily given up its [redistricting] power. It’s only been taken away by a citizens’ initiative.

“This is a long shot. No one of either party is really wild about it. Don [Perata] is supporting it because he made that commitment. Without Don’s blessing, we wouldn’t even have had a committee hearing. But members of the committee weren’t happy campers.”

With one exception: Sen. Debra Bowen (D-Marina del Rey). She chairs the Assembly Elections, Reapportionment and Constitutional Amendments Committee and supports redistricting reform. She’s also running for secretary of state.

Lowenthal says the next step is a series of “workshops” aimed at developing a salable product.

The best example of why lawmakers should not be permitted to draw their own districts was the flagrant gerrymandering they performed in 2001. Their goal was to protect the political status quo, and they succeeded infamously.

As a result, of the 100 legislative seats up for election this year, only about half a dozen are potentially competitive, says Allan Hoffenblum, publisher of the Target Book, which handicaps races. That means very few lawmakers need fear their constituents. Practically all are escaping accountability.

At the same time, mostly because of term limits, nearly half these seats -- 48 -- are “open,” with no incumbent running. This will result in a 40% legislative turnover, a hard hit on any organization.

Term limits and redistricting both should be reformed. But if Democrats do nothing else this year, they need to deliver on their redistricting promise. If not, it’ll be a very long time before we believe that sweet talk again.


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