Promise to overhaul redistricting unfulfilled

Could have fooled me, and did. Was I ever gullible.

It really did seem like legislative leaders would honor their word and surrender the power to draw their own districts, a direct conflict of interest.

How much of a conflict? They’ve been rigging the elections by choosing their own voters. Gerrymandering, it’s called, too often with a dismissive shrug that says, politicians will be politicians. In the last three election cycles, only four seats have changed parties in 495 California legislative and congressional races.

But last week, for the second straight year, redistricting reform died quietly on the final day of the legislative session.


Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger shares the blame. I actually thought he’d insist that the Legislature hand over redistricting to an independent commission. Figured he’d play tough. Make Democratic leaders an “offer.” Call them into his corner office in the Capitol, stare them down and say something like:

Look, I’ll endorse and campaign for your term limits ballot measure -- or I’ll oppose it and raise money to beat the thing. Your call. But without redistricting reform, you people don’t deserve a break on term limits.

The governor implied it, but apparently never held the gun to the temple.

And when time ran out on the regular legislative session, he called new “special” sessions for healthcare and water, but not for redistricting. Why? Senate leader Don Perata (D-Oakland) didn’t have “much interest,” Schwarzenegger said.

Indeed, Perata had just told reporters that if the governor did call a special session for redistricting, “I’m not going to take it up. There’s an urgency in healthcare. There’s an urgency in water. There is not an urgency in redistricting.”

So Perata wasn’t much interested. So what? The Democratic leader doesn’t hold many of the Republican governor’s interests. But it shouldn’t stop the governor from pursuing his priorities -- especially one like redistricting that he claims to “feel very passionate about.”

“The person who didn’t do their job was the governor,” says Republican Sen. Roy Ashburn of Bakersfield, author of a combo constitutional amendment that would reform redistricting and relax term limits. “This was Arnold Schwarzenegger’s moment and he ran from it.”

Then, referring to the name Schwarzenegger once called Democratic legislators, Ashburn added: “Maybe the governor has proven himself to be the ultimate ‘girlie man.’ ”


Sen. Alan Lowenthal (D-Long Beach), author of another redistricting measure, says: “I’m critical of everyone. It doesn’t seem to me that at the end of the day anyone wanted to stand up and fight for this. The leadership didn’t want to see it happen.

“It was a complete, abject failure of the Legislature to do what it committed to the public it would do.”

Let’s back up and recall the precise promise.

In 2005, Schwarzenegger was backing a goofy redistricting proposal on his special election ballot. It would have forced a mid-decade redistricting, rather than waiting for the customary next census. Worse, it would have required any redistricting to be approved by a statewide vote, a political consultants’ bonanza.


If voters would reject the governor’s ballot proposition, Perata told me, “Our commitment. . . is to fashion a bipartisan solution in a thoughtful way and put it on the ballot next year.” Ditto, said Assembly Speaker Fabian Nuñez (D-Los Angeles).

The Schwarzenegger measure was soundly rejected by nearly 60% of voters.

Then the Democratic leaders didn’t deliver.

Schwarzenegger, Perata and Nuñez last week suggested that maybe they’d get it done next year and place a redistricting reform measure on the November 2008 ballot. Has a familiar ring.


Meanwhile, on the Feb. 5 presidential primary ballot, only the term limits initiative is booked. It would reduce the total years allowed in the Legislature from 14 to 12, but permit all the time to be spent in one house. Currently there’s a six-year limit in the Assembly and eight-year cap in the Senate. Without the measure, Nuñez and Perata will be termed out next year.

The Democratic leaders originally planned to pair term limits with redistricting as a marketable political reform package. “We can’t put one on the ballot without the other,” Nuñez asserted early last year.

What happened? There are many excuses, but no justification. It comes down to lack of either commitment or competence.

A lot of fingers are being pointed.


Perata, despite his original heat-of-passion pledge, shudders at the thought of giving up the gerrymandering power. Yet, he did allow both the Ashburn and Lowenthal measures to pass the Senate and go to the Assembly, where they were denied committee hearings for weeks.

Nuñez worked hard on his own plan, but couldn’t strike a deal with Republicans, the distracted governor or what one senior aide calls the “goody-two-shoes” reform groups.

One hang-up was over whether to allow the Legislature to continue drawing congressional districts or to make it hand the task to an independent commission. It was feared that U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco) would raise millions to oppose any redistricting scheme that didn’t permit Democratic gerrymandering. Conversely, GOP leaders insisted that the Democratic-dominated Legislature keep its hands off House seats.

The solution should have been easy: Strip only legislative redistricting from the Legislature. It’s not a direct conflict anyway for state lawmakers to draw House seats.


But negotiations apparently never got that far.

Tony Quinn, a former redistricting consultant for Republicans, thinks this legislative failure kills all chances for reform. “I don’t believe there’s any possibility of getting this in the future,” he says. “It had to be tied to term limits. Democrats had to get something to give up something.”

Term limits should be eased. But should they be eased while lawmakers still have the power to rig their own elections? That’s a question we’ll have to mull.