On Nov. 2, California voters went to the polls and elected a new state government that, when it came to statewide offices, was wall-to-wall Democrats, right?
Well, yes — but not quite.
Meet Peter Yao, the Claremont city councilman who also serves as temporary chairman of the new California commission charged with creating the state’s legislative and congressional districts for the next 10 years. He is, not incidentally, a Republican.
By the terms of two initiatives that state voters enacted, the commission must be (and is) composed of five Republicans, five Democrats and four registered voters who belong to neither party. The theory is that taking redistricting out of the hands of the Legislature will create more competitive districts, end what has in effect become an incumbent protection racket and yield a new crop of lawmakers less tethered to their respective party’s base and more open to bipartisan compromise. The commissioners, who were selected through a kind of semi-meritocratic lottery process, will thereby transform the politics of the state.
It all sounds very fair and disinterested. What it doesn’t reflect is the actual politics of California, which is a decidedly Democratic state. Despite the most favorable electoral climate Republicans have had in decades, Democrats swept the state last month. Jerry Brown and Barbara Boxer defeated their gazillionaire opponents by 1.3 million and 1 million votes, respectively. Democrats held every one of their congressional seats, and actually increased their margin in the Legislature.
Having five Republicans and five Democrats on the redistricting commission may look equitable, but it doesn’t look anything like California. And for Democrats, turning over the districting of California’s mammoth congressional delegation to such a commission, at the very moment when newly empowered Republicans in other states will be drawing their congressional districts along Republican-friendly lines, amounts to a kind of unilateral surrender.
Come January, Republicans will control the governorship and both houses of the legislature in 17 states, including Texas, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan and North Carolina, and they will use that power to send more members of their increasingly radical party to Congress. The one major state where the Democrats exercise similar control, however — California, the state with by far the largest delegation — will not use redistricting to counter that surge.
That said, no districting map can really change California’s partisan balance. The Bay Area, greater Los Angeles and much of the rest of coastal California are too uniformly Democratic to create Republican districts, just as much of inland California and the south coast remain too heavily Republican to craft Democratic districts.
But there’s a wild card in this deck: The growth of Latino populations in nearly every corner of the state means that a number of areas currently represented by Republicans are going to become more Democratic in the years ahead. The Republican war on immigrants has only solidified the Democrats’ hold on Latinos’ political allegiance, and California Republicans seem newly determined to estrange Latinos even more. This month, 18 of the state’s 20 Republican members of Congress who were present voted against the DREAM Act, which would enable immigrants brought here illegally as children to earn their citizenship by serving in the armed forces or matriculating in college. Thirty-two of the state’s 33 Democratic members of Congress were present, and they all voted yes.
It’s hard to figure what California Republicans are thinking. Ruining young lives may be morally despicable, denying America the service and talents of dedicated young people may harm the nation, but infuriating California’s growing number of Latino voters is beyond question an act of political suicide.
In the short term, the Republican members of Congress are voting the priorities of their increasingly nativist party. In the long term, however, the only strategic explanation for the Republicans’ growing antipathy to Latino political power, at least in California, is their hope that the electorates in their districts will remain as Latino-free as possible in the coming reapportionment.
If our new redistricting commission really wants to prove its mettle to a state whose partisan and ideological composition it does not seem to reflect, the very least it can do is craft some districts where those who voted to deny citizenship to some of the most dedicated and patriotic young Californians will have to defend their vote to the families, friends and supporters of the DREAM Act’s beneficiaries. If the redistricting commission can do that — if it can make our representatives more answerable to our increasingly multiracial electorate — it may yet justify its existence.
Harold Meyerson is editor at large of the American Prospect and an op-ed columnist for the Washington Post.