Competing propositions take aim at California redistricting
The esoteric subject of who draws California’s political districts has morphed into a high-drama affair this fall, a multimillion-dollar struggle with political intrigue stretching from Sacramento to Washington and even, some suggest, to Israel.
It’s a battle about power, Nancy Pelosi and control of Congress, pitting a Los Angeles billionaire against the son of Warren Buffett’s business partner. There’s racial strife and even a full-length documentary in the mix.
All this over two competing ballot measures, Propositions 20 and 27, which would overhaul the arcane, once-a-decade redrawing of political districts in the nation’s most populous state.
“It’s really frankly very dull to most people — and yet so important,” said Bill Mundell, executive producer of Gerrymandering, a documentary released this month about how political districts can be contorted. Backers of Proposition 20 have sent 660,000 DVDs of the movie to California voters.
Every 10 years, after the U.S. Census, lines must be redrawn to ensure that legislative and congressional districts have equal populations. For years, in nearly every state, state legislators drew those lines. Critics say the process has allowed lawmakers to choose their voters, rather than the other way around. The last set of California maps, drafted in 2001, protected incumbents so thoroughly that no seats switched party control in more than 300 elections in the state in 2002 and 2004.
Two years ago, Californians approved a ballot measure, Proposition 11, stripping legislators of power to draw their own districts’ boundaries and handing that authority to an independent citizens’ commission.
Now, two competing Nov. 2 ballot measures offer voters divergent paths going forward: Proposition 20 would double-down on the still-forming citizens’ panel, allowing it to draw maps for Congress too. Proposition 27 would scrap it entirely. If both measures pass, the one with more votes would be enacted.
The initiatives have lured roughly $20 million in campaign money — and both were placed on the ballot by big donors who, their opponents hint, have mixed motivations.
Charles T. Munger Jr., the son of Buffett’s business partner and a big GOP donor, and his wife have injected more than $12.5 million of their fortune to pass Proposition 20. He casts the campaign as completing the job voters began when they passed Proposition 11 in 2008.
“Districts are drawn like fortresses for incumbents of both parties,” said Munger, a physicist.
The billionaire on the other side is Haim Saban, a Los Angeles Democrat and entertainment mogul who provided a $2-million loan this spring that paid for signature gatherers to get Proposition 27 on the ballot. Saban is the unlikeliest of bankrollers; in 2008, he contributed $200,000 to the campaign to create the citizens commission that Proposition 27 would unravel.
Why the shift?
Saban may have provided the answer back in 2004. “I’m a one-issue guy and my issue is Israel,” he said in an interview with the New York Times that year. Mundell and other opponents of Proposition 27 have connected his change of heart to his desire to protect the congressional seat of Rep. Howard Berman (D-Valley Village), the chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee and a staunch supporter of Israel.
Berman, his brother Michael Berman, a redistricting expert, and Pelosi (D- San Francisco) have been the leading political organizers behind Proposition 27, said Daniel Lowenstein, the measure’s author and an emeritus professor at UCLA’s law school.
Saban declined to be interviewed. His spokeswoman, Cassandra Bujarski, said in a statement that Saban believes the redistricting commission, which has yet to be fully formed, “hasn’t worked out as intended because the state’s diverse population has not been adequately represented in the process of selecting members.” Records show his loan has been repaid.
Whatever Saban’s motivation, Berman’s district provides an interesting case study in how gerrymandering is used in California.
The issue is often cast in terms of partisan balance — Democrats versus Republicans. And in some parts of California, strategic drawing of boundaries can tilt a district one way or the other.
But in many parts of the state — much of Los Angeles County, for example — the population is so one-sidedly partisan that almost no amount of line-drawing could elect a representative from the other party. Instead, lines are drawn with an eye more toward the primary election than the general.
In Berman’s case, lawmakers in the last round of redistricting, nearly 10 years ago, redrew the boundaries of his 28th congressional district to leave out some heavily Latino neighborhoods, insulating the congressman from the threat of a Latino challenger.
Racial and ethnic tensions have often played a role in redistricting battles and have also dogged the citizen commission. The selection process for the panel drew criticism early in 2010 for under-representing minorities. The crop of 60 finalists has proved more diverse, with 17 Latinos, 10 Asians, eight African Americans and four Native Americans among those still in the running to be on the 14-member panel.
Both sides have tried to use the issue of race in the current campaign.
In the official voter guide mailed to 11 million California homes, former national NAACP Chairman Julian Bond called Proposition 20 “insulting to all Californians.”
“Jim Crow districts are a thing of the past,” Bond said, adding that Proposition 20 “sets back the clock on redistricting law.”
The Yes on 20 campaign had California NAACP President Alice Huffman sign the rebuttal to those remarks. Huffman has been paid nearly $100,000 by the Yes on 20 effort for her strategic advice and outreach to black voters. She has been criticized in recent years for being paid hundreds of thousands of dollars by ballot campaigns that the state NAACP has endorsed while she has been president.
Some Democrats suggest that Proposition 20 is a tool to dilute their power. Democrats firmly control the state Legislature and thus the current map-drawing system. Pelosi could try to bolster the number of Democrats elected to the House in 2012 by influencing the way congressional district lines are drawn next year.
Pelosi and 17 California House Democrats each contributed at least $10,000 to promote Proposition 27 to abolish the citizens’ commission.
Munger dismissed the notion that he wants to influence elections for GOP gain, arguing that he could lavish funds on GOP candidates — or run for office himself. “If this is a Republican plot, it’s an awfully stupid one,” he said.