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California Politics: Redistricting gets real

Jim Dear, Mayor of Carson giving his comments with the redistricting map behind him at a hearing on Jun. 16, 2011.
(Los Angeles Times)

The name most famously associated with political map drawing is Elbridge Gerry, who as governor of Massachusetts signed off on a diabolical “gerrymander” in 1812 to break his rivals’ stronghold on the state Legislature.

But in California, where congressional and legislative redistricting is in the hands of an independent citizens’ commission, the process is probably more of an homage to Hermann Rorschach, whose inkblot test (originally designed as a diagnostic test for schizophrenia) has become shorthand for how different two people’s perceptions can be of the same shape.

And the shapes of most political districts are unusual, not because of nefarious gerrymandering but rather because groups of voters with shared interests — common traits that matter — don’t always live in proximity to one another.

Members of the California Citizens Redistricting Commission, who have rolled up their sleeves over the last couple of weeks to dig deep into how to draw new maps, are quickly discovering that beyond what’s outlined in legal mandates, there are lots of ways to get it right — or, in the eyes of some groups, get it wrong.

“We all must recognize that redistricting involves trade-offs,” Commissioner J. Ray Kennedy said during the panel’s meeting on Wednesday.

Draft maps in three weeks

The commission began reviewing early sketches of legislative and congressional districts this month, drawings that were described as “visualizations” made by the panel’s technical consultants after several months of public testimony. A final round of visualizations is expected next week.

These efforts aren’t considered actual draft proposals because the commission has considered them only as snapshots of community preferences offered during weeks of public testimony but not drawings that reflect the potential effects of those preferences on the entire state.

“We do not have any draft maps yet,” Commissioner Sara Sadhwani said Wednesday. “We are simply thinking about what are the possibilities.”

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The commission’s official draft maps are scheduled to be released Nov. 10, offering the first real look at the political consequences of a decade’s worth of population growth and demographic changes as well as California’s first loss of a congressional seat. In preparation for that, commissioners decided not just to rely on their own visualizations but also to consider detailed maps drawn by a variety of community and activist groups.

But even before the draft maps are drawn, a few key takeaways are becoming clear.

These districts are drawn first

Other than the need to equalize population (especially for House seats), the top requirement for political districts is that there’s no dilution of the voting power of Latino, Black and Asian Americans. The state commission has hired lawyers whose primary job is to assess proposed districts for their compliance with that requirement based on provisions of the federal Voting Rights Act.

The 14 commissioners — five Democrats, five Republicans and four unaffiliated with a major party — have indicated they will draw these so-called VRA districts first and create as many of those districts as possible. That approach probably reflects the desire to support diversity and the realization that lawsuits filed against redistricting plans are often centered on alleged violations of the Voting Rights Act.

Look for this issue to dominate the choices made in drawing districts in Southern California and parts of the Central Valley and for many of the discussions to focus on Latino voters.

A decade ago, as researchers at the nonpartisan Public Policy Institute of California, or PPIC, noted last week, only one of the state’s political districts had a Latino population of more than 60% — 11 districts now meet that standard. Asian Americans make up 45% of the population in three current districts; Black citizens, the report notes, are more dispersed and line drawers could find it hard to draw districts where these voters make up sizable pluralities.

The early sketches have proved this point.

“In the Assembly visualizations,” wrote analysts at the nonpartisan Target Book, “districts ranged from 53% to over 71% Latino Citizen Voting Age Population (CVAP). After these districts were drawn, there was very little room to create Black-majority or Black-plurality seats.”

The political power of Black voters will be closely watched in the state’s current 37th Congressional District, where Rep. Karen Bass is leaving Congress to run for mayor of Los Angeles. Data in the recent PPIC report show 29.2% of citizen voting-age residents in Bass’ district are Black while 27.3% are Latino.

(Remember that the state is losing a congressional district, which makes some observers wonder whether Bass’ departure helps ease the political pain.)

In all of these areas, the commission will need to determine whether voters in traditional minority groups have a history of voting along racial lines. Look for reports on what’s known as “racially polarized voting” as a guide to how many districts will be drawn with these considerations in mind.

Tough choices: Look at San Luis Obispo

For a glimpse at the tough trade-offs inherent in drawing political maps, it’s worth taking a quick look at the challenges the California Citizens Redistricting Commission has in new boundaries in San Luis Obispo County, whose coastal/agricultural voters offer a fascinating cross-section of the state’s larger political landscape.

It also, given its spot on the state map, can cause ripple effects hundreds of miles away.

“San Luis Obispo County makes a huge difference in terms of what districts in the north and districts in the south look like,” Andrew Westall, a researcher with the Equal Representation Project, told the commission on Thursday.

Several groups that made mapping suggestions to the state commission envisioned radically different spots for the lines along the Central Coast and rural areas to its east.

One group, the Central Coast Alliance United for a Sustainable Economy, drew a proposed Assembly map that would place most of San Luis Obispo County in an Assembly district with western Kern County. The group, which describes itself as an advocate for the region’s working-class and immigrant communities, argues the counties share “traditionalist values” voters and shouldn’t be grouped with “poorer farmworker communities like the Salinas Valley or Santa Maria Valley.”

But the California Environmental Voters, one of the state’s most prominent environmental advocacy groups, had a completely different viewpoint.

Its map drew lines for an Assembly district down the coast from Santa Cruz to the southern border of San Luis Obispo County, separating the area from the agricultural regions to the east in an effort to give priority to the community’s record in support of environmental protection policies.

The two proposals would almost surely result in different partisan outcomes. In the coastal Assembly proposal, a Democrat would be the odds-on favorite to win. In the San Luis Obispo-Kern configuration, the partisan registration would probably favor the incumbent, Assemblyman Jordan Cunningham (R-Paso Robles).

It’s important to remember that the state redistricting commission cannot consider the residences of incumbent legislators. And beginning with the first commission’s work in 2011, the practice has been to also turn a blind eye to a region’s political registration data.

Political insiders, though, are tracking some of the potential shakeups in real time. Analysts at the Target Book, which handicaps legislative and congressional races, noted this week that the preliminary sketches suggested big changes for the state Senate regions now represented by Sen. Anna Caballero (D-Salinas) and Sen. Sydney Kamlager (D-Los Angeles) while flipping a district now represented by state Senate Minority Leader Scott Wilk (R-Saugus) to one that looks strongly Democratic.

In the end, even with firm mandates, where to draw political lines comes down to a subjective decision about which goals of independent redistricting are most important — and why.

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California politics lightning round

— The Newsom administration on Thursday took the first step toward banning new oil and gas wells within 3,200 feet of homes, schools and healthcare facilities, and requiring emissions monitoring of existing wells within those buffer zones.

— The Los Angeles City Council on Wednesday suspended Councilman Mark Ridley-Thomas, who has been indicted on federal bribery, conspiracy and other charges. Hours later, city officials announced he would no longer receive his $223,800 salary.

— L.A. County supervisors decided to hire an outside law firm to investigate contracts that are central to federal corruption charges against Ridley-Thomas.

— California regulators approved new transparency requirements Thursday for charitable contributions made on behalf of politicians with whom the donors may be trying to curry favor, an attempt to reveal wealthy donors who hide behind anonymous accounts.

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