REDISTRICTING: THE THIRTY YEARS WAR IN CALIFORNIA5 min read

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At the top of every decade, the time honored tradition of redistricting is performed by the State Legislature. Politics plays a heavy hand in the process of where lines are drawn for the State Assembly, State Senate and U.S. House of Representatives.

The debate is flourishing in the halls of the state capitol as it has been for the last few years. Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger fresh off his re-election wants to take the power of redistricting out of the legislature.

In 2005 during his ill-fated special election he tried to do just that by supporting an initiative to give a panel of retired judges the power to draw district lines. The initiative bombed.

Following the election, Democratic leaders in the legislature promised to reform redistricting. State Senator Alan Lowenthal (D-Long Beach) carried a constitutional amendment to do just that, but his own party voted it down.

Now legislators may bring redistricting reform up, but only attached to a plan to extend term limits. That’s not a bad idea either; right now legislators only have the time to learn where the bathroom is before they are termed out.

At a roundtable discussion a week before the election at UC Berkeley’s Institute on Governmental Studies, Democratic Party Chair Art Torres said he was disappointed with the legislative leadership of his own party.

“I can’t believe the leaders didn’t do it after they promised they would come forth with a plan,” said Torres. “I’m not defending it anymore and I’m not going to defend the legislature on it.”

The only legislative or congressional district that changed partisan hands this election is right here. In the 11th Congressional District, extending from the East Bay to the Central Valley Jerry McNerney (D-Pleasanton) toppled House Resources Chairman Richard Pombo (R-Tracy) in the Democratic tidal wave that hit the country.

But this was an anomaly; Pombo’s district was drawn to elect a Republican. Democratic leaders and Republican leaders got together in 2001 and agreed on a plan to protect each other and end competitive campaigns as we know it.

Democrats controlled the State Legislature and Governorship under then-Governor Gray Davis and could have crafted a plan to increase their numbers in the state Legislature and U.S. House of Representatives.

But Democrats had made many gains in election after election in the 90’s and they controlled over 60% of the seats. Wary of losing those newly acquired seats and any court battles that may have loomed if Democrats tried to take a swipe at Republicans, Democratic leaders thought it was better to play it safe than sorry.

Democrats shored up the districts they had and allowed the Republicans to shore up the districts they had. Republicans were still guaranteed to remain in the minority and Democrats didn’t mind throwing them a bone.

This is not the first time districts were drawn in such a way to benefit a certain outcome. In the 1981 re-districting process in California, Democrats controlled both houses of the state legislature and Jerry Brown (D) was Governor. This time it wasn’t an incumbent protection plan, it was a Democratic advantage plan.

Under the guidance of Representative Phil Burton (D-San Francisco) the state was gerrymandered to maximize the number of Democrats elected. The plan worked and throughout the 80’s, Democrats dominated the legislature and California’s Congressional delegation.

Congressman Ron Dellums (D-Oakland) had a district that extended from his liberal base in Oakland and Berkeley to Danville. Needless to say, conservative Danville residents probably weren’t very happy their Congressman didn’t share their same beliefs, city, county, geographical area or race.

In the 1991 redistricting plan the Democrats controlled the legislature, but Pete Wilson (R) was governor. Wilson vetoed the legislative Democrats plan this time. The responsibility then went to the State Supreme Court where fairer districts were drawn without the involvement of politicians.

In this case, the inland East Bay finally got its own district, from Orinda to Walnut Creek through Danville to Livermore, conservative Republican Bill Baker (R-Danville) was elected to Congress in 1992. But as the inland East Bay began to move left Bill Baker lost his touch with his district.

In 1996 moderate Democrat Ellen Tauscher (D-Alamo) was elected to Congress in the most expensive House election that year. She repeatedly attacked Baker on his pro-life and pro-gun positions, something he was out of touch with in his district.

Just as the fog rolls in from Berkeley into inland Contra Costa County so does the liberalism. Conventional wisdom is Orinda is the most liberal city of these inland cities, just over the hill from Berkeley, while Walnut Creek is moderate and even further removed from Berkeley, Danville is the most conservative.

But what happened in 1996 with Tauscher’s victory was a natural progression. Voters with similar demographic backgrounds from Orinda to Walnut Creek and Danville to Livermore decided they needed a change and elected Tauscher.

Californians have seen it all in the last thirty years, the 80’s was a Democratic advantage, the 90’s were pretty fair and this decade, an incumbency advantage. The voter needs to be aware, get involved and actually go those re-districting community meetings at the top of every decade. Who knows you may just get to decide who your Representative is.

Nik Bonovich is a political analyst and writer. He has written for the California Target Book, The Hotline, Campaigns & Elections Magazine, California Political Almanac, Capitol Weekly and Political Pulse. He has also done non-partisan polling analysis for the firm, Polimetrix. Prior to this Nik worked in politics. He got his start in politics while at C.K. McClatchy High School in his hometown of Sacramento as an intern for two Assemblymembers at the State Capitol. His experience in government brought him into the campaign arena working on various State Assembly, State Senate, U.S. House, U.S. Senate and statewide Proposition campaigns. He is currently a graduate student in Journalism at UC Berkeley and holds a bachelor’s degree from UCLA in Political Science.

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