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Inside the Lines

California's Proposition 77 has incumbents running scared.

12:00 AM, Oct 21, 2005 • By BILL WHALEN
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ON SEPTEMBER 12, 2001, the day after the deadliest attack ever perpetrated on American soil, job security--not homeland security--was foremost on the minds of California lawmakers. State senators in Sacramento that day passed a redistricting bill purposely designed to protect both parties' incumbents. The state Assembly followed suit the next day. Two weeks later, then-Gov. Gray Davis signed the measure into law. Because it was drafted as "urgency" legislation, the new redistricting plan was immune from a referendum challenge that could have put the matter before the state's Supreme Court.

As it turned out, the legislature accomplished its mission. California was home to 153 congressional and legislative races last November; not a single one changed party hands. Compare that to the eight-year stretch from 1992 to 2000, when 10 of California's congressional districts, 6 state Senate and 14 Assembly districts changed parties at least once, with 13 of the districts turning over twice in those 5 elections.

Why did both parties sign off on the down-and-dirty deal? Democrats feared a repeat of the previous decade, when an impasse with then-Gov. Pete Wilson led to a court-appointed panel redrawing the map. Republicans were acting as a proxy of the Bush White House, which wanted a guaranteed minimum of 19 GOP congressmen from California, thus preserving Republican control of the House.

REDISTRICTING IS ONCE AGAIN in California's spotlight, as voters in next month's special election will decide the fate of Proposition 77. Sequentially the last of the four initiatives that constitute Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's reform slate, Prop. 77 would strip the legislature of its redistricting powers. Instead, the process would go as follows:

(1) Districts would be drawn up by a three-member panel of retired judges chosen from a pool of 24 nominated by the state's non-partisan Judicial Council.

(2) Districts would have to be compact and contiguous (that means an end to geographic anomalies such as California's 23rd Congressional District, the so-called "ribbon of shame" that runs 200 miles along the California coast, from Monterey to Santa Barbara, but on average is no more than 5 miles wide--and in some places is just a football-field's width).

(3) Whatever plan that's devised by the ex-judges could go in effect only with voter approval.

(4) Instead of waiting for the next census and the 2011 election, California's districts would be redrawn in time for November 2006.

If not for pyrotechnics of Schwarzenegger's high-stakes shootout with the unions, Prop. 77 might shine on its own as a classic California political food-fight. The "yes" side, which at last report had only $3.2 million in the bank, is headed up by Silicon Valley software magnate Steve Poizner, who last year lost as a Republican candidate in a Democratic-gerrymandered Assembly district. Theoretically, turning over control of Prop. 77 to Poizner frees up Schwarzenegger to focus his resources on his three other initiatives. But in reality, "Yes on 77" is still at Team Arnold's mercy, especially in terms of how much time the Governator gives to the cause and whether pro-reform voters go for the entire Arnold slate en masse.

(Full disclosure: I've been a paid consultant for Poizner, both on Prop. 77 and his Assembly run in 2004).

As for the "no" side, the money trail begins with House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, who's challenged her fellow House Democrats to chip in $100,000 apiece to kill the measure. Hollywood producer Stephen Bing, whose claims to fame are dating famous actresses (he fathered a child with Elizabeth Hurley) and donating to leftist causes ($16 million to Democratic causes in the last election cycle), has anted up $4.25 million. Also weighing in with six-figure donations: trial lawyers, the AFSCME public-employee union, and Haim Saban, the billionaire producer of the Might Morphin' Power Rangers. Further help comes in the form of out-of-state surrogates, including Democratic National Committee Chairman Howard Dean, who stumped the Bay Areas last week. Although Dean was a proponent of nonpartisan redistricting during his 2004 presidential run, he didn't skip the chance to trash the GOP as "the greatest propaganda machine since Vladimir Lenin."

Dean's not the only politician to find himself in an unusual place thanks to redistricting reform. Take the example of Rep. John Doolittle, a conservative Republican who thinks House Republicans will lose three seats if Prop. 77 passes. Doolittle sees it as part of a vast left-wing conspiracy along the Sunbelt and Rustbelt to redraw lines and reinstate a Democratic House majority.

Some California Democrats, on the hand, could best be described as internally conflicted between political gain and self-preservation. Representative Howard Berman, whose brother Michael designed the map that kept the states' congressional Democrats in safe standing (his law firm is running the "No on 77" campaign), is a case in point. If redrawn, Berman's seat in the San Fernando Valley would become decidedly more Hispanic, thus leaving him vulnerable to a primary challenge. Berman avoided this problem in the last redistricting. Thanks to his brother's skills at political cartography, the 26th Congressional District went from 65 percent to 41 percent Hispanic, with roughly 100,000 California Latinos moved into nearby districts.

But House Democrats aren't the only ones caught in the middle. Representative David Dreier, the powerful House Rules Committee chairman who narrowly survived reelection last fall, will be a loser under redistricting reform: his district would become more Democratic. Dreier also is Schwarzenegger's best buddy in the House (they shared stogies in his Capitol office on the morning of the presidential inauguration). If he's rooting for Prop. 77 to fail, he won't publicly do so at the Governator's expense. Others caught in the political cross-fire: Common Cause (its national president came to California this past week to endorse 77, but its state chapter has refused to get on board); and Reform Ohio Now, a labor-backed group that's willing to help Schwarzenegger in California in exchange for his help with a similar measure in the Buckeye State.

Will Prop. 77 prevail on November 8? History says don't bet on it. Since 1982, five redistricting initiatives have qualified for the ballot; none passed. The reform won't dramatically redefine the California landscape--Claremont-McKenna's Rose Institute estimates that 10 congressional, 7 Assembly and 8 state Senate districts would become competitive, compared to the 0, 3 and 1, respectively, at present.

What the initiative does test is the depth of public outrage. California is no stranger to political power plays: A Democratic gerrymander in the 1980s gave their party five more seats in the House, at a time when the state was voting Republican in presidential elections. But that's small potatoes compared to what occurred leading up to September 2001. Democrats paid Michael Berman almost $2 million over 18 months to redesign 93 congressional and state Senate districts. California's 32 Democratic House members paid $20,000 apiece to guarantee their day jobs, prompting this quote from Rep. Loretta Sanchez: "Twenty thousand is nothing to keep your seat . . . If my colleagues are smart, they'll pay their $20,000, and Michael will draw the district they can win in. Those who have refused to pay? God help them."

Bill Whalen is a research fellow at the Hoover Institution, where he follows California and national politics. He has been consultant for Steve Poizner both on Proposition 77 and Poizner's 2004 Assembly campaign.