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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.