Competition, Communities Dominate Redistricting Reactions

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Perhaps Angelo Ancheta, a member of California's Citizens Redistricting Commission, didn't know he was invoking the memory of one of the state's legendary politicians last week as the panel finished its work -- a politician who took great pride as a master of the gerrymander.

"I'm looking at the screen in front of us, and I think that's a work of art," said Ancheta, a Santa Clara University law professor, in praising the commission's newly drawn congressional districts.

And yet it was hard not to flash back to a 1981 quip reportedly made by a different Bay Area map drawer, the late Rep. Phil Burton. The iconic Democrat described the congressional districts he had helped craft as "my contribution to modern art."

Yes, beauty is in the eye of the beholder. And that, perhaps, helps explain some of the early reactions to the state's newly drawn political boundary lines.

It's probably to assume the following: if you hate your local politicians... and if California's new political maps spell doom for the incumbents in your area... you're a happy camper. If what you define as your own "community" got sliced and diced into separate districts... you're ticked off.

For everyone in-between, including California's political junkies, there's still an awful lot to ponder of the commission's choices for congressional, Assembly, Senate, and state Board of Equalization districts. Barring any last minute defections of support from the commissioners, those maps will be certified on August 15.

Some points worth noting:

Competition Yes. Lots? Doubtful: The dominant theme of the 2008 campaign that created the citizens redistricting panel, as I reported at the time, was that "fair" maps would end the decade-long decline in competitive elections. On this morning's KQED program Forum, political scientist (and Assembly redistricting advisor in the 1981 redistricting dominated by the aforementioned Rep. Burton) Bruce Cain said there was an "obsession" with how the new maps may spell doom to incumbents. Perhaps, but it's worth noting that incumbency -- especially among the state's members of Congress -- has been a powerful firewall; only one sitting congressman has lost his job in recent memory.

Assessing the likelihood of competition first requires some calibration of voter registration data. Several researchers have noted that Democrats in California tend to cast ballots less frequently than Republicans and, when they do, more often cross party lines. Thus, a congressional/legislative district with what you'd think to be a sizable Democratic registration advantage actually ends up being competitive, while a comparable GOP advantage in an adjacent district would make that seat a "safe" Republican seat. "A common definition of a competitive seat is one that falls between a five-point registration advantage for Republicans and a ten-point advantage for Democrats," writes Eric McGhee of the nonpartisan Public Policy Institute of California.

Using that standard, McGhee points out that the final maps include ten competitive seats for Congress (up from four under the soon-to-disappear 2001 districts); 11 in the Assembly (up from nine in 2001); and seven in the state Senate (up from three in 2001). Democratic consultant Paul Mitchell agrees on the Assembly projection while being a bit more conservative in competition for seats in Congress (eight) and the state Senate (five). Mitchell's projections also take into account "the strength of the incumbents," and incumbency often trumps registration data. Even with the most optimistic guesses, the new maps create 28 competitive political districts out of 173 statewide, or only 16%. Experts have long warned that reformers who promised a lot more competition in California political races were making a mistake, given how many voters self segregate themselves in communities that are either very liberal or very conservative; it's probably even a dicier goal once you throw in the hard-to-pin down but rapidly growing ranks of independent voters.

Woe Is My Community: One of the most novel and, perhaps not surprisingly, complicated parts of the panel's mission was to draw districts that -- when possible -- respected communities of interest. That "when possible" caveat is a big one, as federal and state law mandate that even a tightly knit community can be split to meet the needs of either equal population or the voting rights of minorities. In multiple meetings, redistricting commissioners suggested there was only so much they could do to keep whole certain communities when faced with the population/minority voting rights mandates.

But it's possible that the commission's focus on communities -- through months of statewide hearings and thousands of written and oral public comments -- left many with the perception that the lines would spare them. And so some reviews of the maps -- from the northern coast to the eastern Bay Area to southern California -- are less than glowing.

Stockton Spared: One community that probably isn't upset is the city of Stockton, which an analysis of commission data shows is the largest city in California that was not split in the legislative and congressional maps. GOP political consultant Matt Rexroad, a well-known redistricting guru, says the entire surrounding county was spared the knife and believes it might have something to do with the fact that one of the most influential commissioners, independent Michelle DiGiulio, lives in Stockton. In a brief chat last Friday, DiGiulio dismissed such speculation and insisted that her city's fate was determined more by the regions around Stockton, many of which include Latino populations that had to be prioritized due to the federal Voting Rights Act.

KQED/John Myers

Commissioners Clam Up: Very few observers believe that the independent panel's maps will go into effect this month without a legal challenge, a proposed referendum, or both. And that may be why the 14 commissioners have largely refused to talk about anything even remotely related to the decisions they made. On this morning's Forum segment, commissioners Cynthia Dai and Vincent Barraba deflected just about every question that attempted to understand some of the reasons for how the districts were drawn. The program's producers say both commissioners insisted beforehand that they would only discuss the general process. Those are pretty much the marching orders given last week. In fact, all media requests must now be vetted by the commission's communications director in consultation with attorneys. The reason for this seems to be the fear that anything said will give legal or political critics some kind of ammunition with which the soon-to-be certified maps can be killed. That's not a new fear; in fact, after two Republican commissioners in the contentious hearing on Sunday, July 24 suggested that some LA-area congressional districts may be unconstitutional -- districts which ultimately led those two commissioners to vote 'no' on the maps -- the commission's attorney quickly requested that the panel move to closed session... which it did.

CORRECTION: In an earlier version, Bruce Cain was incorrectly identified as an adviser to Burton in the 1981 redistricting process. He was, in fact, an adviser to the Assembly. Apologies to the venerable political scientist! --JM

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About John Myers

John Myers is Sacramento Bureau Chief for KQED Public Radio and "The California Report," heard daily on 23 public radio stations across the Golden State.
  • Bruce Cain

    John

    Not that it is a big deal but two corrections: 1. I was never an aide to Phil Burton, I worked for the Assembly; and 2. my point about incumbency was about the state legislative districts, not the Congress, and its irrelevance in an era of term limits. The Republicans put out a lot of misinformation about me. Lost in this were the facts that I fought the Democrats over the need to keep the state data base nonpartisan and won, and that I have only worked with nonpartisan local governments, the courts and the Justice department on line-driawing since 1982.

    Bruce Cain

  • http://www.kqed.org/weblog/capitalnotes/blog.jsp John Myers

    Thank you for the correction on your work on the 1981 plan, and my apologies on the error!

    As to incumbency in the Legislature: I agree that it’s a less relevant issue that Congress due to term limits. But I think there’s still a power to incumbency here in Sacramento. Almost no incumbents lose their jobs in the six or eight years they’re eligible for office (or the 14 combined in both houses). In the state Senate, not a single seat changed parties this decade — thus, no incumbents lost. In the Assembly, all five political party swaps happened at the end of the decade… but again, these were during open races — not incumbents being sent home.

    Thanks for engaging in the discussion!