Notebook: Vacant Seats, Smaller Donations?

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The dog days of summer, especially in this unusual year where the Legislature finished its work on deadline and then adjourned for a month, leave a lot of time for contemplation.

Hence, a Reporter's Notebook entry that could be called the "Summer of What If?"

Beware The Ides of... August? August 15 will be a red letter day in California politics, as the citizens panel that redrew the state's political maps meets to formally certify its work. That's the end of the commission's official duties, and the start of the guessing game about whether the 177 newly drawn political districts will withstand any and all challenges.

Critics have two very different avenues through which to pursue a do-over (and not by the commission, but rather by court-appointed mapmakers): a legal challenge or a ballot referendum... and neither is easy. On the legal front, as reported before, the only opening seems to be whether minority voters were drawn into enough friendly districts. The conventional wisdom is that this is really only a question for the commission's state Senate districts, and even then there's ample debate as to whether the state Supreme Court would consider the Senate map so badly drawn as to force a revision. And even then, might the justices order changes to only a handful of districts instead of all 40?

For those unhappy with the maps due to party politics, legal action seems to be a non-starter. "I'm not favoring lawsuits," said California Republican Party chairman Tom DelBeccaro in a TV interview last weekend. But the GOP boss wouldn't comment on the chances of sending the maps to the voters via referendum. That option, too, is tough.

For starters, gathering voter signatures is a costly business... even more so for a referendum, where proponents would only have 90 days to gather 504,760 valid signatures. In the most high-profile referendum quest right now -- the attempt to overturn the new online sales tax law -- Amazon has already ponied up $3 million, and California's GOP doesn't have that kind of dough. Campaign finance documents filed this week show the state party had a mere $220,000 in the bank as of July. Keep in mind, too, that each map -- Congress, Assembly, Senate, Board of Equalization -- would be a separate referendum. So who would write a check? Several veteran Republican members of Congress were drawn into bad or impossible districts by the independent commission, but would national GOP forces be willing to plunk down enough money -- to qualify for the ballot and run a campaign -- in the hotly contested 2012 cycle, just to try to save a few incumbents in Democratic-leaning California?

All of these hurdles, legal and political, don't mean that someone won't actually file a lawsuit or a proposed referendum. But filing and winning are two different things, and there seems to be the sense that while a lot of politicos and interest groups don't love the commission's work, they nonetheless think that the maps are likely to survive.

Hurry Before They're All Full! The "draft final" maps of the redistricting commission have now been out for public examination a full week, and it isn't taking long for seemingly vacant districts -- those drawn with no identified incumbent living there -- to fill up.

That's mostly true of the congressional districts, and for two reasons: there isn't a residency requirement for Congress (unlike the Legislature, you can live anywhere you please, though you may get pilloried as a carpetbagger), and the state's 53 spots in the U.S. House of Representatives are the political equivalent of a Wonka golden ticket, thanks to the power of incumbency and the absence of term limits.

Based on news reports and the assistance of political junkie sites like Around The Capitol, it appears that incumbent pols have already called (or will soon) dibs on eight of the 14 new districts without a resident member of Congress. Some of those seem more certain, like Rep. Henry Waxman (D), who politicos believe will shift toward a coastal seat. Others are more sticky, like the Central Valley shuffle that may reportedly end with Rep. Jeff Denham (R) moving slightly north after being drawn into a seat with Democratic Reps. Dennis Cardoza and Jim Costa. But will one of those, perhaps Costa, move to a different district? It's also worth pointing out that of the six vacant non-incumbent congressional seats remaining, most have candidates in waiting. Meantime, some incumbent members of Congress could end up in a cage match -- with the featured bout so far being between Democrats Howard Berman and Brad Sherman. On Friday, Sherman announced a list of endorsements led by former President Bill Clinton.

In the Legislature, things are more tricky -- residency requirements -- and decidedly more open. The citizens commission drew 20 Assembly districts where there is no incumbent assemblymember; and when added to the districts where the incumbent is termed out, the total number of new faces in the lower house in January 2013 will be 25... a remarkable amount of turnover, even in the era of term limits. Meantime, a handful of incumbents face some tough choices. Republicans Dan Logue and Jim Nielsen now live in the same north state district; Democrats Wes Chesbro and Michael Allen live in the same north/coastal district; and Demoocrats Roger Dickinson and Richard Pan live in the same Sacramento district. In the state Senate, a D-vs-R battle could pit incumbent Fran Pavley (D) against incumbent Tony Strickland (R) along the south coast.

Shrink Those Donations: Given all of that maneuvering, at least one groups of campaign reform advocates says it's time to rethink the size of political donations in California. This week, the nonpartisan Center for Governmental Studies issued a report calling for a dramatic downsizing of the individual contributions that can be made to state candidates, while blending the current system with a form of public financing.

The CGS report proposes rolling state contributions back to align them with the limits for federal (congressional) candidates; thus, all candidates would be barred from taking more than $2500 from any individual in any election (primary or general). That would mean a 90% reduction in the allowable donation to a candidate for governor -- which now stands at a nationwide high $25,900 per election.

CGS then proposes a hybrid private-public campaign finance system, where candidates that raise at least $25,000 from 750 individual California residents would be eligible for public funds in staggered steps. The money, backers say, should come from both a new 10% surtax on court case penalties and the state's general fund. The study's authors say a similar system in Arizona has never actually tapped general fund dollars, and has ended up being funded solely by the surtax.

Most notably, CGS proposes a ban on off-year campaign fundraising. That would be a significant change from the current system... just wait until the Legislature reconvenes on August 15 for its final four weeks of session, a time where the fundraising events dominate the daily schedule here in Sacramento. "The present system of ongoing, uninterrupted, year-round fundraising is one of the greatest electoral advantages that incumbents enjoy," says the report.

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About John Myers

John Myers is senior editor of KQED's new multimedia California Politics & Government Desk.  He has covered California politics for most of the past two decades -- serving previously as Sacramento bureau chief for KQED News and, most recently, as political editor for KXTV News10 (ABC) in Sacramento. He moderated the only gubernatorial debate of 2014, and was named one of the nation's top statehouse reporters by The Washington Post. Follow him on Twitter @johnmyers.
  • Stan Statham

    John – Always enjoy your read on things. Little do the “regular people” know, especially about something like redistricting. You add to my intelligence!