Illinois' 17th Congressional District
They say democracy is a messy business. It sure wasn't glamorous this week when California's Citizens Redistricting Commission met in a cramped and dingy lecture hall on the campus of Oakland's Laney College.
A dozen commissioners crammed around three folding tables on the small floor of the steeply-raked hall on Tuesday, laptops open for note-taking, as a series of community presenters clicked through Powerpoint presentations pitching their versions of California's electoral district maps.
A similar forum is underway at Cal State Northridge all day Friday and KQED's NewsFix blog has a link to the webcast. In fact, the commissioners have been criss-crossing the state for most of April and May, holding hearings in city council chambers and community colleges. And they'll be doing more of the same through July, listening to public feedback on the draft maps they are due to release June 10.
The commission has a staff of about a dozen, but commissioners are responsible for booking their own travel -- from Palm Springs to San Diego to Auburn to Santa Rosa. Commissioner Connie Galambos Malloy, an Oakland urban planner, remarked during a break in the Laney College meeting that she was glad to be able to sleep in her own bed for a few nights.
What's at stake with this messy exercise in democracy? The make-up of California's Congressional delegation, state legislature and little-watched state Board of Equalization, which oversees the collection of a raft of state taxes and fees. In other words, political power -- for parties, economic interests, ethnic groups, geographic regions.
Speaking up for geography on Tuesday was Marc Robinson, a consultant hired by the San Joaquin County Citizens for Constitutional Redistricting, a coalition of business and community groups that wants to see county interests better protected. Currently San Joaquin County is divvied up between four state assembly districts, two state senate districts and two congressional districts. Robinson offered maps that would keep the county intact, adding in the delta sections of Sacramento County and eastern Contra Costa County to yield the correct number of residents for the new districts.
In past decades (as is still the practice in other states), the state legislature was in charge of redistricting. That meant that the party in power made sure it kept a majority of seats and individual legislators crafted districts to ensure their re-election. The resultant wheeling and dealing led to gerrymandered districts like Illinois' 17th Congressional district, known as the "rabbit on a skateboard," and California's 23rd congressional district, which snakes along the central coast and "disappears at high tide."
That's not to say that politics won't be playing a role in this year's redistricting. Republican political insider Tony Quinn has accused Democratic commission members of trying to stack the deck. Democratic political consultant Steve Maviglio has shot back. And Tea Party activists have turned out in force at a number of commission meetings. As former State Senator Don Perata told The California Report's John Myers, the process is intrinsically political:
"When people say, 'We want our communities of interest,' that is a political statement," says former state Senate leader Don Perata. "That's not a philosophical statement or a theological statement. It's saying that we want to maintain the power that we derive by commonality of interest. That's politics."
The commissioners have been wrestling with the many possible definitions of "communities of interest," one of the criteria they must use in drawing districts, along with equal population, compactness and compliance with the federal Voting Rights Act that protects minority representation. In addition to keeping cities and counties intact, they've heard testimony that favors defining communities by transportation corridors, school districts and linguistic communities. One group suggested that the Los Angeles area should be delineated in terms of its distinctive valleys.
"The districts we have now were drawn to protect incumbents," said Commissioner Maria Blanco. "If all we do is take the incumbency protection out of it, our districts are going to be better because they're not going to be gerrymandered."