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Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Commentary: Redistricting is the focus again

We usually do not venture far outside of Yolo County and local Assembly and Senate races here, but this is an issue that will affect us all. The Governor has once again placed his own redistricting proposal before the voters. Back in 2005, his plan failed along with his other packages. Now he will try again.

The proposal is designed to change redistricting of state legislative districts (not congressional ones probably for constitutional reasons) from the Legislature to a 14-member commission.

The governor has already raised $2.4 million for the initiative.

Last weekend, the measure was opposed by the CA State Democratic Party but supported and in fact written by California Common Cause.

Maybe the change is a good idea, maybe not. We start by looking at motivations. California has had strong majorities of Democrats in both houses during the Governor's tenure. Does anyone think that the Governor would have been so eager for reform if the tables were reversed? I would guess not.

Second point. Democrats actually built those large majorities in the 1990s. The 1990s legislative boundaries were drawn by the court who took over the process during political disputes. So even if an impartial body (and by all accounts this would be somewhat impartial five Dems, five Reps, and four independents (whatever that means), redrew the boundaries, it seems likely that Democrats would retain control.

What is interesting is the role of Common Cause in all of this. I understand people think they want more competitive districts. But we saw what a competitive race in the Assembly brought--massive amounts of money and independent expenditures by the special interests. This fall we will see the same in the 5th Senate District. It will be the battle of big money.

How will this advance the cause of reform groups like Common Cause to have more big money raises again? Does that process tend to lead to more competitive elections and thus more moderate politicians? Not necessarily. It does increase the power of the special interests. So it is kind of a "pick your poison" moment for Common Cause.

I remember when politicians in the 1990s thought term limits would solve their problems. Now I suspect that most at least who are familiar with Sacramento are opposed to term limits. However, the recent term limit reform was more of a power grab more than anything else . Now they think that redistricting is the answer.

The problem for state Republicans is that California is a state that since the early 1990s has leaned heavily Democratic. If you take out the aberrant 1994 which was the most heavily anti-Democratic year in memory, since 1992, the only Republican to win a major statewide race is Arnold who let's just say, had things going for him that were quite unusual. Since 1994, Democrats have won the Presidential vote three times, they have handily won the Senate vote, and they have won most of the major constitutional offices. They have obtained, increased, and maintained large legislative majorities starting in 1996 when they surprised many by retaking the Assembly.

Somehow Republicans keep expecting that if they just change the rules enough, such as by having term limits, or now by neutralizing legislative role in redistricting, that they can regain the advantage.

The bottom line here is that this measure may or may not pass. I will likely oppose it. But it probably will not have the positive impact that its backers believe.

---Doug Paul Davis reporting