Taking ‘Modern Art’ Out of California’s Political Map

Remember when our grade school crossing guards used to say, “The lines are your friends”? Well, that could also apply to members of the Legislature and the California congressional delegation.

After every decennial census, the Legislature is required to redraw the boundaries of all legislative and congressional districts to take population growth and shifts into account. In 2001, legislators on both side of the aisle conspired to rejigger district lines to remove even the semblance of competitiveness, making the overwhelming majority of seats slam-dunks for either Democrats or Republicans. To understand the process, think of two retail giants illegally colluding to divvy up sales territory, thereby awarding themselves geographical monopolies.

Democrats wanted to lock in their huge legislative majorities in both the Assembly and Senate for the next decade. Republicans, under orders from the White House, wanted to protect their congressional majority against any effort to carve out more Democratic seats in California. It was a blatant case of the politicians picking their voters, rather than the voters picking the politicians.

Given this outrageous self-dealing, I urged then-Gov. Gray Davis, to whom I was senior political advisor, to denounce the redistricting plan, veto it and send the job to a panel of retired judges, as required when the Legislature and governor can’t agree on a plan. But for two very practical reasons, that option turned out not to be feasible.

First, the Legislature sent the bill to the governor so late in the year that if he had vetoed it, there wouldn’t have been time to redraw the boundaries before filing deadlines for the March 2002 primary had passed. Second, Democratic and Republican leaders — although they could scarcely agree on when to take bathroom breaks — mustered more than a two-thirds vote in both houses for the redistricting plan, meaning a veto would have been easily overridden.

What are the practical results of this bipartisan gerrymander? Our general elections are now “competitive” in roughly the same sense that the old Soviet Politburo “elections” were competitive. In November’s election, not a single seat changed party hands among all 80 Assembly seats, 20 state Senate seats and 53 congressional seats on the ballot. This despite more money being spent on both sides than ever before; in fact, national records were set for spending in a state Senate race and a state lower-house race. Most incumbents won with more than 60% of the vote. In several cases, no one even bothered to challenge the incumbent.

Now Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger has proposed changing the way district lines are drawn, eliminating the Legislature’s self-interested role and turning the job over to a panel of retired judges. Although the governor hasn’t yet released all the details of his plan, Democrats — and even some Republican members of Congress — have begun the predictable howling.

But history shows that we Democrats have nothing to fear from fairly drawn legislative and congressional districts. We tend to put up better candidates, run better campaigns and raise more money than Republicans and advocate positions on major issues that are more in line with those of California voters.

Take a look at the last decade. In 1991, Gov. Pete Wilson vetoed the Democratic Legislature’s redistricting plan, thereby throwing the task to a panel of retired judges with no political ax to grind and no personal stake in the outcome. There was general wailing and gnashing of teeth among Democrats, who had been operating under super- favorable lines drawn 10 years before by U.S. Rep. Phil Burton, who dubbed his Democrat- biased gerrymander his “contribution to modern art.”

But in the first election under the new lines in 1992, Democrats actually picked up a seat in the Assembly. The party did lose control of the Assembly in the 1994 national Republican sweep, but won it right back in the next election, picking up three Republican-held Assembly seats and two GOP Senate seats. Democrats also gained seats in both the Senate and the Assembly in 1998 and 2000.

By 2001, Democrats had 50-30 control of the Assembly and 26-14 control of the Senate — and a 32-20 edge in the state’s congressional delegation.

Ironically, in 2002, the first election after the 2001 gerrymander carried out by Democratic legislative leaders and signed by a Democratic governor, Democrats actually lost a Senate seat and two Assembly seats, even while sweeping all statewide constitutional offices for the first time since 1882.

Does it take a rocket scientist — or even, for that matter, a political scientist — to figure out that we Democrats can compete and prevail without rigging the rules and creating noncompetitive monopolies?

In truth, a nonpartisan redrawing of district lines may favor Democrats in some cases and Republicans in others. What’s important is that a fair redistricting would benefit the voters of California.