Friday, January 14, 2011

The political perils of California's redistricting process

This is the seventh in an occasional series that focuses on the decennial redistricting process in key states. We call it "Mapping the Future". The series aims to look forward to how the maps in these states could be drawn and what the best and worst outcomes for each party might be. Today we take on California. (And make sure to check out the first six installments: Texas, Indiana, Georgia, Illinois, Massachusetts and Ohio.)

Predicting how a state will draw its new congressional districts is often a fool's errand. (Hmm, what does that make The Fix?)

But nowhere is that the case more than in California.

That's because the drawing and approval of the state's 53 districts this year is in the hands of 14 people. They are mostly amateurs, not political pros and they're not supposed to have any regard for incumbents, which means they could do just about anything.

If you're a member of Congress from California, that's a very scary proposition.

"When you go from a system that allows incumbents to draw districts that favor themselves to one that disallows considering incumbents at all, you're bound to have some incumbents paired together and some open districts," said Tom Bonier of the National Committee for an Effective Congress, which advises Democrats on the redistricting process.

Added GOP consultant Dave Gilliard: "There's a good chance that the vast majority of the congressional districts in California are not going to resemble what we have right now."

The new set-up comes courtesy of Proposition 20, which passed in the November election. Previously, the state turned over power to draw state legislative districts to this sort of bipartisan panel but Prop. 20 added congressional districts to the mix this year, and the new panel is getting started as we speak.

The 14 members of the panel are compromised of five Democrats, five Republicans and four voters with no party affiliation. They were picked out of a group of 30,000 applicants and range from a former director of the U.S. Census Bureau to a ranch owner.

Many observers expect a large amount of upheaval, but since there are so many districts and the process is largely brand new (Arizona has a somewhat similar system with citizens drawing the districts), there's really no way of knowing what they'll do.

We can, though, venture a few educated guesses:

1. It seems likely that there will be some increase in the number of competitive districts. The last round of redistricting brought one of the most effective incumbent-protection gerrymanders in the history of redistricting. In 53 districts over ten years, only one -- ONE -- district has changed hands between Republicans and Democrats. And it only switched once.

The committee doesn't necessarily need to try to draw competitive districts -- its mandate only requires that it draws "communities of interest" together -- but it may try to anyways. And even if it doesn't, it's nearly impossible for the districts to be drawn any less competitively than they are now.

2. A number of incumbents are likely to have their homes drawn into the same districts. That's a setup that could lead to incumbents running against each other or, to avoid that situation, running in districts where they don't live (which is legal). More ambitious observers think this could happen to as many as one-quarter of the state's delegation.

With 53 districts and a requirement that the panel doesn't take incumbents into account, it would be very odd if two of them were somehow not drawn into the same district. And the number of odd-shaped districts in big cities and elsewhere (many large rural districts stretch out from the big population centers in an awkward fashion) in the current map means that there is plenty of room for change if the panel wants to create a so-called "good government" -- i.e. logically shaped -- map.

3. There is unlikely to be a large shift in the number of Democrats and Republicans in the state's delegation. The state currently has 34 Democrats and 19 Republicans, which pretty accurately reflects the Democrats' level of dominance in the state. Even if the map is drastically altered, the many urban districts are likely to remain Democratic and the rural districts should largely stay Republican.

That doesn't mean there won't be changes, though. Republicans and Democrats who know the map say Republican Reps. Dan Lungren, Mary Bono Mack, Buck McKeon and Ken Calvert could be in more trouble. (All four are already in districts that have moved significantly towards Democrats in recent years and went for President Obama in 2008.) On the Democratic side, Reps. Jerry McNerney, Dennis Cardoza and Jim Costa, who both had close races last year for their Fresno-area seats, could find themselves with a tougher districts.

But even if Republicans wind up losing or gaining a few seats on the commission-drawn map, it's probably a win for them. Without the commission, Democrats would control the process (they have both chambers in the state legislature and the governor's mansion) and would be able to draw whatever map they wanted to.

4. The map could well be drawn by a court in the end. If the panel cannot agree on a map or, for example, doesn't draw enough districts where a majority of residents are racial minorities, the process could go to the courts and wind up in the hands of a court-appointed map-drawer.

"The commission is so oddly put together, it's probably going to be a court map," ventured one Republican strategist who knows the situation in the Golden State.

Either way, the drawing of the map would not be in the hands of the incumbents, and sources say many incumbents are just now waking up to the possibility that their districts will be significantly different next time they run in 2012.

Members of the delegation didn't like the ballot proposition in the first place, for obvious reasons. But Rep. Mike Thompson (D-Calif.), who is in charge of the Democrats' redistricting efforts, said the commission isn't accountable to voters.

"I think it's a prime example of people who don't like what 's going on looking for an easy fix," Thompson said. "You saw the same thing with term limits."

Thompson also downplayed the possibility of major changes in the state's delegation, noting that it didn't feature many changes after the 1991 round of redistricting, when a court drew the map.

But not everyone is so serene, and there are several good reasons for that disquiet.

First, the state is chock full of assembly members and state senators who have had almost no opportunity to move up to the federal level over the last decade. Second, California has term limits, so many of these state legislators will be out of jobs in 2012. And third, members of Congress could be taking on lots of territory where they might now be as well-known as one of their opponents.

All of it adds up to a much more competitive California in 2012. Open seats and incumbents being paired up in even a few districts would be a marked change for the state, but most agree that it could go much, much further than that.

At long last, California is a state worth watching.

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Four things to watch at the Republican National Committee Chair election

The 168 members of the Republican National Committee will gather today in Maryland to pick their chairman for the next two years.

The drama is not whether current chair Michael Steele can win a second term -- he can't -- but who will step into the leadership void for a party beginning the herculean task of defeating President Obama in 2012.

Four things to watch at today's chair vote, which we will be live-blogging in this space starting around noon, are below.

1. The second ballot: The first ballot will function as a sort of valedictory for Steele, a thank you for the work he has done over the past two years. Once that's over with, the fight for the voters committed to Steele for only a single ballot will begin in earnest. And, that makes the second ballot crucial for the remaining candidates, but especially Wisconsin Party Chairman Reince Priebus, who is considered the frontrunner going into today's votes.

2. WDMSD (What Does Michael Steele Do)? Under RNC bylaws, Steele (or any candidate) can stay on the ballot for as long as he/she chooses. While most candidates drop off once it's clear they can't win, there's absolutely no telling what Steele will do. Does he drop after the first ballot? Second? Ever? And, if he does drop out, does he throw his support -- yes, he does have a group of committeemen and women who will follow his lead -- to one of the other candidates? Who? And how much does it help (or hurt)?

3. The XX Factor: Two women -- former ambassador Ann Wagner and longtime RNC official Maria Cino -- are both running for the chairman's post. Conventional wisdom suggests that only one can emerge as the "female" candidate, but one smart GOP observer notes that more than one-third of the 168 RNC voters are women -- meaning that Wagner and Cino could theoretically survive (and even thrive) through multiple ballots. The other gender issue to keep an eye on: RNC rules mandate that the chair and vice-chair be of opposite sexes. That means that if either Cino or Wagner win, the two frontrunners for the co-chair slot -- Wyoming's Jan Larimer and Florida's Sharon Day -- would be disqualified. Louisiana's Roger Villere Jr. has said he would run (and he would win) under that scenario.

4. Multiple ballots, multiple strategies: In 2009, it took Steele six ballots to secure the simple majority of votes (85) needed to win. We could be headed toward a similar scenario this time around -- particularly if Priebus can't close it out on the second or third ballot, ala Haley Barbour in 1993. With more than a third of the members officially undecided going into today's vote, the situation could be ripe for a momentum candidate to slowly but surely build support over multiple ballots before surging to a victory after a protracted fight. Or so political junkies can hope...

Haridopolos first to run against Bill Nelson: Florida state Senate President Mike Haridopolos became the first major candidate to enter the state's 2012 Senate race again Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.).

Haridopolos, who has made little secret of his intention to run for the GOP nomination to face Nelson, launched a new campaign website at and has a campaign committee called "Friends of Mike H."

Other Republicans considering the race include former Sen. George LeMieux, Rep. Connie Mack and former state House Majority Leader Adam Hasner.


Rep. Joe Donnelly (D-Ind.), who has expressed some interest in running for governor, said he may do just that if his district becomes more Republican during redistricting. The GOP controls the drawing of the map in Indiana.

Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels (R) will speak at the famed Gridiron Dinner with Washington journalists.

Former President Bill Clinton will campaign for his former aide, former White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel (D), in the Chicago mayor's race next week.

Rep. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) says his decision on whether to run for Senate will be independent of whether Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.) runs for reelection.

Boston businessman Bob Pozen said he would consider running against Sen. Scott Brown (R-Mass.) if Massachusetts Democrats asked him to.

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An America for Christina

The powerful elegy that President Obama delivered in Tucson was a big step toward his long-held goal of transforming the nation's choleric and dysfunctional political culture. Subsequent steps will be harder - but no longer seem impossible.

Listening to Obama's speech brought back memories of Obama the candidate, a mesmerizing orator with the power to summon visions of a better America. He seemed almost to transcend politics.

If you listened to what candidate Obama was saying, he often came back to a central theme: Our political system is mired in trench warfare, along battle lines that were established decades ago. We will only be able to move forward if we get beyond the arbitrary and obsolete divisions that keep us at one another's throats.

For the first two years of his administration, however, the ideological combat has escalated. Obama's political adversaries bear some of the responsibility; his allies bear their share as well.

So does the president. While he never stopped preaching his message of getting past the old dichotomies - progressive-conservative, left-right, Democrat-Republican - he also never devised a new template for political discourse. Washington quickly fell back into its old ways.

Wednesday night, in his moving tribute to those slain and injured in the Arizona shootings, the president created for himself another opportunity to bring about the transformation he seeks. It is fitting that the key passage came as Obama, the father of two daughters, was talking about the massacre's youngest victim: Christina Taylor Green, a 9-year-old who was there because she wanted to meet her congresswoman, Rep. Gabrielle Giffords.

"I want to live up to her expectations," Obama said, his voice rising like that of a preacher nearing the end of his sermon. "I want our democracy to be as good as Christina imagined it. I want America to be as good as she imagined it."

He noted that Christina had been featured in a book about 50 children who were born on Sept. 11, 2001. "If there are rain puddles in heaven, Christina is jumping in them today," Obama said. "And here on this Earth, we place our hands over our hearts, and we commit ourselves as Americans to forging a country that is forever worthy of her gentle, happy spirit."

That's a beginning. One thing we can all agree on is that we want to leave a better nation and a better world to our children but fear we will not. This could be part of a framework that's oriented not on a left-right axis but a temporal axis - what will be the effect of a certain measure now, and what will be the effect 20 years from now.

Don't smirk. I realize that every politician always claims to be acting on behalf of future generations - and some actually mean it. But for most of our country's history, Americans have been able to have confidence that our children will have better lives than our own, pretty much regardless of how we might screw things up. That's not true anymore.

As I said, the next steps will be hard. There are genuine, legitimate disagreements on a host of issues, and some look almost impossible to reconcile.

The Tucson tragedy presents an example. I believe passionately that the slayings illustrate, once again, the urgent need for sensible gun control laws that get assault weapons out of the stores and off the streets. There are those who believe with equal passion, however, that tough gun control measures would amount to trading away an unacceptable measure of freedom in exchange for more security.

I don't see it this way at all. But I do recall making a similar freedom-vs.-security argument in opposing some of the anti-terrorism measures that were enacted by the George W. Bush administration. Perhaps acknowledging that we at least share the same thinking process is a beginning, even as we argue our different opinions.

And argue them we must. President Obama's call for civility in our public discourse should not preclude vigorous debate, often in strong language. But if we can "question each other's ideas without questioning each other's love of country," as Obama asked us to do, we'll have taken another step along a newly promising road.

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