Initiative: Strip California Democrats of Redistricting Power

For the third time in 20 years, a group of California Republicans is trying to reform the method of drawing the state’s U.S. House districts, which now number 53.

Led by Senate President John Burton, the Democrats who control both houses of the state legislature, redrew the district lines in 2001 to give Democrats 33 House seats and Republicans 20 seats — all of them virtually invulnerable to a challenge from the opposing party.

Ted Costa of People’s Advocate, one of the leaders in the movement to recall of Democratic Gov. Gray Davis last year, has launched a campaign to place an initiative on the November ballot that would remove the power of congressional redistricting from the state legislature and give it a panel of retired federal judges. Were the proposal enacted, the present Burton-crafted lines would become invalid and the judges would begin drawing fresh districts — which would open the way for some competitive races in 2006, and perhaps even some GOP pickups.

“There is obviously a real disconnect between the voters and the legislature when it comes to redistricting,” said Costa, noting that GOP gubernatorial candidates in last year’s recall election drew 63% of the votes statewide while the congressional delegation is top-heavy with Democrats. But Costa indicts Republican House members along with the Democrats for the present district lines. As he put it to me, “[Republican House Rules Committee Chairman] David Dreier met with and accommodated Burton in ’01. He and the other Republicans in the California delegation would not fight the redistricting lines if they were given safe districts. It didn’t matter that Democrats in the ’90s had beaten all the Republicans who could be beaten [among California congressmen] so Dreier and the others were just maintaining the status quo. He likes waking up in November and saying ‘Ahhh! I won with 78% again.'” Dreier is opposed to the Costa initiative. And the California GOP delegation last Thursday voted overwhelmingly to oppose it.

Democratic-run gerrymandering and GOP attempts to change the process are an old story in California. In 1981, the Democratic-run legislature and then-Democratic Gov. Jerry Brown enacted a plan that gave their party twice as many House districts as the Republicans — outrageous to the GOP in a state that favorite son Ronald Reagan had carried handily and where GOP House candidates had won about 50% of the vote statewide. Ironically, the plan was drawn by John Burton’s older brother, then-Rep. Phil Burton (D.-Calif.), who called it “my contribution to modern art.”

A movement endorsed by Reagan himself to place an alternative plan on the state ballot maintaining the pre-’81 lines with two at-large districts was thwarted by a 4-to-3 decision of the state Supreme Court.

A decade later, after Republican Gov. Pete Wilson vetoed redistricting plans passed by the Democratic-run legislature, a judicial panel drew California’s congressional districts and a large number of them were competitive.

With less than two weeks to go before the April 15 deadline for submitting petitions for the fall ballot, Costa told us he has raised $300,000 and collected about 100,000 of the 850,000 signatures needed for ballot qualification. One of the few GOP House members who is actively campaigning for the measure, freshman Rep.Devin Nunes, told us, “More important than me and all of the California members of Congress having safe districts is to change the way things are done. The founding fathers never intended to have districts that are 200 miles long and five miles wide, like the 23rd Congressional District. It’s not right and it’s not fair to California voters.”