Democrats may find no gains in redistricting
SACRAMENTO – For Democrats, controlling the politically potent process of drawing new legislative districts in 2001 may be a little like winning a New Year’s Eve party prize you already got for Christmas.
Democrats won so many seats on Nov. 7 that they may not be able – or want to try – to get many more by the way they draw new Senate and Assembly districts.
”It would be hard to imagine drawing lines that would be a whole lot more beneficial,” says the chairman of the Assembly elections committee, Assemblyman John Longville, D-Rialto.
Voters handed Democrats four more seats in the Assembly and one more in the Senate, giving them 50 of the 80 Assembly seats and 26 of the Senate’s 40 seats – their biggest majorities since the mid-1980s.
Instead of a purely partisan fight, redistricting could become more of a political free-for-all with term-limited lawmakers of both parties trying to fashion districts for themselves in the other house or in Congress.
”It’s going to make negotiating a lot more complex because people are going to be interested in seats they are not currently in,” said Bruce Cain, director of the Institute of Governmental Studies at UC Berkeley. ”We are in a brave new world.”
Lawmakers are required to draw new legislative and congressional districts every 10 years to reflect population changes revealed by the federal census.
Legislators won’t be as interested in protecting the seats they have now because they won’t have them for very long. That’s particularly true for members of the Assembly, who can serve no more than three two-year terms. Senators can be elected to two four-year terms.
Members of the House of Representatives ”should be very nervous” that their new districts will be drawn to help a termed-out state legislator win a seat in Congress, said Assemblyman Bill Leonard, R-Rancho Cucamonga.
In 2001, for the first time in 20 years, one party will be able to dictate where those lines go.
After the 1990 census, Republican Gov. Pete Wilson vetoed districts drawn by a Legislature dominated by Democrats, and the state Supreme Court ended up adopting the new lines.
With Democrat Gray Davis in the governor’s office, he’ll presumably be more likely to sign plans approved by members of his party.
Democrats could try to pick up additional seats, or at least solidify the seats they have, by concentrating areas that tend to vote Republican in as few districts as possible.
But there may not be much opportunity or desire to do so this time.
Democrats are within one Senate seat of the two-thirds majority needed to approve appropriation bills, tax increases and emergency legislation, and are likely to get that seat when Republican Sen. Bruce McPherson, who represents a predominantly Democratic Santa Cruz area district, is termed out in 2004.
Democrats would need four more seats to get to two-thirds in the Assembly.
”They could try to stretch out to get to 54 seats in the Assembly but as you collapse Republican seats you weaken the neighboring Democrat, because Republican voters have to go someplace,” said Tony Quinn, a political analyst and a former Republican redistricting aide in the Assembly.
Trying to get to 54 Democratic seats could also increase chances that Republicans would challenge the redistricting plans in court or ask voters to overturn them, Quinn said.
A voter referendum wouldn’t be possible if Democrats could cut deals with enough Republicans to pass the plans by two-thirds majorities, but the GOP is threatening to oppose at the next primary election any Republican lawmakers who break with their leaders to back Democratic redistricting proposals.
”The leaders have already told our caucus that that would be seen by them as a level of treason,” said Leonard.
The two parties will either reach a compromise that results in nearly unanimous votes or there will be a partisan split, he predicts.
Democrats also could try to use redistricting to increase the number of congressional seats they hold in California to offset likely Republican gains in other states.
California Democrats took four House seats away from Republicans in November, giving them 32 of the delegation’s 52 seats.
One of the Democrats, veteran Rep. Julian Dixon, D-Los Angeles, died Dec. 8. His heavily Democratic district will pick a successor in a special election in the spring.
California also will get one more House seat starting in 2003 because of its population growth in the 1990s, and Quinn says state Republicans have resigned themselves to Democratic gains in Congress.
Democrats will try to design the new districts to favor their candidates, and could jigger lines to increase their chances of picking up three other districts now held by Republicans: Reps. Doug Ose, R-Sacramento, Elton Gallegly, R-Simi Valley, and Steve Horn, R-Long Beach, Quinn said.
In March, the Census Bureau is scheduled to begin releasing more data detailing county and local-level populations that will be used to redraw the maps.
A Democrat who spoke on condition of anonymity said Horn’s seat could be won by a strong Democratic candidate, but it might be difficult to win the other two.
”It’s much more complicated than, ‘Hey, we can put some Democrat in this guy’s district,”’ the Democrat said. ”Every move has a domino effect and nothing should be assumed or projected until we get actual numbers.”
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