The proposal by California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger (R) to take Congressional and legislative redistricting powers away from the Legislature has energized at least one influential bloc of detractors — most of the Republicans and Democrats in the Golden State’s 53-Member House delegation.
Rep. Devin Nunes (R-Calif.), the delegation’s leading advocate of redistricting reform, said he is aware of only three colleagues who support the governor’s initiative: Reps. Bill Thomas, Dan Lungren and Darrell Issa. All are Republicans.
Schwarzenegger last week said he wants a bipartisan panel of retired judges to draw new Congressional and legislative boundaries before the 2006 elections. During his State of the State speech, Schwarzenegger noted that the 2004 elections did not result in a single change in party control in the 153 Congressional and legislative seats that were up.
“The current system is rigged to benefit the interests of those in office, not the interests of those who put them there,” he said. “And we must reform it.”
House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) was quick to express skepticism. Although Schwarzenegger’s proposal was part of what he touted as a broader government reform package, some Democrats see the redistricting angle as a Republican plot to gain more seats in the House.
California is one of the Democrats’ last Congressional strongholds, providing 33 House seats for the beleaguered minority party.
“In the past, I have [had] no objection to revisiting any aspect of redistricting in its proper time,” Pelosi told reporters in the Capitol last week. “We take a census every 10 years. We have a redistricting every 10 years. I think [the new proposal is] a continuation of what happened in Texas. Now they want to redistrict in California in mid-decade.”
A controversial redistricting push in the Republican-controlled Texas Legislature in 2003 netted the GOP a half-dozen additional House seats in the new Congress, offsetting Republican House losses in other parts of the country.
A Democratic challenge to that redistricting plan is scheduled to be heard by a three-judge federal panel in Dallas on Jan. 21. Among other things, the Democrats have blasted the decision to re-open Congressional lines in mid-decade — a line of argument that opponents of Schwarzenegger’s plan are certain to echo.
“I would assume that there’s no justification for redistricting mid-decade in California other than to alter the partisan balance,” said Jerry Hebert, the lawyer arguing the Texas case for Congressional Democrats.
But advocates for the California plan insist that the goal is simply to give voters more choices and boost political moderates in state races — not to change California’s partisan make-up. The Congressional boundaries set by the Legislature after the 2000 census were finalized with the assent of Republican and Democratic leaders in Sacramento and Washington, D.C.
Ted Costa, CEO of the People’s Advocate, a Sacramento-based group that is trying to put a redistricting reform measure on the statewide ballot later this year, said a change in Congressional lines is unlikely to result in more than a three- or four-seat Republican pickup. (A four-seat swing to the GOP would make the delegation 29-24, which is about what the delegation would look like if it were to be split like the share of the state’s presidential vote in 2004.)
Supporters of the California measure have acknowledged that they may have to compromise by abandoning the idea of turning redistricting over to the retired judges until after the 2010 Census. But Schwarzenegger may resist a delay.
“I don’t know if the governor is going to go along with that,” Nunes said.
Even if reform is pushed back to the next decade, Pelosi is questioning whether retired judges are best-equipped to draw new boundaries for a state whose demographics are shifting so rapidly.
“As respectful as I am of retired judges, they are largely white men,” she said.
And even if Democrats detect a partisan plot, many Golden State Republicans in Congress are not going along. Several GOP Members have been downright hostile to the idea, bolstering Democrats’ efforts to fight the measure.
On the night of Schwarzenegger’s speech last week, Bob Mulholland, a consultant for the California Democratic Party, issued a news release chock-full of quotes from Congressional Republicans who oppose redistricting reform.
“It is a huge waste of time and effort,” Rep. John Doolittle (R-Calif.) told The Sacramento Bee late last month. “It’s a quixotic quest, or a quest with malice aforethought on the part of some who basically bring a more liberal philosophy to bear in the Republican Party, which is something I am not interested in promoting.”
Costa, who has been associated with many conservative California causes in the past three decades, said he is puzzled by Doolittle’s vocal opposition.
“I don’t know what he’s afraid of,” Costa said. “John Doolittle comes from one of the most Republican districts in the country.”
Nunes said that while he is not inclined to redouble his efforts to lobby reluctant Republican colleagues on behalf of the measure, Schwarzenegger’s strong support may prompt some doubters to fall in line.
“With the governor in front of it, it’s got a lot of juice,” Nunes said. “The governor’s got a lot of power. It’s going to be pretty tough to stop this.”
Despite Schwarzenegger’s popularity, the proposal must go through a cumbersome process before becoming law. The Democratic-controlled Legislature has until the end of February to pass it, at which point it would go before voters in a special statewide election in July. If the Legislature does not pass it by the end of February, Schwarzenegger has the option of calling a special statewide election in November.
California voters have defeated redistricting reform measures in the past, most recently in 1990.
Meanwhile, as a back-up, Costa’s group is going to begin collecting signatures for a redistricting ballot initiative next month.
“I’m not out recruiting endorsements from Members of Congress,” Costa said. “It would probably be the kiss of death.”
Arnold Steinberg, a Republican consultant based in Southern California, said that despite Schwarzenegger’s stature and the public’s thirst for government reform in general, there appears to be little political peril for Members of Congress who oppose the redistricting measure.
“There’s no real public clamor for it,” he said.