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Redistricting Reform on Fall Ballot

California’s two Senators on Monday criticized Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s (R) call for a special statewide election in November to consider several matters, including redistricting reform.

While not taking a position on the questions ordered onto the ballot by Schwarzenegger — including his proposal to reform the state’s redistricting process for Congress and the Legislature — Sens. Dianne Feinstein (D) and Barbara Boxer (D) questioned the wisdom of scheduling a special election that could cost as much as $80 million.

“The state of California is today strapped for cash, and I think it is a mistake to spend tens of millions of dollars on a special election, just eight months before a scheduled [primary] election” set for June 2006, Feinstein said in a statement. “These funds could certainly be used for a much better purpose — like improving our schools or closing the state’s budget deficit.”

David Sandretti, a spokesman for Boxer, called the special election “a waste of money.”

But that argument did not sway Schwarzenegger, who was scheduled to announce the potentially pivotal special election during a televised speech after Roll Call’s press time Monday evening.

Schwarzenegger said he would place several measures on the statewide ballot — some of them his own initiatives, and others promoted by advocates who collected a sufficient number of petition signatures to merit consideration for a special election.

For Members of Congress, the most important element of Schwarzenegger’s reform package is his proposal to take redistricting powers away from the Legislature and place it with a panel of retired judges. Schwarzenegger is hoping new Congressional and legislative lines can be drawn before the June 2006 primary — something that even his handpicked secretary of state has suggested will be near impossible logistically.

But David Robison, executive director of Californians for Fair Redistricting, a bipartisan group that is fighting to pass the redistricting reform measure, said that attacking the cost of the special election may be the only weapon opponents of redistricting reform have.

“It’s hard to argue against,” he said.

Democratic leaders of the California Legislature are expected to launch an all-out assault against the redistricting measure as well as Schwarzenegger’s other reforms.

However, on Capitol Hill, reaction to the plan has not broken neatly along partisan lines. Some Republicans have rushed to embrace Schwarzenegger’s proposal, while others have questioned both the timing and the substance of the plan.

“I commend Gov. Schwarzenegger for calling a special election to reform the way that legislative and Congressional districts are drawn and to enact other much-needed reforms,” Ways and Means Chairman Bill Thomas (R-Calif.) said in a statement. “Like the governor, I wish that the Legislature had been more cooperative so that the need for a special election would not have arisen, but the Democrats’ obstinacy and lack of accountability to voters shows precisely why politicians should not draw their own districts.”

Another Congressional supporter of redistricting reform, Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.), called Schwarzenegger’s efforts an extension of the reform battle that propelled the governor into office in a 2003 recall election.

“The recall was a popular call for reform in Sacramento,” said Issa, who helped fund the effort to recall then-Gov. Gray Davis (D). “I supported this movement, have supported Gov. Schwarzenegger’s effort to change the way business is done in Sacramento, and I will continue to support Gov. Schwarzenegger’s initiatives to reshape government and the political process in our state.”

But because there is no harmony in the state’s Republican delegation on the question of redistricting, it is “unlikely” that the National Republican Congressional Committee will devote any resources to passing the ballot measure, Carl Forti, the NRCC’s communications director, said Monday.

“This is up to the state and the members of the delegation,” he said.

Robison predicted that redistricting reform could add between one and three additional seats for Republicans in a delegation in which Democrats currently enjoy a 33-20 advantage.

Still, some Democrats believe that Congressional lines drawn without partisan considerations could actually yield gains for their side. After initially expressing some reservations about redistricting reform when Schwarzenegger first unveiled his plan at the beginning of the year, most Democratic Members of the Golden State delegation have been notably silent about the substance of the plan.

“My own sense on the Congressional side is that the Democrats don’t have much of a problem,” said Bill Carrick, a Los Angeles-based Democratic strategist. “At the end of the day, there won’t be much of an impact on the Democratic Congressional delegation. … I think this is all about the Republicans in the Legislature trying to pick up legislative seats.”

Democratic strategists suggested that House Rules Chairman David Dreier (R-Calif.) and Resources Chairman Richard Pombo (R-Calif.) are among those Republican incumbents who could be made vulnerable by a non-partisan re-redistricting. Others mentioned include Reps. Ken Calvert, Buck McKeon, Ed Royce and Gary Miller.

Dreier’s Inland Empire district is “an area that is getting more Democratic and more Latino all the time,” Carrick said.

Although an array of powerful forces including public-employee unions are lining up to oppose Schwarzenegger’s other ballot proposals — including a measure making it easier to fire incompetent public school teachers and another giving governors more power to cut the state budget — it is unclear whether there will be much organized opposition to the redistricting proposal. But Robison conceded that redistricting could get tarred by Schwarzenegger’s opponents simply because they want to defeat his agenda at any cost.

“My guess is their best defense is going to be to try attacking the governor across the board, that he’s trying to take power away from the people,” Robison conceded.

Carrick said that in the face of such opposition, redistricting reform may fall by the wayside, because even if voters support the concept of clean, nonpartisan government, they are not enthusiastic enough about the issue to push it to a ballot victory.

“I have probably sat through 500 or 600 focus groups in California over the years,” he said. “I have never heard anyone mention” redistricting.

But Robison disagreed.

“Even as non-sexy as this is and hard for people to put in perspective in their day-to-day lives, I think it resonates better with people than most of the other issues [on the special election ballot], because it’s hard to argue against,” he said. Ben Pershing contributed to this report.

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