Politics & Poker: Spirit of Phillip Burton Will Watch Over Redistricting

Posted February 1, 2010 at 5:53pm

Every decade, Congressional redistricting in California is a very big deal. Why wouldn’t it be, when you’re talking about 12 percent of the seats in the House of Representatives?

[IMGCAP(1)]I’ve been thinking a lot about the upcoming redistricting fight in California because I’ve been reading a great book about the late Rep. Phillip Burton (D), the liberal dynamo from San Francisco who towered over Golden State politics from the 1950s until his death in 1983.

“A Rage for Justice: The Passion and Politics of Phillip Burton,— by journalist John Jacobs, has everything a political junkie could want. It reads like a novel and has a fabulous mix of policy, power struggles and pure politics. Every important debate from Burton’s era is covered in the book, and every key political personality from the second half of the 20th century makes an appearance. And it’s the best primer on modern-day California politics I’ve read.

As 21st-century Democrats once again stumble through an identity crisis, the section in the book covering Burton’s agonizing one-vote loss to then-Rep. Jim Wright (D-Texas) in the 1976 race to become House Majority Leader is particularly resonant. It is probably not an exaggeration to say that if Burton had won, the Democratic Party would look a lot different today.

Another fascinating aspect of the book, which was published in 1995, is how it introduces a lot of California power brokers early in their careers. One by one, you meet Willie Brown, Alan Cranston, Dianne Feinstein, Harvey Milk, Henry Waxman, Howard Berman, Art Agnos, George Moscone, Leo Ryan, Leo McCarthy, Norman Mineta, George Miller and Nancy Pelosi as young operatives and activists and political supplicants.

And the book reviews all the battles over California redistricting in the 1960s, ’70s and ’80s. Many of the key actors then are still major players in the redistricting game today. And that’s worth thinking about.

For the past several decades, the Democrats’ chief mapmaker in California has been Michael Berman, a lawyer and political strategist who is Howard Berman’s brother. The boundaries that are currently in place were essentially shaped by Berman. And keeping with the all-in-the-family theme, serving as the key lieutenant to Phillip Burton in these titanic political struggles was his brother, John Burton, who also served in Congress and has had an epic political career of his own.

Michael Berman will inevitably be involved in redistricting again following the 2010 Census. And John Burton? Although he’s now 77, he’s still going strong as chairman of the California Democratic Party, so he’s certain to have a say.

But a lot is different this time. For starters, California is not going to gain a House seat following this census — that’s a first. And in fact, the state may even lose one of its 53 seats in the reapportionment process.

Golden State voters in 2008 took legislative redistricting out of the hands of the Legislature and governor and gave the job to a nonpartisan commission. But the politicians will still control Congressional redistricting. And with term limits in place for state lawmakers, they’ll be very interested in how the House boundaries are going to be drawn because many probably envision themselves moving up to Congress.

Democrats will still control the Legislature in 2011, but we don’t know who the governor will be. Either way, the next governor, whether it’s Meg Whitman (R) or Jerry Brown (D), isn’t likely to be hyperpartisan.

Finally, this is the first time there’s been a redistricting when the Speaker comes from California — so Pelosi is certain to have a lot of say over how the lines are set.

For the past few decades, as Jacobs’ book describes, the redistricting process in California — as it frequently is in so many states — has been an incumbent protection racket. In 2001, before the lines were last drawn, Democrats held a 32-20 edge in the state’s Congressional delegation. After the 2002 elections, with one more seat in the state, the Democrats held a 33-20 edge. Since then, despite all the gains that Congressional Democrats have made at the national level, they’ve picked up just one seat in California.

Underfunded Democrats came surprisingly close to stealing a handful of GOP seats in California last cycle, despite being ignored by the national party. But with the political environment turned against the Democrats now and the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee playing defense all over the country, it is hard to imagine them making more gains in California this year — even though it’s equally hard to imagine any California seats flipping to the GOP.

Will Golden State Democrats try to put more Republican seats at risk in 2012 if they dominate the next round of redistricting? Or are we likely to see another incumbent protection plan?

Where will a seat be eliminated if California loses one in reapportionment? The best guess is Southern California — though districts can be stretched in any number of directions to cover a random assortment of territory. Who would be most at risk of losing a seat? That’s a topic of wild speculation.

Look for Latino groups to make forceful demands in the next round of redistricting. They felt they were cheated out of at least one seat in the post-2000 map — and it rankled them that Howard Berman was one of the beneficiaries of his brother’s handiwork. Howard Berman’s Los Angeles-based district was about 57 percent Hispanic in 2007. Rep. Brad Sherman’s (D) adjacent district in the San Fernando Valley was 41 percent Hispanic.

In theory, Sherman could be vulnerable — to a Democratic primary challenge from a strong Latino candidate, or in the redistricting process. But Sherman had more than $2.5 million in his campaign account at the end of 2009. That’s enough to scare off just about anyone — and it’s also enough to wage a very aggressive campaign anyplace if your seat is taken away from you in redistricting.

Hispanics are also aggrieved that they lost the seat last year that Rep. Hilda Solis (D) held until she became secretary of Labor. Rep. Judy Chu (D), Solis’ successor, represents a district that is 64 percent Hispanic, according to 2007 numbers. But surrounding districts held by non-Hispanic Democrats also have growing Latino populations: Rep. Maxine Waters’ is 53 percent Hispanic, Rep. Laura Richardson’s is 48 percent, Rep. Diane Watson’s is 37 percent, Rep. Jane Harman’s is 32 percent and Rep. Adam Schiff’s is one-quarter Hispanic.

So the questions are numerous. The fights ahead will be fascinating to watch. And if he were still alive, Phillip Burton would be as excited — and as ready to do battle — as anyone.