There’s a two-word description for the loud whining that has followed release of nearly finalized new political district lines by the state’s rookie Redistricting Commission. Sour grapes. Some people and interests didn’t get what they wanted and expected, and now they’re vocally unhappy. But reality is those wishes were laughably unrealistic from the start.
Created by two ballot initiatives backed both by the Republican Party and most ethnic interest groups, the commission replaced legislative committees that previously redrew California’s legislative, congressional and Board of Equalization boundaries every 10 years.
It was required by law to adhere as much as possible to city limits, county lines and logical geographic divisions like rivers and ridge tops. It was obliged to try for districts containing “communities of interest” – groups and political entities that share common goals and aspirations. And it had to live by two U.S. Supreme Court edicts: one-person, one-vote and later rulings that require racial and other ethnic groups not be splintered so much they have virtually no chance for representation.
This was a complex task and the districts embodied in the citizen commission’s just-released final draft plan pretty much fulfill all requirements.
“I can’t see a partisan agenda in these maps if there is one,” said election analyst Eric McGhee of the non-partisan Public Policy Institute of California.
But Republicans believe otherwise. Even before the near-final maps appeared, state party chairman Tom Del Beccaro promised his party would try to qualify a ballot referendum to overturn the new districts.
Republicans are miffed because the new districts might render even worse their chances of overturning Democratic majorities in the Legislature and the state’s congressional delegation. They had no chance under the old, heavily gerrymandered lines that virtually guaranteed reelection for incumbents of both parties, lines the GOP agreed to in 2002.
There are no such guarantees this time. Almost two dozen incumbents now share districts. Party registration pluralities that assured Democrats victory in some places and Republican wins in others are smaller in most districts than before. That’s because there was no apparent effort to concentrate voters from each party within convoluted lines, like last time.
The real Republican gripe, however, should not be with the districts, but with themselves. For there’s a reason Democrats will have significant pluralities in more districts under this plan than they did before: Voter registration numbers. California has about 2 million more Democratic voters than Republicans. No redistricting plan could alter that reality. Only Republicans, efforts can do that.
But the GOP has made no big-tent-style attempt to change its California prospects. Instead, it continues alienating most Latino voters with tough anti-illegal immigrant rhetoric. It alienates gay voters by opposing same-sex marriage. It turns off many African-Americans by fighting anything that smacks of affirmative action. It offends senior citizens when its Congress members vote for plans to cut Social Security cost of living adjustments and Medicare. It offends conservationists when it advocates emasculating the California Environmental Quality Act, best known as CEQA. And so on.
This is not a party making serious efforts to attract new adherents, so it’s no surprise when its numbers get worse and worse, a reality reflected in the new lines.
There have also been complaints from Latino activists, claims the new districts won’t assure them as much representation as they’d like from Orange County and the San Fernando Valley portion of Los Angeles. African-Americans also are unhappy with what may be a diminution of clout in southwest Los Angeles County, where two black state senators will compete for one state Senate seat unless one of them moves.
But anyone who tries to overturn the new district plan had better consider the consequences. For either a successful referendum or a court decision negating the maps would likely place redistricting in the hands of a court-appointed expert “master,” as happened in 1992, when then-Gov. Pete Wilson, a Republican, deadlocked with legislative Democrats.
The court-ordered non-partisan plan did not do much for Republicans, as Democrats steadily increased their registration edge over the GOP during the next decade, a phenomenon that was reflected in election returns. One eventual result was the protect-the-incumbents plan of 2002.
Getting a court-appointed official to draw the maps won’t change registration numbers this time, either. Which means Republicans, who now find they jumped out of the frying pan and into the fire when they helped pass redistricting reform propositions in 2008 and 2010, risk doing so once again if they try to overturn the new blueprint.
Latino and black activists run the same risk. But, of course, no one ever accused any of these folks – Republicans and ethnic activists – of making unemotional decisions. About all they have in common is that they didn’t get everything they wanted, so now they’re resorting to resentful rants that amount to pure sour grapes.