By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
Two days after the September 11 terrorist attacks, when the nation was in misery, focused on the bloodshed in New York, Washington and Pennsylvania, no one was looking Sacramento’s way. While Californians openly wept in grocery-store lines, on September 13, 2001, the California Legislature pushed through a scheme so self-serving that state senators and state Assembly members were “almost giddy,” as one reporter observed in a news story at the time.
The redistricting plan of 2001 recarved state Senate, Assembly and U.S. Congressional voting districts into a geometric nightmare of amoebas and dumbbells and elephant trunks whose shapes and configurations showed little rhyme or reason.
It resulted in anomalies like the 23rd Congressional District, a skinny swatch of seemingly endless coastline running more than 200 miles from Cambria in San Luis Obispo County through Santa Barbara County to Oxnard in Ventura County, so narrow that the joke is it “disappears at high tide.” Wikipedia calls it “barely noticeable” on maps.
One of Los Angeles’ tightest-knit minority communities, Watts, was purposely destroyed as a voting district, chopped up into three separate congressional districts and three separate state Senate districts — leaving its many working-class and poor residents unsure whom to call about problems.
“They’ll get ping-ponged from office to office. ... ‘You’re not in our district,’” says Kathay Feng, executive director of Common Cause California, who says the widely acknowledged reason Watts was sliced like an onion was solely to ensure the re-election of several incumbents in and around Watts — a fact that even lawmakers admit. It was a shadowy backroom deal you might find in a Vince Flynn novel.
And it all went down, slickly and quietly, during one of the worst tragedies in U.S. history.
Common Cause, the League of Women Voters, AARP and a raft of better-government groups are asking voters to halt these practices with Proposition 11, which would ask a bipartisan citizens’ panel to crunch the demographic numbers, respecting natural geography and the real edges of communities — and to stop calling people separated by mountain ranges “voting districts” or divvying up voters in cohesive communities like Watts as if they were door prizes.
The state Constitution requires this redrawing of voting districts after each 10-year U.S. Census.
The process is called “redistricting” but derided as “gerrymandering.” Many California voters have little clue what it is or how it works, and polls showed 41 percent of voters favor Prop. 11, but a sizable 25 percent are undecided. Supporters of the measure fear that the abstruse subject of line-drawing is too arcane and too much of a snooze-button issue alongside gay marriage and Sarah Palin.
“It is the ugliest process we go through,” says state Senator Alan Lowenthal (D-Long Beach), a longtime advocate for change. Gerrymandering “brings out the worst in us. When you’re caught, as a legislator, between your own interests and the community’s interest, you’re going to go with your own interests.”
As a result, voting-district lines are laid out behind closed doors by elected Sacramento power brokers using powerful computer software, data wonks and private consultants — all to advance political agendas. Feng says Common Cause has gotten reports about lines being tailored for incredibly petty desires; in one case, California pols drew a legislator’s grandmother into his district, in another, they drew lines to exclude a sole voter — a pesky gadfly whom a local politician hated dealing with.
Confirming such horror stories is hard because the work is so secretive, Feng says.
“There’s a ‘public’ process — and then there’s the ‘real’ process,” says former Democratic Assemblyman Joe Canciamilla, from the Bay Area town of Pittsburg. Canciamilla was elected just before the redistricting completed amid 9/11. That deal, which is still in place, was especially notable, and has been widely pilloried, for the “safe seat” agreement reached between Democrats and Republicans.
Like snapping a freeze-frame photo, the 2001 deal cynically preserves the number of legislative seats held by Democrats and by Republicans, cementing the parties’ balance of power over California. Voters can thank former Republican leader Jim Brulte and former Democratic leader Bob Hertzberg, among others.
Newbie legislator Canciamilla remembers how he was called into an office near the Capitol, where, in strict privacy, then–Assembly Speaker Hertzberg showed him the maps and essentially told him what shape his 11th District might take.
“It was not presented as an option,” he recalls. “I just said, ‘Hey, as long as you don’t split it up too crazy, whatever you need to do.’”
Secrecy reigns over the practice. The Assembly, for example, has an Elections and Redistricting Committee. But its chief consultant, Ethan Jones, says he really doesn’t know how redistricting is done — and suggests the Weekly instead contact Jim Wisley, a specialist assigned to Speaker Karen Bass’ office by the Assembly Rules Committee. Wisley confirms he was heavily involved in 2001 remapping but declined to comment, saying he only builds databases.