With Election Day near, UCLA law professor Daniel Lowenstein is a lonely man.
As spokesman for the widely pilloried Proposition 27, he hasn't got powerful California politicians Howard Berman or Nancy Pelosi, who both back it, to actually pitch the measure. Proposition 27's billionaire supporter Haim Saban — now said to be embarrassed that he funded it without grasping the fine print — doesn't talk with him. And son Nathan Lowenstein is defending his father to the media because the chips are down.
Behind the scenes, Daniel Lowenstein's close friend Michael Berman, the guru of gerrymandering in California, and Berman's brother, U.S. Rep. Howard Berman of the San Fernando Valley, are deeply involved in Proposition 27.
But Michael, the campaign's consultant, won't come to the phone. And an aide for Howard — who is drumming up funds and support for Proposition 27 — flatly denies to L.A. Weekly that the congressman is behind it.
As Proposition 27 gets thrashed in media coverage, on newspaper editorial pages and in the blogosphere, its key backers are ducking the increasingly harsh limelight.
That's left Daniel Lowenstein, the official spokesman, running what looks like a two-man campaign with his son to bring back gerrymandering — in which incumbents slice California's state legislative voting districts into crazy shapes to ensure their own re-election, ignoring mountain ranges, city borders and communities of interest to draw self-interested boundaries.
Proposition 27 would undo a seminal voter-approved reform from 2008 before the reform is even implemented. That reform, Proposition 11, outlawed gerrymandering by the California Legislature, creating a citizen commission to draw the state's voting districts. The commission's work begins in 2011.
California Common Cause executive director Kathay Feng calls Proposition 27 "a self-serving campaign by congressional members and congressional wannabes."
"I think people assume [Proposition 27] is so bad it can't pass on November 2," says Adam Mendelsohn, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's point man in 2008 when a bipartisan coalition convinced voters to end gerrymandering. "But you just never know."
Also on the ballot Tuesday is Proposition 27's near-opposite, Proposition 20. Under Prop. 20, the citizen commission that voters created, which the Bermans and Saban are trying to defrock Tuesday, also would draw the 53 congressional voting districts, taking that power away from the Sacramento Legislature.
If voters approve Proposition 20, some California congressional incumbents — possibly Howard Berman, who was elected to Congress in 1982 — could lose their lifelong political jobs.
Here's how gerrymandering works:
Using extensive computer programs, for-hire mappers like Michael Berman pore over voter rolls to identify Democratic and Republican voters, often street by street. The two voter groups are isolated by means of squiggling lines drawn to separate them into different districts, thus stacking a voting district for one party or the other. The result: jarring boundaries that ignore communities and geography. The controlling party then offers its incumbent, or in the case of an open seat its handpicked newcomer, to the remaining voters in the stacked "district."
In November, there's no contest or competition for ideas because there aren't enough voters left from an opposing party.
Critics say the fix is in long before Californians head to the polls.
Experts say entrenched politicians put Proposition 27 on the ballot to undo Proposition 20, which is supported by a large bipartisan coalition led by Common Cause, AARP and the Los Angeles Area Chamber of Commerce.
Proposition 27 is "solely on the ballot to confuse people and to kill Proposition 20," says Tony Quinn, co-editor of the California Target Book, which tracks political trends.
Proposition 27 spokesman Daniel Lowenstein, who signed the 2008 ballot argument against Proposition 11 and opposes Proposition 20, insists that gerrymandering — also known as redistricting — "doesn't have much effect on political outcomes as a whole. The effects are pretty modest. The issue is not about re-election, but about creating a district that [elected officials] can best serve."
Feng responds that Lowenstein, a professor, is operating "from extreme naïveté" because California's state legislative and U.S. congressional incumbents have "rigged the districts to re-elect themselves." The result: "Politicians can no longer be held accountable."
Lowenstein's view is increasingly in the minority.
The United States is the only westernized democracy that allows politicians to draw intricate wiggling lines around voters to stack their own districts — a process that the bipartisan quartet of former Gov. Gray Davis, gubernatorial candidate Jerry Brown, former Gov. Pete Wilson and Gov. Schwarzenegger condemn.
Mendelsohn recalls: "When we backed Proposition 11, the people who made a career out of drawing these maps — Republican and Democrat — came out of the woodwork to fight us, as did the power brokers who've been gaming the system all these years."
Filmmaker Jeff Reichert's current documentary, Gerrymandering, depicts redistricting as a sleazy process indistinguishable from corruption. Bill Mundel, who founded Californians for Fair Redistricting and is that film's executive producer, calls the practice "the perfect crime."