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Prop. 27 Gerrymander Supporters Duck and Cover 

Howard Berman camp issues denial; consultant Michael Berman won't talk

Thursday, Oct 28 2010
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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.

click to enlarge ILLUSTRATION BY JASON JONES
  • ILLUSTRATION BY JASON JONES

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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."

Stanford physicist Charles T. Munger Jr., the deep-pocketed son of billionaire Charles Munger, a partner of Warren Buffet's, is so serious about stamping out gerrymandering in California that he's given $10 million so far to back Proposition 20.

Munger tells the Weekly: "When citizens of California can no longer choose their representatives, but the representatives choose the voters, democracy suffers."

Two years ago, when Common Cause joined with AARP, the League of Women Voters, the Los Angeles Area Chamber of Commerce and the ACLU of Southern California in a rare, bipartisan effort to end the backroom mapmaking, they were responding in part to the most infamous of Michael Berman's mapping jobs, which unfolded in 2001. That year, bitter gerrymandering struggles between Democratic and Republican incumbents over how to carve up California's 120 legislative districts were set aside. Instead, the two parties quietly agreed to redistrict California in such a way that both parties kept their existing state Assembly and Senate seats locked up for good.

The controversial mapping job helped make Michael Berman rich.

It also left California's voters unable to oust incumbents from all but a few of the 120 statehouse seats over the past decade.

According to the nonpartisan Brennan Center for Justice, the Democratic Party handed Michael Berman $1.3 million — his reward for creating distorted legislative districts in order to protect incumbents from being ousted.

Berman also is handsomely paid by California's U.S. representatives to draw bizarrely shaped congressional districts. The 28th California Congressional District in the San Fernando Valley, represented by his brother, Howard, for example, looks like a man in a scarf wearing a pilgrim hat.

The Brennan Center reported the little-known dollar figure, as revealed by chatty Orange County Rep. Loretta Sanchez: "$20,000 is nothing to keep your seat. I spend $2 million [campaigning] every year. If my colleagues are smart, they'll pay their $20,000, and Michael [Berman] will draw the district they can win in."

Sanchez continues: "Those who have refused to pay? God help them."

The Brennan Center describes the 2001 closed-door deal that created California's "safe" state legislative seats: "The two parties effectively decided to call a truce, and to keep the incumbents — of both parties — as safe from effective challenge as they could."

Michael Berman did not return phone calls from the Weekly.

Maybe that's because, in recent weeks, virtually every California newspaper has editorialized against Proposition 27, which Feng says is "led by a small team of political consultants who are hell-bent on protecting their bosses."

But the younger Lowenstein says, "One editorial goes one way and then the rest follow suit." Shrugging off numerous news articles in recent years on the conflicts of interest inherent in gerrymandering, he argues, "Most journalists haven't really covered this issue."

According to Tony Quinn, the person who really should have dug deeper into the issue is Haim Saban.

Quinn says Howard and Michael Berman "conned" Saban, who sees himself as a politically savvy businessman, into financially backing Proposition 27. Saban is a major donor to Rep. Berman's campaign because of the congressman's strong support for Israel — Saban's No. 1 political issue.

Quinn finds it "just ludicrous" that Saban is so focused on one congressman — albeit Berman, chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee — that he poured money into a widely criticized special-interest measure, apparently with the aim of protecting the borders of Berman's gerrymandered Valley district from being altered on voting district maps in 2011.

"The survival of Israel is not dependent upon Berman," Quinn says.

Another Sacramento insider who knows Saban, and asked not to be named, says of Saban's involvement in the Proposition 27 public relations debacle: "They weren't all that straight with Haim about what Proposition 27 would really do. I don't think he quite knew what 27 was."

Saban's spokeswoman, in an e-mail exchange with the Weekly, doesn't address the issue: "Mr. Saban does not support expanding the commission concept to congressional redistricting and agreed to make a [$2 million] loan, which has since been paid back, to support the qualification" of Proposition 27.

Rep. Berman ducks the matter entirely.

His spokeswoman, Jean Smith, says the congressman is "not available" to discuss the controversy. Asked if Howard or Michael Berman conned Saban, she responds, "I'm going to send you to the [Proposition 27] campaign for that discussion."

Then Smith insists her boss is "separate from the campaign. I know Mr. Munger is saying that [Howard Berman is behind Proposition 27], but it's not true."

But the two spokesmen for Proposition 27, the Lowensteins, both confirm the opposite: that Howard Berman is indeed very involved in the Proposition 27 campaign.

Nathan Lowenstein, who handles media queries when his father is busy, describes Rep. Berman as "pretty active in the [Proposition 27] campaign."

Later, Daniel Lowenstein says: "Howard Berman has attempted to raise some money and to rally some support" for Proposition 27. He adds he's "very grateful when people are willing to put up money for our work" — including Berman, Democratic House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, Democratic congressional candidate Karen Bass and a long list dominated by entrenched incumbents.

Munger, upon hearing Rep. Berman's staff denies the congressman is involved in the Proposition 27 campaign, lets out a long laugh.

Contact Patrick Range McDonald at pmcdonald@laweekly.com.

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