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The Weirdest Lottery of All 

14 people will win the chance to un-gerrymander California

Thursday, Nov 11 2010
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On Thursday, Sept. 13, 2001, an ashen-faced New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani spoke to a grieving America of the fallen firefighters and office workers killed in the 9/11 terrorist attacks that toppled the World Trade Center and left 2,752 dead.

Miles away in California, people were immobilized with shock and horror. They called in sick, gathered with friends to watch the tragedy repeatedly unfold on TV, found old American flags to lash to their car antennas and wandered into impromptu religious services.

But as one California newspaper reported, the Democrats and Republicans in Sacramento's state Assembly were "practically giddy" on that Thursday of mourning and fear.

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Led by Assembly Speaker Bob Hertzberg, honchos from the two political parties huddled privately, scheming over a plan to gerrymander California by cutting it into crazy-shaped voting districts designed to ensure that no incumbent from either party could be ousted by voters for many years.

Recalling a day seen by many as one of the sleaziest in modern Sacramento history, Republican political consultant Jonathan Wilcox says: "When they came out of the [meeting] and rushed into the Assembly chambers, I thought they were going to pass a resolution condemning terrorism. I literally thought they were going to praise the heroics of the New York firefighters. The entire attention of the world was on the most heinous attack on humanity.

"But what does the California Legislature do? They saved their jobs. They saved their jobs."

Kathay Feng, executive director of California Common Cause, recalls how she and others desperately tried to find out what the Legislature was doing behind closed doors.

She knew the Assembly was in the middle of "redistricting" — whereby politicians redraw voting districts into absurd shapes that cut through mountain ranges and ignore city limits, stacking the districts with voters from one party or the other in order to fix the elections.

Public hearings on redistricting had been held on Sept. 4 and 5, 2001, days before the terrorists attacked.

But on Sept. 13, "there was a media blackout by the Legislature — we couldn't get any information," Feng recalls. "While the rest of the world was reacting to terrorism, the California Legislature — it was secretly drawing voting districts! They were moving the lines — and we couldn't find out where the lines were being moved."

The losers were California voters.

The "safe seats" created by the Legislature, in the form of Senate Bill 802, meant that for the next 10 years, few incumbents faced a serious challenger, few seats changed party hands, and election outcomes were known months before election day.

The plan even involved the governor's office, as Carl Ingram wrote for the Los Angeles Times on Sept. 14, 2001: "[Gray] Davis, who had insisted that the once-a-decade redrawing of political boundaries to reflect the 2000 census be a bipartisan effort, is expected to sign them quickly. 'We've been plugged into the process. We don't see any major changes that the governor would ask for,' said spokesman Steve Maviglio."

Although the Times reported that a few disgusted Assembly members attacked the plan as "an unvarnished incumbent protection plan that needlessly split cities and ignored 'communities of interest,' " Hertzberg spun it as having unfolded "in the most open way in the history of California."

This month, that dark era comes to a transparent and public end.

The Citizen Redistricting Commission, approved by voters in 2008 and given even broader powers by voters on Nov. 2 with the passage of Proposition 20, will be created Nov. 18, beginning with the selection of eight names.

It all started with a massive applicant pool of 31,000 Californians.

"We thought a few thousand, even a few hundred, Californians would apply to be on the commission," Feng says. "We got 31,000. We were really impressed with the caliber of people. When the pool got whittled down to a few thousand, then down to a few hundred, and now down to 60, we saw how talented this group was."

At 10 a.m. on Nov. 18, at a live-streamed Sacramento event, eight numbered balls will be randomly selected, à la bingo. The names corresponding to those balls will be the first citizen commissioners.

But not before a bit of meddling on the part of the California Legislature.

Under the rules, the four leaders of the Legislature — Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg, Senate Minority Leader Bob Dutton, Assembly Speaker John Perez and Assembly Minority Leader Connie Conway — each get to veto up to six of the 60 citizens by Nov. 15.

So as few as 36 remaining names will be placed in the bingo drum on Nov. 18. "It's like a lawyer tossing out jurors they don't like," Feng explains.

The reason for letting the four politicians veto citizens?

Chuckling, Feng says: "The state Bureau of Audits has done all of the research publicly available on the 60 finalists."

But given the opposition-research expertise among the four Sacramento legislative leaders thanks to negative campaigning, they "will engage in a whole different level of research," Feng says. "If there are any stealth candidates [among the 60] — ringers working for a political party — a politician will find them.

"We felt we would utilize the Legislature for what they are particularly good at," she quips.

The eight randomly selected commissioners will hold public hearings to select, by Dec. 31, six final commission members from the names not selected on Nov. 18. Their mission is to enhance the final, 14-member commission geographically, racially and by skill set.

A sort of sly humor was built into the rules: As the process unfolds, state legislators and members of Congress are forbidden from speaking to the eight commissioners, like groups under quarantine.

Legislators can speak to citizen commissioners only at a microphone at the hearings, or in writing that's been publicly disclosed.

That cracks up consultant Wilcox, who imagines legislators going to buffoonish lengths to bump into the commissioners in hopes of influencing their six commission selections. "I can see their minds working now," says Wilcox. "'Hey, commission member, here's your dog! Your dog got out of your house!'"

By August 2011, the 14 members, using 2010 U.S. Census data, must finish drawing up 120 new state legislative districts and 53 congressional districts — difficult work for which they will be paid $300 a day.

The districts won't be based on protecting incumbents and their parties but on protecting communities of interest and respecting natural geography.

The finalists are equally divided: Democrats, Republicans and decline-to-states. Almost half earn more than $125,000, and many were chosen for specific skills. The final 60 had to submit four 500-word essays to the state auditors who culled the applicant pool.

The group is diverse, with whites and Latinos underrepresented compared to California's population. Blacks, Asians and Native Americans are overrepresented.

One of the 60 finalists, Leiland Saito, teaches sociology at USC. A Democrat, he served on a San Diego redistricting committee that drew new council districts. "I'd been very involved in redistricting, since I study it," he says, and he "believe[s] in public service." But compared to dividing up San Diego, "this will be a much larger task."

Jodie Filkins-Webber, a finalist from the Inland Empire, is a Republican lawyer who became involved because "I had the time, I'm educated enough, and I wanted to give back to the community." She says the selection process has been "very transparent — the whole thing was streamed live on the Net." She's glad to see the end of gerrymandering and "politics as usual."

Another finalist is Patrick Jefferson, dean of student affairs at Los Angeles Southwest College. He heard about the commission on NPR and jumped in, he says, "just to try to give citizens a voice in the process again." He hasn't followed the gerrymandering issue much, and isn't closely tied to a party: "I vote for whoever I think is gonna do the best job."

The commission is about to become the most closely followed body, at least in Sacramento, since the year that cameras were installed in committee rooms and legislators could see themselves on TV.

Reach the writer at haron@laweekly.com

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