Feeling Salamandered?

EVEN BEFORE THE LEGISLATURE’S sudden adoption of the 51-day-late California state budget, Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger was preparing to move on his agenda of redistricting reform, saying, “This is the time — we are going to get this done.”

Prior to seeking the governorship in the 2003 recall campaign, Schwarzenegger told me he wanted to reform redistricting. Like Texas and many other states, California is plagued by gerrymandered voting districts, which allow hyperpartisans in the Republican and Democratic parties to exercise disproportionate influence on who is elected to Congress and the state Legislature.

California State Senate District 23, for example, is wildly configured to include voters near Farmers Market on Fairfax Avenue as well as voters in sleepy Oxnard, across the mountains, with whom L.A.’s urbanites have zilch in common. And U.S. Congressional District 23 is one of the skinniest districts in the nation, stretching more than 200 miles from Port Hueneme to the Monterey County line.

Voting districts were drawn by California’s legislators to ensure that voters from one party dominate in each district, wiping out two-party competition. In nearly 500 California races in recent years, only four congressional or legislative seats were wrested away by an opposing party. In many ways, gerrymandering — based on the word “salamander,” for the snaky, contorted shapes the districts take — has nullified the democratic system in California.

Schwarzenegger, in an effort to bring back genuine districts where parties compete, lost a poorly conducted initiative for that idea in 2005, by a nearly 60-40 margin. Voters instead went with the promise by Assembly Speaker Fabian Núñez and others that the Democrats would pass a reform of gerrymandering that would be even better than the governor’s.

Democrats abandoned that promise, allowing their proposed reform to fail last year in a Keystone Kops–style caper: The bill passed the Senate, but for obscure reasons was sent back to the Assembly for final approval. It arrived too late, or it wasn’t accepted — or some other excuse, depending on which silly story the media and public chose to disbelieve.

Now, the former action-movie superstar is bent on producing a redistricting-reform plan, before the legislative session ends on September 14, to place on the ballot as a constitutional amendment. Democratic leaders have a similar priority.

“Without redistricting reform,” Schwarzenegger said earlier this summer, “I will not support the term-limits-change initiative,” now slated for the February 5 presidential-primary ballot. That initiative would reduce from 14 to 12 the number of years a legislator could serve — the caveat being that they could serve those 12 years entirely in either the Senate or the Assembly, and not jump around to get their full years in office, as they do now.

The back story, however, is the term-limit law’s little-reported retroactive benefit for sitting legislators clamoring for it: It would award several years of additional time in office to many current legislators, who, instead of being termed out next year, could complete 12 years in their current house.

Because it amends the state constitution, the redistricting-reform ballot measure requires more than a simple majority in the Legislature — so it needs Republican votes. Assembly Republican Leader Mike Villines has his own bill that, like Schwarzenegger’s, would create an independent citizens commission to draw up the new voting districts in California. “The only way we support a bill is with an independent commission,” says Villines. “That is what the people want,” he adds, referring to recent polls. But Democrats, like Speaker Núñez, have suggested using political appointees to draw up the voting-district lines.

Schwarzenegger has already lined up former Democratic Governor Gray Davis, former Republican Governor Pete Wilson, and leaders of Common Cause and the League of Women Voters to back his redistricting-reform proposal, which calls for an independent, balanced citizens commission to draw the voting-district maps; the creation of districts that respect the Voting Rights Act, natural geography and community boundaries; and a transparent process for doing all that.

Previous redistricting has been marked by the application of Cubist art theory and backroom deals. Fixing the mess “is the most important thing we can do to make the people trust their politics again,” says Schwarzenegger.

He’s on the verge of this longtime goal because the state budget impasse is over. The right-wing holdouts in the state Senate agreed to a deal they could have gotten a month ago: Schwarzenegger’s use of his line-item veto to cut $700 million beyond what the Assembly had cut in a bipartisan vote.

While issues of great importance to Los Angeles were under siege throughout August, Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa was notable by his absence — just as in July, when the Legislature raided $336 million in L.A.-area transportation funding, taking it from gas-tax revenue.

Those big cuts, sparked by Assembly Republican Leader Villines after Schwarzenegger proposed the idea as a fiscal stopgap, had a sudden impact on Villaraigosa’s city, imperiling the long-promised Expo Line light rail.

Villaraigosa was all over the Capitol last year lobbying for his ill-fated partial takeover of the long-troubled Los Angeles Unified School District. But he was nowhere in evidence last month, despite the fact that his administration is approving tens of thousands of new units of high-density housing for which public transit is essential. Nor was Villaraigosa in evidence when Senate Republicans this month targeted L.A. again with attempts to slash $150 million for traffic-light synchronization, $60 million for road repair and $6 million for anti-gang programs. Núñez and Senate President Pro Tem Don Perata succeeded in fighting off those moves without the mayor.

It’s not clear that Villaraigosa would have made a difference in the wake of his personal controversies, including his failed marriage and affair. He is no longer viewed in Capitol circles as nearly the phenomenon he was last year. Moreover, the effects of gerrymandering, which are worsened by stratifying population patterns that separate liberals along the coasts from conservatives in the central and inland regions, mean that no Republican legislators represent the core of L.A. Conservatives in Sacramento have little interest in addressing L.A.’s traffic disasters or other troubles, even though L.A.’s livability and success are key to California’s success.

Orange County’s Dick Ackerman, the now-teetering Senate Republican leader, followed the dictates of the rural and exurban far right, for example, demanding for a time that funds to mitigate L.A. traffic congestion be sent to less-populated regions where traffic moves much better. Says Núñez strategist Steve Maviglio, “They did keep coming up with these proposals that would have hurt Los Angeles.”

Now, top Democrats and Schwarzenegger are recommending budget reforms. Núñez wants to change the requirement of a two-thirds vote to pass a state budget — a hurdle that exists in only two other states. A similar initiative was rejected by voters a few years ago, torpedoed by an unpopular provision worked into the language that also would have made it far easier for the Legislature to raise taxes.

Senate leader Perata sees even deeper problems in the budget debacle. He wants to convene a commission to address the fact that most of California’s spending is, as Schwarzenegger claimed during his 2003 election, locked on autopilot. “We can’t keep doing this,” Perata says. “It’s crazy.”

But this summer, the right wing played its hand in an unwise and predictably unsuccessful fashion. Spooked by the dramatic resurgence of their old bête noire Jerry Brown, they attacked Brown for suing to force local governments to account for greenhouse-gas emissions in their planning processes. The right’s intellectual leader, state Senator Tom McClintock of Thousand Oaks, claimed that Brown’s statewide push would stop infrastructure development.

Brown dismissed their attacks, telling the L.A. Weekly, “I campaigned for the whole infrastructure package last year and they opposed it.”

Despite these stark differences in Sacramento, a fix for California’s gerrymandering ways at last seems likely.

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