For decades, except when the courts stepped in, entrenched California legislators drew up the electoral maps, creating bizarrely shaped, heavily gerrymandered voting districts that marched over mountain ranges and chopped neighborhoods to bits — all to ensure that the incumbent got re-elected.
Known as "redistricting," the once-per-decade map-making increasingly was used not to help represent voters, but to create safe seats for politicians already in power. Using computer programs, California legislators went behind closed doors, where their consultants painstakingly segregated areas along party lines — often by leaving out specific blocks or streets — to isolate Democrats and Republicans into heavily stacked voting districts.
Voters then were fed a party incumbent, who was guaranteed election in the rigged district, long before election day.
The process, which critics have dubbed "politicians choosing their voters instead of voters choosing their politicians," is banned in Western democracies such as Canada and Great Britain, where independent committees draw the voter boundaries.
Last November, fed-up Californians joined them, approving propositions 20 and 27.
Now, a voter-created, independent California Citizens Redistricting Commission holds the power to draw up congressional and state legislative districts. The group is expected to reveal its first-draft maps to the public on June 10, and Los Angeles is expected to be a battleground.
"I'm from the Westside, otherwise known as Yugoslavia," joked one man, in reference to the crooked, jagged lines that separate Southern California's 30th, 33rd and 36th U.S. congressional districts. Speaking at a hearing held by the 14-member citizen commission in Los Angeles, the Westsider added: "Let me vote with my neighbors."
It won't be quite that easy. For starters, Democratic and Republican party insiders are feuding over the voter-created independent commission itself.
Initially, Sacramento's Republican minority supported an end to gerrymandering, believing some conservative or politically mixed areas might be redrawn in a way that gave the GOP a chance to win back political seats. By contrast, the majority Democrats in the Legislature, who held the power to draw the lines, opposed the end of gerrymandering.
"It reminded me of political American Idol," says Steven Maviglio, a Democratic campaign strategist and former spokesman for the California Democratic Party, describing the independent commission. "It is inexperienced people doing inherently political things."
But now that the work of the "inexperienced people" is under way, many in the Democratic Party hierarchy have changed their minds.
"Their process has been very open and transparent. I think they've done an impressive job," Maviglio says.
Even so, The Sacramento Bee reports that another Democratic Party chieftain, former state Senate leader Don Perata, has sought money from Chevron, PG&E, the AFL-CIO and other special interests to pay for a competing set of maps — in case the California Supreme Court steps into the redistricting process, as it did following legal challenges in the 1970s and 1990s.
In an email to Democratic donors obtained by Bee reporter Dan Morain, Perata attacked the voter-created citizen commission as being "in the deep end of the pool — and sinking fast."
Meanwhile, some leading Republicans are criticizing the commission because it chose Q2 Data and Research as its map-drawing consultant. The Berkeley firm is partially owned by former Democratic consultant Bruce Cain.
"There is no question that Q2 is a Democratic firm," says Tony Quinn, Republican co-author of the California Target Book, which analyzes state elections.
Quinn, who strongly backed the reform to end gerrymandering, now is a critic of the commission. "How do you think the Democrats would feel if we had the Minutemen and the NRA as the line-drawing team?"
Jeanne Raya of San Gabriel, one of the new redistricting commissioners, seems OK with all this. She says criticism is "to be expected. We're doing something that's never been done in California."
The first inkling of whether the Citizens Redistricting Commission is "sinking fast" or acting like a Democratic mouthpiece — or, merely doing what voters asked it to do — comes in a few days, when the commission releases an initial map showing how it hopes to redraw all 120 state legislative districts and 53 congressional districts.
The five Democrats, five Republicans and four nonpartisans who make up the commission must draw districts with equal populations (congressional seats must contain 702,905 people, for example). The new districts must respect city and county lines and "communities of interest" — that is, neighborhoods linked socially and economically.
Common sense boundaries such as mountain ranges and city borders often were ignored when legislators controlled this map-making. But even if common sense returns, no place is more difficult to divvy up than greater Los Angeles.
From a map-maker's view, the area is a tangled mess of overlapping neighborhoods, geographic features and communities of interest.
"Los Angeles is the big kahuna," says Quinn. "It's the difficult one."
Take state Senate District 25, which includes Compton, Inglewood, Palos Verdes and the edges of Long Beach, and looks on the map like a spindly-legged bird standing on a rock. This "district" narrows in downtown Long Beach to only a block or two in width. Then it veers hard west to take in wealthy, mostly Asian and white Palos Verdes.
Why the crazy, all-but-disconnected shape?
The 25th Senate District was drawn by legislators in 2001 to create a black voting district, carefully excising several areas where more Latinos and whites lived. According to lore, the map-makers had a second goal, too, snaking south and west to leafy Palos Verdes because the incumbent, black state Sen. Ed Vincent, kept his horses there.
Troubling stories like this abound.
California's 55th Assembly District in 2001 was reshaped to remove Compton and cut into parts of Carson, Lakewood and Long Beach. It looks like an elephant's head with its jaw agape and its trunk extended. The oddly jutting jaw contained the home of the sitting Democratic Assembly incumbent at the time, Jenny Oropeza.
In badly gerrymandered L.A. and nearby areas, the citizen commission has to start from scratch. So when the commission's traveling road show pulled in to San Gabriel, downtown L.A. and the San Fernando Valley in recent weeks, hundreds of people showed up, and in the Valley they spilled into the hall.
Commissioners listened as people pleaded with them to acknowledge their communities.
"I hope that you don't divide our lines," said a Hispanic man through a translator.
"Please don't split up my community," said a 10-year-old girl.
"Keep our community whole," said a woman from Watts. "We're happy with what we have."
Several African-Americans expressed uneasiness that, as the recent census confirms, black populations are dwindling here. Latinos are moving into South Los Angeles and environs.
There's fear of "a movement afoot to shrink the two congressional districts [of] Maxine Waters and Laura Richardson into one," says Keith Claiborne, who lives in Park La Brea but has business connections in Watts. Claiborne is a friend of Hamilton Cloud's, a Waters staffer.
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San Fernando Valley residents have a different beef: They're sick of being represented by politicians who live on the other side of the Hollywood Hills.
Al Abrams, president of the Los Angeles Board of Neighborhood Commissioners, speaking as a resident of Tarzana, says his neighborhood was crudely stapled onto Congressman Henry Waxman's district. Waxman's center of gravity is the Westside.
Many speakers asked the citizen commission to create three wholly San Fernando Valley congressional districts — one each for the west Valley, the east Valley and the Valley-adjacent foothill area containing Pasadena, Glendale and Burbank.
In a few days, when the commission releases the first drawings, "I don't think anyone's gonna be happy," says Bob Stern, president of the Center for Governmental Studies. "Because there's so much at stake."