By Hillel Aron and Jill Stewart
Here's why California citizens today produced new, non-sleazy, non-trickster-y redistricting maps that starkly rejigger how communities are represented in the California state Capitol and the U.S. Congress. This story is true:
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. 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.